As a teenager in Maryland, Dwayne Betts showed promise. The high school student made the honor roll and demonstrated sharp wit.
But Betts grew up in an environment not conducive to success. He recalls three of his classmates being killed. Others went to prison.
“The expectation wasn’t necessarily that we would go to prison,” Betts said. “But we lived in a climate and an environment in which these things were happening every day and nobody was confronting what it meant.”
One day, at the age of 16, Betts and a friend committed a carjacking at gunpoint.
Betts did not think he would spend any time behind bars. Reflecting on that time now, Betts says he was young and did not understand the full consequences of his nine year sentence. “I had no conception of what it meant to be forgotten,” Betts said.
In prison, Betts became one of the 1.5 million black men “missing” from everyday life. A recent New York Times report documents how black men are “missing,”: a term used to note the difference between the black male population for ages 25-54 to the black female population of the same age across the country. Typically “missing” results from incarceration or premature death.
In North Carolina alone, more than 70,000 black men are missing as a result of structural and policy issues.
During the sentencing, the judge told Betts, “I’m under no illusion that sending you to prison will help you, but you can get something out of it.”
Betts used his incarceration to advance his education. He spent his days reading and writing poetry.
“Prison was the moment I realized I could be more,” Betts said. After serving his sentence, Betts completed the MFA program at Warren Wilson College and now studies law at Yale University.
Host Frank Stasio spoke with Betts; Wizdom Powell, professor at the UNC School of Public Health, where she specializes in the research of the mental and physical health of African-American men; and Mark Anthony Neal, an African and African-American studies professor at Duke. In the conversation, they touched on the underlying issues causing black men to disappear and what effect these absences cause for society as a whole.
“Nobody wants to imagine a world in which picking up a gun and carjacking somebody is regular,” Betts said.
The research shows criminal behavior is not simply a matter of environment or choice. Powell says the the two are intertwined.
“Those behaviors are often a response to social structures and conditions that actually make those behaviors the most likely and rational response,” Powell said.
One of the problems with missing black men is the lack of everyday contact that others have with them, said Neal. Instead, pop culture fills in the gaps in the public perception of black men.
“For some folks, they hear missing black men and they’re looking at LeBron (James) and they’re looking at Jay-Z and they’re looking at Barack Obama,” Neal said. “They’re like, ‘What are you talking about?’
“We think about black men – they’re either sub-human or super-human. The regular dudes who go to work every day, who actually are engaged in raising their children, who are in the supermarket buying groceries – we never see those dudes.”
Powell said “invisible” might be a better term instead of “missing.”
“The question I always ask is if these men are missing, who’s searching for them?” Powell said. “We’re hemorrhaging talent in this nation by not paying attention to the needs of this huge part of our population who are creative thinkers, who are like Dwayne, who have the capacity to think critically, to express himself through words…
“Think of how many Dwaynes there are that we’re not reaching.”