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Out for a Jog? Not If You’re a Black Man in a White Neighborhood

New research finds concerns about stereotyping keeps some middle-class black men from outdoor physical activity.
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(Photo: Dominik Martin/Unsplash)

(Photo: Dominik Martin/Unsplash)

On average, African Americans are less likely to be fit, and more likely to be obese. As it turns out, there’s at least once huge disincentive for would-be African-American joggers: When many white people see a black man sprinting down the street, they don’t see that person as someone to admire. They see him as someone to fear.

Newly published research suggests middle-class men of color are well aware of such musings. It finds they are significantly less likely to be physically active if they live in a predominantly white neighborhood.

According to the paper’s author, University of Maryland sociologist Rashawn Ray, this decision reflects a perceived need to “signal their middle-class status in predominantly white spaces” — which is difficult to do in a T-shirt and sweat pants.

In the journal Social Science Research, Ray describes a study of 482 Americans between the ages of 22 and 64. All were employed either full- or part-time, and lived in either urban or suburban neighborhoods.

Participants were asked how many times over the past week they engaged in physical activity. They also indicated their own race; the approximate racial make-up of their neighborhood; and whether any characteristics of their neighborhood (such as a lack of facilities or transportation) make exercise more burdensome.

Overall, 70 percent of black men reported engaging in physical activity three or more times per week — a rate higher than white men in the sample. However, their likelihood of doing so depended in part on the racial make-up of their neighborhood.

“Despite black men reporting that neighborhoods perceived as predominantly black have significantly fewer facilities for physical activity,” Ray writes, “they are still more likely to (exercise in those locations) than in neighborhoods perceived as predominantly white.”

Ray argues that middle-class black men don’t want to be eyed with suspicion by white passersby (not to mention police officers). That’s far less likely if you’re wearing a suit that signals your income and status. Faced with the prospect of being mistaken for a miscreant, some simply stay home.

Ray further found the opposite was true of middle-class black women, who were less likely to engage in physical activity in mostly black neighborhoods. He reports they felt significantly less safe in those areas. Ray notes that such neighborhoods tend to be poorer, and are less likely to have locations where women can exercise without the fear of being ogled by men.

Neither of these realities lend themselves to easy solutions. Ray argues there is a need for “environments that are comfortable to blacks,” and suggests houses of worship could serve as friendly, non-threatening venues.

Come for the spiritual sustenance, stay for the jazzercise.