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Social Science & Medicine 55 (2002) 907–920

Ready to die: a postmodern interpretation of the increase of
African-American adolescent male suicide
Leigh A. Willisa,*, David W. Coombsb, William C. Cockerhamc, Sonja L. Frisond
a
Department of Sociology and the School of Public Health, University of Alabama, Birmingham, Birmingham, AL 35294-3350, USA
b
School of Public Health, University of Alabama, Birmingham, Birmingham, AL 35294-3350, USA
c
Department of Sociology, University of Alabama, Birmingham, Birmingham, AL 35294-3350, USA
d
Department of Preventive Medicine, University of Alabama, Birmingham, Birmingham, AL 35294-3350, USA

Abstract

African-Americans have typically registered lower rates of suicide than other ethnic groups. In the last 20 years this
pattern has changed, particularly among young African-Americans between the ages of 15 and 19 (National Center for
Injury Prevention and Control, Mortality Statistics, 1998, Atlanta, GA). Today, young African-American males are as
likely to commit suicide as their White counterparts. To date, the research conducted regarding this phenomenon has
been inconclusive and existing suicide interventions appear to have no effect on reducing this behavior among young
African-Americans. This paper synthesizes classical (Durkheim, Suicide, 1979, Free Press, New York) and postmodern
(Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, 1992, Sage, London; Bauman, Modernity and Ambivalence, Cornell
University Press, Ithaca, 1991) social theories in order to provide a more complete theoretical explanation for the
increase in the suicide rate among adolescent African-American males. Postmodern society is typified by: (1)
institutional deconstruction; (2) decreased collectivism; (3) increased normlessness and helplessness; and (4) exacerbated
personal risk for stress. It is therefore possible to hypothesize that postmodernity characteristically loosens the bonds
between the individual and society, thereby increasing vulnerability to depression, related pathologies (such as
substance abuse), and suicide. African-Americans tend to be more affected/vulnerable because they are concentrated in
resource-poor, low income areas, and institutions that provided social support (family, religious, community) and
protected individuals from societal risk factors, have gradually been dissolving in postmodern societies. We argue
that young African-American males of today are more exposed to stressors which increase psychological
distress thus increasing depression and related pathological behaviors such as suicide. The main reason behind this
increase is found in the inability of institutions to offer protection from psychological distress. Overall, this paper
presents a postmodern, macro-level framework to explain the increase in suicide among African-American male
adolescents. r 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Suicide; African-Americans; Adolescence; Postmodernity

Introduction American culture. Its secondary purpose is to suggest
directions for future research on this topic. This will
The primary purpose of this paper is to offer a entail synthesizing classical and postmodern social
theoretical explanation for the increase in African- theories to provide a contemporary sociological under-
American adolescent male suicides, integrating theories standing of suicide. We offer (1) a review of Durkheim’s
of suicide, postmodern society, with respect to African- theory of suicide, noting its shortcomings in describing
African-American adolescent male suicide; (2) an over-
*Corresponding author. Tel.: +1-205-934-3307; fax: +1- view of late modern and postmodern theory according
205-975-5614. to Ulrich Beck and Zygmunt Bauman, and the role of
E-mail address: sybiz@uab.edu (L.A. Willis). postmodern conditions with regard to suicide; (3) a

0277-9536/02/$ -see front matter r 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
PII: S 0 2 7 7 - 9 5 3 6 ( 0 1 ) 0 0 2 3 5 - 0
908 L.A. Willis et al. / Social Science & Medicine 55 (2002) 907–920

critique of classical and postmodern theories with Table 1
respect to children and adolescents; (4) a review of the Comparison of African-American male suicide and White male
literature on the African-American community and its suicide rates per 100,000, 1980–1995a
increasing vulnerability to suicide; and (5) a synthesis of Year 1980 1985 1990 1995
classical, modern, and postmodern social theory ex-
plaining the increase of African-American Adolescent White male aged 1.4 2.5 2.3 2.8
male suicide, and directions for future research. 10–14 years old
African-American male aged 0.52 1.3 1.6 1.7
Suicide is defined by O’Carroll et al. (1996, pp. 246–
10–14 years old
247) as ‘‘death from injury, poisoning or suffocation White male aged 15–19 years 15.2 17.0 19.4 18.3
where there is evidence that the injury was self inflicted old
and that the decedent intended to kill himself/herself’’. African-American male aged 5.6 8.2 11.5 13.8
Today’s societies continue to experience periods of rapid 15–19
exponential change due to improvements in commu- White male aged 20–24 27.7 26.9 26.8 28.7
nications and transportation, economic growth, and African-American male aged 20–24 19.9 18.2 19.0 22.7
increases in population density. As these changes occur, a
Source: National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS,
deeper underlying, societal transformations take place. 2000).
Social theorists like Beck (1992) and Bauman (1991,
1992, 1995) view society as being in a transition period
from the modern to the postmodern, ‘‘Just as moder-
nization dissolved the structure of feudal society in the Table 2
nineteenth century and produced the industrial society, Comparison of African-Americans male and White male
modernization today is dissolving industrial society and homicide rates per 100,000, 1980–1995a
another modernization is coming into being’’ (Beck, Year 1980 1985 1990 1995
1992, p. 10). These considerable transformations cause
many individuals stress, as they must adapt to rapidly White males aged 10–14 1.1 1.4 1.7 2.0
African-American males 3.9 4.2 8.1 8.2
changing and increasingly unpredictable circumstances.
aged 10–14
Moreover, these social changes may greatly weaken the
White males aged 15–19 11.0 7.2 12.5 14.7
individual’s bond with society resulting in states of African-American males 48.6 46.6 162.2 110.6
normlessness, helplessness, and hopelessness. These aged 15–19
developments, in turn, may increase the risk of suicide. White males aged 20–24 19.9 14.2 18.1 18.2
Traditionally, African-Americans, regardless of socio- African-American males aged 20–24 124.1 85.0 140.0 155.6
economic status (SES), registered lower rates of suicide a
Source: National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS,
than other ethnic groups in the United States (Bingham,
2000).
Bennion, Openshaw, & Adams, 1994). Previous research
suggests that African-American cultural characteristics,
like high levels of religiosity and collectivism, served as
protection against suicide (Lester, 1998; Shaffer, Gould, suicide, Durkheim speculated that the same social
& Hicks, 1994). Over the course of the last 20 years, this conditions that precipitate suicide may lead to high
pattern has changed significantly, particularly among levels of homicide (Durkheim, 1979).
children and youth aged 10–19 (National Center for Contemporary researchers have taken this relation-
Injury Prevention and Control, 1998). As of 1995, ship further and theorized that many homicides are
suicide was the third leading cause of death among another form of suicide. Studies like those of Wolfgang
African-Americans males aged 15–19 (American Asso- (1959), Farberow (1977), Gibbs (1988), Firestone (1997),
ciation of Suicidology, 1996). Data from the National and the SEIC (1999) have speculated that some
Center for Health Statistics from 1980 to 1995 reveal an homicides are victim-precipitated, meaning an actor
increasing incidence and susceptibility of African- intentionally places himself or herself in a position where
American adolescent males to suicide. Data in Table 1 he or she is likely to be slain by another. The most
indicate that the rate of suicide has more than doubled common forms of victim-precipitated homicide are by
among African-American males aged 10–19. For the legal intervention (lethal force used by law enforcement,
first time, young African-American males are almost as e.g. police officer, security guard) and victim-acquain-
likely to commit suicide as their White peers. tance precipitated homicide (whereby a suicidal person
Table 2 reveals that during the same 15-year period, knowingly and deliberately provokes someone familiar
homicide rates also increased dramatically. Understand- to kill him or her) (Wolfgang, 1959). Thus, some
ing the increase in homicide is important given the homicides and suicides may be related because both
relationship between homicide and suicide that Dur- are potentially self-inflicted with suicide being the most
kheim and other theorists have observed. In his book on overt type of self-destruction (Holinger & Klemen,
L.A. Willis et al. / Social Science & Medicine 55 (2002) 907–920 909

1982). Because of this it may be important to examine (kamikaze or terrorist attacks); (2) Egoistic SuicideF
changes in homicide rates for certain populations when stemming from feelings of extreme isolation and the
analyzing changes in their suicide rates. In any case, severely diminished commitment of an individual to
increasing suicide and homicide rates both reflect major societal groups (e.g. being a loner or outsider); (3)
social changes affecting African-American communities. Anomic SuicideFcaused by feelings of normlessness
An explanation for the increase in suicide is needed and rootlessness resulting from the radical changes in
particularly since suicide prevention programs are one’s life, such that one’s existing norms and values are
relatively ineffective in preventing suicide in the Afri- meaningless (e.g. experiencing loss or gain of income);
can-American community (CDC, 1998; Gibbs, 1997; and (4) Fatalistic SuicideFprecipitated by feelings of
Lester, 1998). The shortfall of existing interventions may powerlessness, hopelessness, helplessness, and/or disen-
be due to lack of proper respect being paid to cultural franchisement, specifically, when an individual feels that
differences (particularly the culture of risk), as well as their existence is miserable and that they have no ability
differences in resiliency (Barbarin, 1993). Thus, some to improve their situation (e.g. slavery, incarceration).
risk factors generally associated with suicide and suicidal There are several aspects of Durkheim’s theory to
behaviors may not apply among African-American consider in terms of their relevance to contemporary
youth such as increased education, and school-related times. To determine the etiology of suicide, he compared
problems like poor grades and peer rejection, greater suicide rates of countries in Western Europe between
wealth, lower fertility, and previous suicide attempts 1850 and 1891. It is important to note that Durkheim
(Burr, Hartman, & Matheson, 1999; Garland & Zigler, conducted his work during a time of great societal
1993; Lester, 1998). Risk factors for suicide that transition in Europe, from feudal to industrial society.
African-American youth do share with other groups This is important because Durkheim (1984) theorizes
are depression, impulsive/aggressive behaviors, as well that, for many, life in periods of societal transition is
as extreme social isolation and unemployment (West, psychologically stressful. He believes that these periods
1997; Brown et al., 1995; Feldman & Wilson, 1997). are strenuous because individuals are forced to adapt to
Since traditional programs in place for the general changes in society and restructure their lives accord-
adolescent population are ineffective for African-Amer- ingly.
ican youth there is a need to develop culturally sensitive Durkheim posits that in times of swift societal change,
interventions. However, in order to develop effective suicide levels will increase due to either new-found
interventions that take the cultural context and circum- prosperity or poverty: both can produce ‘‘anomie’’ or
stances of African-American youth into account, feelings of normlessness, helplessness, meaninglessness,
research is needed to identify risk factors uniquely or estrangement from society and its changing norms.
associated with African-American male suicide, for He acknowledges that the protective, stress-buffering
example, the manner in which racism, through discri- effects of institutions, such as religion, family, and
mination, impacts on mental health thereby increasing community, are weakened during rapid transitions as
suicide risk (Poussaint & Alexander, 2000; Clark, individuals’ are forced to adapt to new circumstances by
Anderson, Clark, & Williams, 1999). Given the limited leaving or separating themselves from family and
theoretical and empirical knowledge about African- community ties. Finally, Durkheim notes that periods
American suicide, it may also be time to re-evaluate and of increased suicide rates also feature disproportionately
move beyond traditional theories and conceptualiza- high homicide rates. Durkheim surmised this is largely
tions of suicide to recognize that the catalyst of this due to the chaos, lawlessness, and economic disparity
phenomenon is the societal transition from modernity to present during periods of very brisk social change.
postmodernity. Durkheim concludes that the relationship between
suicide and homicide is unclear. He posits that while the
two behaviors are not clearly linked in every instance,
Durkheim’s theory of suicide they share common origins. He goes on to speculate that
suicide and homicide are caused by economic and social
To begin understanding the phenomenon of suicide in forces that affect the moral consciousness of an
general and of African-American adolescent suicide in individual. First, when the economy of a society
particular, we must examine the pioneering work of undergoes either rapid recession or unexpected prosper-
Emile Durkheim. Durkheim’s (1979) theory essentially ity, individuals bonds and commitment to society are
states that suicide is related to an individual’s level of weakened and some individuals experience severe stress
societal integration as well as his/her ability to cope with that may lead to egoistic suicide or to a homicidal
social stress resulting from rapid social change. He reaction against unanticipated, unacceptable changes.
conceptualized four types of suicide: (1) Altruistic Second, if a society has instructed individuals not to
SuicideFthe result of a code of behavior requiring that value their own lives relative to the society (altruistic
someone take his or her life in certain situations suicide), then they may conclude, in turn, that the lives
910 L.A. Willis et al. / Social Science & Medicine 55 (2002) 907–920

of others are also not worthwhile. Third, for individuals postmodern societies feature unique characteristics
in a state of anomie or normlessness, those who retain a (Ritzer, 1997): (a) postmodern societies experience rapid
high moral regard for human life will most likely commit social change; (b) postmodern societies lack the central
(anomic) suicide and those with lesser regard will most goal-setting organizations present in modern societies
likely commit homicide. Thus, the egoistic and anomic like the family and church; (c) the absence of goal-
types of suicide are closely related to homicide. setting organizations leads to increased levels of
While Durkheim’s theory of suicide does have individual reflexivenessFthe freedom to choose courses
practical applications, it has limited explanatory power of action and self identityFfacilitated by the newfound
today concerning suicidal behavior in general and personal and social freedom from structural constraints
African-American suicide in particular. First, Durkheim (specifically, people can more easily make life choices
drew comparisons about suicide using different religious without reference to societal standards such as tradi-
denominations, and not ethnic-racial groups. While tions); (d) the universal binding authorities that empha-
religious affiliation and race may share some properties size collective loyalty and social cohesion in modern
and social locators, they differ in their effects on societies, are absent or weakened in postmodern
behavior. Second, the societies from which Durkheim societiesFfor example, a social institution such as the
drew his conclusions still possessed substantial levels of traditional family is in decline or no longer exists in
social cohesion. While the societies Durkheim studied postmodern societies; and perhaps most importantly, (e)
were in transition, they were still unified by well-defined individuals in postmodern societies are more likely to
social structures, a collective consciousness, and institu- experience an extreme level of individuality and isola-
tions that served to ease the psychological burden of tion, sometimes called ‘‘hyper-atomization’’.
societal transition. Societies of today, like those Dur-
kheim observed in the mid- to late 19th century, are The risk society of Ulrich Beck
undergoing another transitional period. However, the
societies Durkheim observed were moving from late Beck points out:
feudalism to early industrialism, whereas today they are
moving from being collectivistic (modern) to individua- Just as modernization dissolved the structure of
listic (postmodern) in nature. Overall, the aforemen- feudal society in the nineteenth century and produced
tioned societal transitions are distinct because the the industrial society, modernization today is dissol-
former transition can be considered largely as an ving industrial society and another modernization is
economic one with social ramifications whereas the coming into being [y] Modernization [y] is being
latter can be considered a comprehensive socio-cultural displaced by reflexive modernization. In the nine-
and economic transition. teenth century, privileges of rank and religious world
views were being demystified; today the same is
happening to the understanding of science and
Postmodern social theories technology in the classical industrial society, as well
as to the modes of existence in work, leisure, the
The modern era began in early 17th century Europe family and sexuality [y] we are witnessing not the
and was in full swing by the mid-19th century as end but the beginning of (a new) modernity coming
industrialization progressed (Cockerham, 1995, p. 156). into being. (1992, p. 10).
Postmodern theorists view the modern era as continuing
until the early 1970s. During the 1970s they believe that Beck views current societies as existing between
there was a decline in rational problem solving in the ‘‘postmodern risk’’ and industrial society. Risks, accord-
arena of governmental decision-making. Consequently, ing to Giddens (1991), are circumstances which threaten
the era of ‘‘big’’ government and grand solutions to our trust in society leading to widespread personal
social problems gradually came to an end. This change insecurity. According to Beck (1992, p. 4), risks are
ushered in the dawn of the postmodern era (Dahrendorf, ‘‘probabilities of physical harm due to given technolo-
1979; Elazar, 1980). However, some scholars do not gical or other processes’’. Examples of risk-producing
believe we are in postmodernism or in transition; they circumstances are unemployment, hazardous working
feel we remain in the modern era (Cockerham, 1995). conditions, and exposure to violence. Beck (1992) feels
Social theorists, such as Beck (1992) and Bauman that this evolving ‘‘reflexive modern’’ society is one of
(1992), strongly disagree and contend that society is increased personal and psychological risk. Given the
undergoing a major change from the modern. structure of risk society there are many reasons for
New theories are needed to explain the transition to increased personal risk. First, today’s society is increas-
postmodern social conditions. We take the postmodern ingly deconstructed/fragmented. Protective institutions
period to refer to the distinct social and political such as the traditional family, strong in previous forms
conditions that followed the ‘‘modern’’ era. As such, of society are much less common today. As indicated
L.A. Willis et al. / Social Science & Medicine 55 (2002) 907–920 911

previously, they served as economic, social, and risk for experiencing poor mental health. Beck also
psychological buffers to social stressors in previous holds that people at greatest risk reflect upon their lives
forms of society. The progressive weakening of these more. Specifically, they observe and begin to think
institutions has put individuals increasingly at risk, about the consequences of their high exposure to risk.
rendering them potentially vulnerable to social and Many unprotected people will increasingly experience
economic stressors. Second, due to widespread societal feelings of helplessness and nihilism, depression, fear,
destructuration and social atomization, people are and ambivalence, all important predictors of suicide
forced to continuously remake not only themselves, (Firestone, 1997). Still, Beck does not explain how many
but also the societies they live in (Giddens, 1991). That people (if not most) maintain their sanity or do not
is, for the most part people are left to solve their own become violent because of their powerlessness to lessen
problems, without significant social support or cultural exposure to risk. Zygmunt Bauman provides us with an
archetypes to model and must independently negotiate explanation of how people live with such ambivalence in
reality now more than ever before. However, there is postmodern society.
also increased personal freedom and more room for
individualism to flourish. As Beck (1992, p. 87) says, Living with ambivalence: Zygmunt Bauman
‘‘people will be set free from the social norms of
industrial society’’. Thus, while people in postmodern Bauman (1992) like Beck views society as in transition
society may be ‘‘free’’, they are more obligated to from modernity to postmodernity. He holds that
depend solely on themselves. Yet, Beck theorizes that in postmodern society is complicated, unpredictable, and
this form of advanced society, social solidarity can be increasingly fragmented. Postmodern society is unpre-
realized for some, in the common search for protection dictable because it lacks central goal-setting organiza-
from potential danger and risk. Specifically, individuals tions; individual identity is constantly changing and
who actively seek to manage, prevent, minimize, and developing without clear direction; and increasing
control personal risk may find it advantageous to numbers of individuals lack a clear purpose in life, but
collaborate, at least informally, with others in like seek an external agency to guide their actions. People
circumstances. Therefore, in risk societies, social soli- seek reassurance as to their decision-making and often
darity is realized in the quest for equality and personal look to those who legislate and interpret reality and to
security. Essentially, members of society simply want to media images for reassurance. Finally, like Beck, Bau-
be equal to one another with respect to life opportu- man acknowledges that access to resources varies among
nities. individuals and is contingent on individual assets.
Beck also points out that, irrespective of personal In summary, Bauman (1995), like Beck, sees frag-
efforts, increased risks are to a large degree being mentation as a defining feature of postmodern society.
produced by changing sources of wealth within society. He views society as being in a state of constant change
According to Beck (1992, p. 35) ‘‘the history of risk and believes that people lack direction (Bauman, 1992,
distribution shows that, like wealth, risks adhere to the p. 31). He points out that there are always chances that
class pattern, only inversely: wealth accumulates at the must be taken as well as choices to be made in life;
top, risks at the bottom’’. however in a postmodern society without specific
He also theorizes that increased personal risk in guidelines, it is much harder to see what the con-
society strengthens instead of reduces class divisions. sequences of different choices may be. In addition,
The strengthening of class differences seems to increase Bauman posits that people must learn to live with
as impoverished people accumulate enormous amounts feelings of ambivalence and uncertainty as well as
of risk. Furthermore, those in poverty are not in a feelings of ‘‘anxiety, out of placeness, loss of direction’’
position to obtain protection from risk unless it is (Bauman, 1992, p. 101). In postmodern society indivi-
provided by the state. This becomes increasingly less duals are left alone to sort out their fears and to cope
likely as economic individualism gains strength as an with them unless they have the resources to purchase
ideology and as a reality. On the other hand, the wealthy protection in the form of professional help. Thus,
are in a position to protect themselves from risk in Bauman is of the opinion that one must have ‘‘nerves
several waysFthrough higher income, more political of steel’’ (Bauman, 1991, p. 245) or wealth and resources
power, better access to health care and more education- in order to survive in a postmodern society.
Fall of which decrease the level of personal risk. These
two extremes of protection have direct implications for Children, adolescence, and race in postmodernity
mental health. Those of high socioeconomic status
(SES) are able to acquire protection from risk, thus The perspectives of Durkheim, Beck, and Bauman do
are more likely to have better mental health. In contrast, not specifically speak to the effects of society upon
people of lower SES are much less able to protect children and adolescents. It is logical to assume that if
themselves from risk and are therefore at much greater adults are having difficulty adapting to and negotiating
912 L.A. Willis et al. / Social Science & Medicine 55 (2002) 907–920

their place in an increasingly postmodern society, then (Massey & Denton, 1993). The majority of migrants had
adolescents and children must also experience chal- little or no formal education. Lack of adequate
lenges. However, it is also reasonable to hypothesize that education led them to seek unskilled employment such
younger people are more adaptable to new and changing as factory work. In cities such as Chicago, New York,
situations than are adults (Huffine, 1989). Yet, younger Cleveland, and Philadelphia, successful African-Amer-
people are not always able to be proactive agents like ican communities were established where its members
their parents because they have less experience and could enjoy protection from risk by living in an ethnic
ability and less control over resources to successfully enclave. The enclave strategy is often employed by racial
manage their environment. Furthermore, adolescents or ethnic groups to lessen the burden of being a minority
are in a liminal period between adulthood and child- in a majority-dominated society (Wilson & Portes,
hood. This can be a time of tumultuous change from one 1980). Commonly, enclaves served as bonding agents
period of existence to another. Their role in society is viewed by Durkheim as responsible for integrating
undefined and as Maris (1985, p. 100) explains individuals to society, thus lessening the risk of suicide.
adolescence is a ‘‘time marked by marginality, confu- Significant institutions in the African-American com-
sion, and ambiguity’’. Like their parents, adolescents munity were the church, the family, and the community.
may increasingly experience feelings of helplessness, Over time, North American companies mechanized
ambivalence, hopelessness, and nihilism that Durkheim, their factory operations and as a result, less unskilled
Beck, and Bauman have described while possessing work was available. The lack of work left African-
fewer coping resources to guide them through turbulent Americans, particularly males, without the employment
times. More importantly, it is entirely possible that opportunities earlier generations enjoyed. Today, many
disadvantaged adolescents would recognize their own African-Americans still lack the education to compete in
limited control over their social environment and the skilled job market, with only 14.6% possessing a
(perceived) powerlessness to protect themselves from bachelor’s degree or more, compared to 29% of Whites
risk. Institutions like the church or family, which have (US Census, 1997). The existing education disparity may
the ability to buffer stress and integrate adolescents, are explain why African-American males are still twice as
declining or restructuring in the transition to postmo- likely as their White counterparts to work in factories.
dern society (Hawton, 1986; Huffine, 1989). In addition, the current unemployment rate among them
However, these theories fail to take race and racism is twice as high as among Whites (US Labor Statistics,
into account in terms of how they may affect vulner- 1998). This clearly illustrates one aspect of the relative
ability to suicide. Thus, for example, race and SES are inability of impoverished African-Americans to obtain
deeply connected in the United States: a dispropor- protection from risk as described by Beck (1992).
tionate number of certain racial/ethnic groups have low The decline of an unskilled labor market led to a
socioeconomic status which in turn increases racist weakening of family structure in the African-American
beliefs in society at large, that in turn increases personal community, in part because of the disappearance of
risk during and after the transition to postmodern stable sources of employment and income for males
society. (Wilson, 1987). Another related facilitator of this
breakdown was the development of social services to
compensate for the lack of income. These social services
African-American communities in postmodernity began in the early 1930s with Franklin Roosevelt’s New
Deal program and were expanded in Lyndon Johnson’s
African-American communities have experienced sig- Great Society Program. The services were designed to
nificant changes throughout the late modern and provide food, income, and housing along with basic
postmodern years leaving its individuals more vulner- medical care for all impoverished Americans, and were
able to suicide than ever before. As discussed earlier, meant as transitional programs. In their initial imple-
these changes may be particularly hard on children and mentation, these programs did seem to ease the burden
adolescents who generally have fewer resources to help of families. However, the financial burden upon families
them cope with complex economic and social changes increased once certain restrictions were implemented.
taking place at the societal level. To understand the For instance, a family could not have a male over the
recent changes in African-American culture, it is age of 18 living in the household or they would lose their
necessary to explore the past. It is also important to public assistance.
recognize factors that have moved African-Americans The ramifications of changes in these public assistance
from being relatively immune to suicide to being programs were devastating to the African-American
increasingly susceptible. family, as blue-collar work slowly dwindled. The father
In the 1930s and 1940s, many African-Americans and other father-figures were almost completely re-
migrated from the rural American south to large urban moved from the home and community. This is
areas of the north in search of gainful employment manifested in the increased number of single-parent
L.A. Willis et al. / Social Science & Medicine 55 (2002) 907–920 913

households (US Census, 1997). It is likely that many must have one in order to be safe (Sheley & Wright,
African-American men had deduced that the best way to 1993). Finally, it is also likely that having a gun increases
provide for their family was to not provide for them at one’s social status in this violent, highly individualistic
all, leaving the burden of support to the mother and to social environment (Hemenway, Prothrow-Smith, Berg-
social services (Kelly & Coldurn, 1996). Some men in the stein, Ander, & Kennedy, 1996; CDC, 1995; Webster,
African-American community have little economic Gainer, & Champion, 1993; Loftin, 1986). As a result,
incentive to be married because they are unable to handgun diffusion among youths escalates and becomes
maintain a moderate income that adequately provides common and widespread. It can be assumed that since
for a family. Thus they are not ‘‘marrigeable’’ in the there is ready access to guns in the African-American
usual sense of marrying to procreate and raise children. community, there can be an increased risk of homicide
Since the opportunities for well-renumerated unskilled and suicide as well. In fact, it was found that gun
or semi-skilled employment which existed in the past are ownership is a greater risk factor for suicide than
much less available, some men with children may homicide (Kaplan & Geling, 1998). In turn, stricter
rationalize that since they cannot find gainful employ- firearm legislation would have a major impact on suicide
ment, they are lessening risk to their family by staying rates given that 90% of firearm suicides are successful
away. This behavior continues today, with over half of (Lester, 1987; Kaplan & Geling, 1998). Thus, economic
all African-American households earning mean incomes strain, the burgeoning drug trade and subsequent gun
less than $25,000 (US, Census 2001). This statistic is availability all have an impact on suicide rates.
another example of how African-Americans are at an The connection between economic strain, stressful life
economic disadvantage when it comes to purchasing risk events, and negative mental health status is also well
protection. documented (Brown & Gary, 1987; Calatano & Dooley,
Another aspect of the economic disadvantage and 1983; Mc Loyd, 1990). African-American men, more
increasing vulnerability to risks of all kinds (including concentrated in low-income strata, face constant eco-
suicide) is the rise of the drug trade in the 1980s and the nomic strain given conditions stated earlier. Conse-
influx of firearms that accompanied it. In the late 1980s, quently, African-Americans are at a higher risk for
the buying and selling of crack cocaine became a viable poverty and the subsequent psychological distress that
source of employment for African-American males in results from economic deprivation, drug abuse, and
inner-city and other areas. ‘‘The economic plight of racism and their impact (Benjamin, 1991; Neighbors &
young urban Black juveniles at the time, many of whom Jackson, 1996).
saw no other comparably satisfactory route to economic Overall, the social and psychological well-being of
success or even sustenance, made them particularly African-Americans is less than optimal when compared
amenable to the lure of the drug markets’’ (Blumstein, to their White counterparts. In addition, African-
Rivara, & Rosenfeld, 2000, p. 526). Americans have less access to resources than do other
Firearms are necessary tools in the drug trade for racial groups to protect themselves from multiple risks,
three basic reasons: (1) they protect against customers given the high rate of unemployment, undereducation,
and help resolve seller–customer disputes; (2) they offer and lack of access to preventive mental health care
protection against rival dealers since drug dealers are (Kiyak & Hooyman, 1994). In addition, African-
unlikely to obtain protection from law enforcement American children and youth suffer from lower levels
(Jacobs, 1999). As a result of the rise in drug trading, of social supportFan important factor in reducing
from 1984 to 1993, the rate of handgun-homicides psychological distress (George, Okun, & Landerman,
tripled among young Blacks, particularly men, and this 1985). A related factor contributing to psychological
in part may explain the high number of excess deaths well-being is perceived closeness of the family and
during that period (Griffith & Bell, 1989; NCHS, 2000). community. Some have argued that this closeness and
Some hypothesize that guns, once mostly associated collectivism is waning in many African-American
with the drug trade, are now diffused throughout the communities today.
African-American community. A contagion model has Recent historical and demographic developments
been used to explain this phenomenon (Jacobs, 1999). have contributed to socio-cultural changes in African-
Simply stated, the presence of these firearms ‘‘ups the American communities (Wilson, 1987; Gibbs, 1988;
ante’’ for others to become armed. Blumstein et al. Anderson, 1990). African-American middle-class fa-
(2000) theorize that many of the youths involved in the milies have moved away from the inner cities. It may
drug trade are likely to pass handguns on to their well be that this increased social and residential mobility
friends. They may do this because they fear some type of of the middle class has, ironically, increased the
retaliation from a rival dealer may involve their friends vulnerability of African-American adolescents to sui-
and loved ones. In turn, other youths in the community cide. First, due to this migration, many African-
feel the need to become armed for their own protection. American middle-class children, forced to undergo
This process leaves those without guns feeling that they acculturation are without a large reference group
914 L.A. Willis et al. / Social Science & Medicine 55 (2002) 907–920

(Franklin, 1994). Second, these same middle-class have begun to examine the relationship between the
children may assimilate into the dominant culture and stressors associated with racism and health (Kessler,
therefore become more accepting of suicide. Third, Mickelson, & Williams, 1999; Williams, Lazzio-Mourry,
middle-class children may experience an increased inner & Warren, 1994). King (1982) suggested that racist
strain because of their predicament of being trapped conditions contributed to a ‘‘malignant’’ sense of help-
between two worlds. Simply, they may not be accepted lessness among African-Americans that in turn in-
by their White or non-Black peers because of their creased the risk of suicide. Stressors related to a sense
ethnicity while simultaneously experiencing hostility of alienation and other adverse situations African-
from those of their own race who resent their position. Americans experience on a daily basis may cause
Furthermore, they may be operating without a blueprint psychological distress in even the most confident and
as to what an acceptable middle-class African-American successful African-Americans (Clark et al., 1999; Benja-
is, since some middle-class African-Americans are only min, 1991). This may explain the relatively high
one generation removed from poverty. prevalence of phobic disorders, depression (often
The middle-class migration has created a vacuum not masked or hidden in African-American youth), and
only in leadership but in values and resources for many anxiety among African-Americans (Brown, Eaton, &
inner-city, African-American communities. Anderson Sussman, 1990; Fuller, 1992). It may be that depression
(1999) has noted the growing separation between is, at the core, an end result of learned helplessness
‘‘decent’’ middle-class and ‘‘street’’ lower-class. Gibbs stemming from oppression in the postmodern con-
(1997) notes that the power of African-American textFthe oppressed are increasingly unable to control
political institutions has diminished, as inner-city con- or predict events and risks.
stituencies no longer include the better-educated and However, another cause of this learned helplessness
wealthier who are more likely to participate in the may be that many African-Americans become aware
political process. In many cities, civic, faith based and early that they are likely to have reduced life-options
other social organizations produce fewer resources to (Frye, 1992). These conditions have existed and per-
improve neighborhoods, initiate youth programs or sisted since slavery; many African-American poets, such
provide incentives to attract external sources of support. as Paul Lawrence Dunbar, have likened the African-
Gibbs (1988) and Anderson (1996) believe that, in American existence to that of a ‘‘caged bird’’. Today,
parallel to the breakdown of traditional institutions Frye writes of the lives of many low-income African-
within some communities, there has been a breakdown Americans, describing them as ‘‘people [y] who are
of traditional African-American community values: caged, whose motion and mobility are restricted, whose
family, education, self-improvement, social cohesion, lives are shaped and reduced’’ (Frye, 1992, p. 56). Living
and social networks. Also, the African-American church inside ‘‘the cage’’ produces feelings that may result in
in inner-city communities has lost its central function as violent behaviors such as suicide and homicide. Re-
a monitor of norms and values. Many African-Amer- searchers have found that African-American adolescents
icans in inner cities no longer feel connected to each experience greater intensities of state anger (transitory
other, responsible for each other, or concerned about emotional anger) and more frequent occasions of trait
one another (Anderson, 1999). The sense of shared anger (dispositional anger) than White adolescents
community that once characterized African-American (Johnson, 1989). Potential outcomes of these feelings
communities is no longer present (Duneier, 1992). Gibbs include committing violent acts against one’s commu-
(1988) hypothesizes that these changes could be the nity, against relatives, friends, and oneself (Juon &
cause of the general aimlessness and rampant violent Ensminger, 1997). Franklin (1994) speculates that some
activity in gangs. of these outcomes, including violent ones, are also the
West (1993) explains, that in today’s African-Amer- result of poor socialization and societal stigma.
ican communities, negative perceptions of self and The power of the media is another factor that may
feelings of self-blame, doubt, unworthiness, hopeless- have contributed to the increase in suicide among
ness, and helplessness lead to various types of violent African-American adolescents. Bauman (1995) theorizes
outcomes, both self-directed violence and violence that the media are some of the most dominant
against others. West believes that many of these feelings institutions in postmodern society. It is particularly
are manifestations of depression. High levels of negative dominant because the primary socializing institutions
emotions/behaviors, including substance abuse, are well that once taught people how to think, feel, and act are
known among some African-Americans. These include greatly weakened or no longer exist. As a result, it seems
nihilism, frustration, anger, ambivalence, and, most possible that African-American children, who watch a
importantly, depression and hopelessness (Feldman & substantially greater amount of television than White
Wilson, 1997; Brown, Feroz, Gary, & Milburn, 1995). children, are more heavily exposed to media messages
Racism is another important factor that contributes to and images (Gordon, Gordon, & Nembhard, 1994). It
poor physical and mental health. Recently, researchers seems logical to speculate that some of the depression
L.A. Willis et al. / Social Science & Medicine 55 (2002) 907–920 915

and aggression African-American youth may feel stems individuals of lower SES are limited in their ability to
from a sense of relative deprivation based on the acquire resources to control exposure to high amounts
discrepancies between the lives and lifestyles they of risk. Thus, they are more vulnerable to suicide for
observe in the mass media and their inability to obtain three reasons: (1) low social status, (2) limited resources
those lifestyles due to limited resources and barriers such to protect themselves from risk, and (3) inability to
as institutional racism. resolve feelings of helplessness/hopelessness that stem
Also, the structure of African-American communities, from (1) and (2).
in today’s postmodern age, serves to increase its Once common social support is now either greatly
members’ risk of severe psychological distress and reduced or non-existent for the younger generations of
suicide. As previously stated, African-American people African-Americans. Since the social support that bound
have used the enclave strategy to cope with everyday life previous generations to society and the community are
and as a result most possessed a ‘‘we’’ or collectivist no longer present, younger African-Americans males are
mentality, known as communalism (Boykin, 1983; more at risk for unresolved psychological distress and,
Jones, 1991; Nobles, 1991). In the postmodern era, the therefore, suicide due to the decline in institutions that
emphasis on the individual has increased and African- guided behavior compounded by the absence of tradi-
Americans have been forced to adopt an untraditional tional male roles. Many African-American male adoles-
‘‘me’’ or individualistic mentality. In this context, people cents are left without suitable models whose behavior
often are left to depend solely on personal resources to they could replicate. As a result, they may reason that
deal with serious problems. there is ‘‘nothing to look forward to’’ but life in the
Poussaint (1983, p. 234) may have foreshadowed the streets. Furthermore, many African-American male
mental health outcomes that often translate into suicide: adolescents, unlike their White counterparts, do not
‘‘there appear to be no safety nets that protect the health have the opportunity or ability to adopt or forge new
or psyche of the Afro-American from institutional role models for themselves. Simply, they are without the
racism, poverty, high unemployment and a stagnant necessary positive blueprints that would help them
economy’’. Interestingly, research has shown that the construct their lives.
extended family is now little able to reduce the effect of Ironically, African-American male adolescents of
chronic strains and may in fact be itself a source of higher SES are more at risk now than ever before,
chronic strain (Dressler, 1992). Overall, African-Amer- because while they may be protected from some aspects
icans, due to complex social and economic factors of risk, they are more vulnerable in other areas. Due to
embedded in the transition to postmodern society, suffer their lack of a reference group, they may feel as if they
from increasingly poor mental health and become more are trapped between two worlds, one ‘‘White’’ the other
prone to negative mental health outcomes. ‘‘Black’’. Some may feel as though they have to maintain
a dual consciousness and must learn to negotiate the
‘‘color line’’ Du Bois spoke about in the early 20th
Summary and discussion century (DuBois, 1996; Bush, 1976). Also, acculturation
may lead them to adopt views about suicide that are
Durkheim (1979) provided us with a theory of suicide consistent with White males, the ethnic/gender
which states that levels of social integration facilitate or group with the highest suicide rates in the United
prevent three types of suicide. He found that individuals States.
use traditional institutions as guides to the complexities Furthermore, many African-Americans are of lower
of everyday life, through periods of societal transition SES and are more likely to have less protection from
where social structure breaks down or changes. From most forms of personal risk. Typically, high levels of
Beck we learn the importance of minimizing and education and income are associated with protection
controlling risk in a ‘‘risky’’ or ‘‘risk-prone’’, postmo- from risks such as unemployment and physical harm in
dern society. Bauman provides us with an explanation of a market-driven economy. However, African-Americans
how most people learn to live with uncertaintyFthey are not only less likely to have access to proper mental
simply become accustomed to it. Both Beck and health care (Cleary, 1989; Lester, 1998) but also more
Bauman note that this society in transition is character- likely to distrust mental health agencies, viewing them as
ized by increasing societal deconstructionFthe breaking a last resort for stigmatized suicidal behaviors (Lester,
apart and decline of social institutionsFfragmentation, 1998). Bauman and Beck both point out that in
and individualization. As a result, individuals are more postmodern society those who are unprotected and
vulnerable to suicide during this period because the subject to extreme personal risk are likely to experience
institutions that mitigated suicide, by reducing stress psychological distress. Regardless of SES and race, the
among people during the time period Durkheim growing impersonality and riskiness of the postmodern
observed, are in sharp decline and no longer offer world make it difficult for adolescents to claim their
protection from suicide. They also point out that identity and discover their self-worth (Huffine, 1989).
916 L.A. Willis et al. / Social Science & Medicine 55 (2002) 907–920

The barriers African-American adolescent males face as theorize about the increasing decentralization and
they ascend to adulthood, such as finding legal employ- individualization characterized by postmodern society.
ment, obtaining education, avoiding incarceration, only The African-American community has followed this
further complicate the issues they share with other trend and moved from collectivism to an isolation and
adolescents and may increase their risk of suicide. individualism forcing adaptation to a new
Coupled with this accumulation of risks, there may be ‘‘individualistic’’ society that can cause significant
feelings of ambivalence and depression that are over- psychological distress. These trends increase African-
whelming for some in the African-American commu- American adolescent males’ vulnerability to suicide
nity. It is likely that these feelings of ambivalence and because postmodern society does not provide the
depression both reflect and cause feelings of anger, institutions, values, and resources to guide them around
frustration, and violence among African-American increasing levels of risk. Therefore, if these trends
adolescents. Severe depression and hopelessness that continue, we expect that suicide rates among African-
often predicate and usually predict suicide in the general American males will surely rise in the years to come.
population are common among young African-Amer-
ican males (Boergers, Spirito, & Donaldson, 1988).
Many times the ultimate expression of these feelings may Directions for future research
be homicide or suicide including victim-precipitated
suicide. To properly understand African-American adolescent
Overall, postmodern features of contemporary so- suicide and how to prevent it, future research needs to be
ciety, i.e. people learning to come to terms with (or not) concentrated in several areas.
‘‘risk’’ and ‘‘ambivalence’’ have a specific impact on
African-American communities. Other researchers have I. Further research on African-American suicide is
presented similar arguments about African-American needed since very few risk factors have been
suicide and social integration (Breed, 1970; Bush, 1976; identified or verified. Some of the risk factors
Gibbs, 1997; Henry & Short, 1954; Swanson & Breed, mentioned earlier are depression, impulsive ag-
1976; Davis, 1980, 1981; Early, 1992; Burr et al., 1999; gressive behaviors, and underemployment. An-
Smith & Carter, 1986). other risk factor (that African-Americans share
Griffith and Bell (1989) reviewed a number of with Whites) is the utilization of mental health
explanatory theories for African-American suicide that services (Kung et al., 1998).
offered psychosocial explanations; for example, experi- II. Better measures of African-American mental
enced racism could lead to feelings of anger, worthless- health need to be developed. The instruments
ness, and helplessness that are expressed in a culture of and methods of diagnosis need to be more
violence, culminating in suicide and homicide. They culturally sensitive since there are cultural differ-
concluded that these theories all contained plausible ences in the way psychological distress is mani-
elements but fell short of explaining African-American fested (Gibbs & Hines, 1989; Kirmayer, Young, &
suicide. Postmodern social theory helps us understand Hayton, 1995). Depression, in particular, is an
the current and historical conditions that underlie the area that needs serious attention. Depression is
psychosocial conditions described by Griffith and Bell. under-diagnosed in African-American adoles-
Traditionally, African-Americans coped with social cents. This may be because some African-Amer-
forces and their stressors through a community-oriented ican adolescents, particularly males, mask their
existence comprised of extended family, church, and depression or manifest it differently (Fuller, 1992).
neighborhood. Following this transition to postmoder- In addition, management and treatment of
nity, African-American communities have become less depression and other mental illnesses in the
collective-oriented and cohesive. As a result, African- African-American community needs to be ex-
American children are becoming more isolated and panded and made more culturally appropriate.
unprotected from personal risk than their predecessors. III. The protective aspects of institutions such as the
The decline of the family is especially important to church must be examined with respect to younger
understanding the increasing risk of African-Americans generations. Measuring the changing influence of
youth to suicide. Loose family ties have been considered the church is important since the most common
a particularly important casual agent in youth suicide explanation for the traditionally low rate of
(Hawton, 1986). Thus, postmodern theory helps explain African-American suicide has been the commu-
why the African-American community has such a high nity’s high levels of religiosity (Stack & Wasser-
level of increased personal risk: higher unemployment, man, 1995).
lower levels of education, and fewer resources in general, IV. The effects of both the immediate and extended
all limiting many members’ (particularly children) ability family on depression and suicidal behaviors need
to protect themselves from risk. Beck and Bauman to be reexamined (Lester, 1998).
L.A. Willis et al. / Social Science & Medicine 55 (2002) 907–920 917

V. More research needs to be done on resiliency and needed. To date there is limited knowledge as to
how it relates to African-American male suicide. socioeconomic and geographic variations in the
Most research focuses on risk factors associated rates of suicide. Epidemiological surveillance
with suicide rather than potentially protective studies should focus on socioeconomic and
factors like resiliency. By focusing on both risk environmental variables.
and and protective factors like resiliency in VII. Research needs to be conducted on the connection
research, more effective intervention measures between suicide and homicide. This research is
could be designed. For instance, further research important because rates of suicide and homicide
is needed to explain the consistently low rates of may not have an inverse relationship in this
suicide for African-American females of all ages. population. Given the work of Durkheim and
Little is known about this phenomenon, but many early criminologists, this relationship is not purely
have speculated about the low rate (Alston & coincidental.
Anderson, 1995; Christian, 1977; Comer, 1973; VIII. North American research findings could be
Gibbs, 1997; Nisbet, 1996; Humphrey & Palmer, compared to those from other societies with
1991; Davis, 1980): in general, women are more people of African descent undergoing the shift
likely to utilize social support and to have more from modern to postmodern.
primary social networks (non-familial) than men.
This is important because primary social networks
are a protective factor for suicide. Another
possible protection against suicide may lie in the Conclusion
many social roles (mother, friend, surrogate
mother) that African-American women begin to Adolescent suicide is one of the leading causes of
take on during adolescence. Furthermore, Afri- death internationally (WHO, 1999). The argument of
can-American adolescent females are likely to the difficult transition to and existence within post-
have female role models currently occupying these modernity provided here is generalizable to the interna-
many roles (Davis, 1980). This clarifies the tional adolescent population since most industrialized
position of females in the family and community, countries are moving toward a postmodern state.
and assigns them a purpose. The same does not Therefore, it could be argued that all adolescents may
hold true for males. While the social integration face the same risks and social stressors regardless of the
hypothesis may be helpful in explaining the low particular society they live in, and thus be at an elevated
rate of successful suicides, the myriad of social risk for suicide. However, our argument has been
roles and expectations may in fact be resulting in tailored to explain the increasing incidence of suicide
the increasing number of attempts among Afri- among African-American adolescent males. This argu-
can-American adolescent females (YRBSS, 1993, ment may only readily apply to this population for
1995, 1997a, b). This gender-based difference in several reasons: (a) while some concepts in our frame-
successful suicide rates is found in the general work may well be applicable to other ethnic or
American population and, for the most part, economically disadvantaged in other countries, our
worldwide (WHO, 1999). Gibbs (1997) believes framework is based on the complex interplay between
that African-American women are more deeply historical discrimination and the unique cultural experi-
involved (than are men) with extended families in ences of African-Americans (not all minorities experien-
terms of support provided and received and this in cing discrimination have endured the institutional
turn helps them cope with feelings of depression barriers that African-Americans have faced for genera-
and thoughts of suicide. Gibbs and Hines (1989) tions); (b) the framework may be inadequate for
note that the breakdown of religious influence and describing groups whose suicide rate has plateaued over
social support may have had a larger impact on the last 20 years.
younger African-American males, with fewer African-American adolescent male suicide is a phe-
young males than females attending church today. nomenon that requires complex explanations and
In addition, they note that younger African- sophisticated analysis. The goal of this paper is to
American women are more likely to be employed synthesize existing classical and postmodern social
and less likely to use drugs, and that parents theories in order to provide an explanation and to
provide more nurturing and support for female suggest directions for further research. From the
children. African-American female adolescents information presented, it can be concluded that social
are also less likely to have access to and to carry explanations for suicide to some degree still fit the
firearms than their male counterparts. typologies that Durkheim described over a century ago.
VI. Studies that examine the demographic aspects of However, the increase in suicide for African-American
African-American adolescent male suicide are adolescent males in the United States is perhaps best
918 L.A. Willis et al. / Social Science & Medicine 55 (2002) 907–920

understood as a product of societal transition from Brown, D., Feroz, A., Gary, L. E., & Milburn, N. G. (1995).
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networks, and the physical and mental health of urban
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Burr, J. A., Hartman, J. T., & Matteson D, . W. (1999). Black
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We gratefully acknowledge the following people: Alex
racial inequality and social integration hypotheses. Social
Crosby and LeRoy Resse of the Centers for Disease
Forces, 77, 1049–1081.
Control; Patricia Drentea, Leslie Clark, Kevin Fitzpa- Bush, J. A. (1976). Suicide and Blacks: A conceptual frame-
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Alabama, Birmingham; Donna Barnes of Southwest Calatano, R., & Dooley, D. (1983). Health effects of economic
Texas State University; and anonymous reviewers for instability: A test of economic stress hypothesis. Journal of
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