Violence, incarceration take thousands of black men from Philly streets

 A permanent art installation in the prison yard at Eastern State Penitentiary illustrates the soaring U.S. incarceration rates since 1900. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A permanent art installation in the prison yard at Eastern State Penitentiary illustrates the soaring U.S. incarceration rates since 1900. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

More than 30,000 black men in Philadelphia are missing from society, either dead at a young age or locked up in jails.

That figure comes from a new analysis of 2010 Census data on incarceration and mortality rates conducted by The New York Times.

The data crunchers noted that, for some time now, black men in America have been more likely to be in jail or die young, yet the new numbers underline the magnitude of the problem.

According to the figures, Philadelphia’s 36,000 “missing” black men is the third worst in the country, trailing just Chicago and New York City.

“Philadelphia has the highest poverty rate among the top five cities, so it doesn’t surprise me that the numbers are striking,” said Drexel University law professor Donald Tibbs who studies the intersection of race and the criminal justice system.

One prominent driver: Homicide rates are higher for black men, as are other causes of death, such as heart and respiratory disease. Another big contributor is the higher rate of imprisonment among black men.

One upshot of this is a scarcity of black men to be fathers and husbands, an absence that has meaningful implications for household income and raising future generations.

Nationwide, the Times found that 1.5 million black men are missing. 

“Perhaps the starkest description of the situation is this: More than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life,” according to the Times.

This disparity diminishes the chances of upward mobility and the chance of having a mentor growing up, Tibbs said.

“Think about all the things you did or learned with your father. Imagine him not being there because he’s incarcerated for some really small, low-level offense drug crime with a mandatory minimum,” he said.

Tibbs said the statistics provide a new opening for conversations about curbing the spread of illegal guns, a goal that he says could tamp down the city’s homicide rate.

Philadelphia’s homicide rate for 2014 marked a significant drop from recent years. Even still, almost 250 people were murdered in the city last year. The majority of the victims were black and the No. 1 cause was gunshots.

“We need to look at gun-control laws and gun violence. It’s something we should spend more time being more deeply critical about,” Tibbs said

“And the way the Second Amendment political dialogues are being framed around who has the right to have access to guns and what that means in terms of the proliferation of illegal guns on the streets,” he said. “And what that does to black men in their communities where guns and crime are perhaps likely to be present.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.