Several news stories are asking the question: “where have all the Black men gone?”  In fact the phenomenon has become known as the “missing-Black men phenomenon.”

This post is interested in looking at three seemingly unrelated yet interconnected occurrences in the lives of Black men since about 1960.  These are:

  • Vietnam
  • Drugs
  • Incarceration

And, while this post is not definitive, here we see the interrelatedness of these three “moments” and how all three work to remove Black men from their communities, from the probability of building a life of marriage & family and absence from the labor market — hence, not building  financial, human, or social capital.

It is important to remind the readers that America up through 1955 was a segregated society.  It was not until 1948 under President Harry S. Truman that the armed services were officially desegregated and not yet fully desegregated when Blacks were being sent to Vietnam.

Two hundred fifty years of slavery; Ninety years of Jim Crow; Sixty years of separate but (un-equal); Thirty-five years of racist housing policies, racism in the labor force (& US military), separate & un-equal -schooling, etc.,  yet, these Black soldiers went to Vietnam to fight for freedom.

Black soldiers, living in a segregated United States fought long and hard in Vietnam.



Black in vietnam

The Vietnam war (1964-1972) was American’s first integrated war. At least officially. There were all-white units in Vietnam and all-Black units as well (Terry 1984). American soldiers, Black and white, did fight side by side. Yet the issues for this blog are the disproportionate numbers of Blacks sent to Vietnam in terms of these young men’s representation in the general population. Few women soldiers were sent to Vietnam.

Four million Americans served in Vietnam from the early beginnings of the war in 1955 until it was officially ended April 30, 1975. Of that number approximately 58,151American soldiers were killed (Karnow 1997). Anyone who has payed attention to the “nightly news during the era of the war know full well that the “official” count of soldiers killed is an undercount (Sheehan 1989).

Just as the official numbers of those soldiers killed is low is it close to impossible to acturately know the number of young Black men who were sent to Vietnam and who came home from the war.  Black soldiers were drafted in huge numbers to fight in Vietnam from states with all-white draft boards, including: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

Having all white draft boards especially in the south creates situations where disproportionate to their numbers in the age group of potential draftees, Blacks were sent to Vietnam at twice  the rate as their white counterparts.  That is to say, Black soldiers were recruited to fight in a war when at home they were discriminated against, living in states still operating under the last vestiges of Jim Crow.

That recruitment got a boost from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s Project 100,000. Project 100,000 began in 1966 intended to recruit Black and low income whites from the south. Especially important to understand in this movement to recruit Black soldiers for Vietnam is how disproportionate the numbers were.

Blacks were 45% of the 100,000 troops recruited mainly into the Army and Marines, those the most likely to see combat.

Considering the number of young black men eligible for the draft, their numbers in the age cohort 18-25, and the number of them sent to both the Army and the Marines, then it is conceivable to note they were overrepresented in frontline combat units which resulted in their being also overrepresented in total causality counts – however skewed these may have been.

Some would argue deliberately so!

According to Wallace Terry (author of Bloods: An Oral History of The Vietman War By Black Veterans) over 60 percent of the men on the front lines, dubbed “Soulville,” were black and they accounted for more than 23% of American fatalities even though blacks comprised only 10% of America’s overall population.

While the numbers vary, depending on the source, the argument here is that of the 47,356 battle deaths in Vietnam –wherein 23% of those deaths were Black soldiers– one black soldier killed in Vietnam is one soldier too many.

The argument here is that Vietnam is the first chapter in the “where are the Black men” story that has been a running commentary since the 1980’s.

A second chapter is drugs.

Some would argue that the returning soldiers from Vietnam were so traumatized that they took to drugs to ease the pain. This may be the case but it is not entirely so. Many black soldiers took up drugs while in Vietnam.

In the popular movie American Gangster the “Black Mafia” kingpin Frank Lucas is supposed to have had business dealings with the Vietcong to import heroin and marijuana into the US via dead soldiers coffins.


soldier snorting crack

American soldiers in general stationed in Vietnam and black soldiers specifically used readily available drugs including–but not limited to–heroin, marijuana, morphine, barbiturates and opium and brought these habits back home with them.

Many returned stateside addicted to some type of illicit drug.

Add to this the growing tensions around the embattled civil rights movement especially in the south and the murder of Dr. Rev Martin Luther King in April 1968, joblessness, despair and a lack of hope all pulled together to join with the inner city crisis of drug use and abuse, many Vietnam veterans got pulled along.

Perhaps in response to the high rate of drug use in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the early 1980s heralded in the War on Drugs. This war, rather than providing treatment for addicts and those traumatized by their experiences in Vietnam, criminalized many of the drugs that returning veterans, especially Black men, who returned not as heroes but as baby killers, used to ease the pain.  Lost in the War on Drugs were Black men who died of drug-related illnesses, including HIV, overdoses, untreated addiction, and those lost to the system of mass incarceration.

One way to gauge the destructiveness of drugs in the black community is to look no further than the controversial book by Michael Javen Fortner entitled “Black Silent Majority.”   According to the author the drug epidemic in Harlem New York, residents began to feel the ancillary impact of the drug epidemic, not just the crime, but also the rise of gangs, and in parts of New York, Baltimore, and Chicago, gangs control entire neighborhoods and are responsible for the skyrocketing rates of black on black homicide.  Much of this violence is related to the drug trade.


black men in prison

Drug using and drug dealing can (and often does) lead to prison time.  Between 1973 and 1988 the nations drug laws became more harsh. In New York State, under the moniker of the “ROCKEFELLER DRUG LAWS” prison sentences became longer with the 15-years to life sentence for selling two ounces, or possessing four ounces of cocaine or heroin (

These stringent new rules for drug use and abuse and the sale of illicit substances are centrally important to the story of mass incarceration.  In fact it can be argued that drugs cements prison population increase to the proliferation we see today.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimates there are some 2.3 million people in the US incarcerated.  These data become more illuminating when you break them out to areas like probation, parole, home arrest etc.  Suffice to say that the US remains the world leading “jailer” far surpassing every other nation around the globe.  Furthermore, the majority of people, including Black men, under the control of the criminal justice system, were convicted of non-violent drug offenses.  As we have noted elsewhere, prison becomes a place to warehouse undesirable populations.


This post links the three interrelated phenomena of (1) Vietnam, (2) Drugs and (3) Prison in order to respond to the questions surrounding issues of “where have all the Black men gone?”

By looking carefully at these three items it become easy to see that death abroad and hopelessness at home as well as the L O N G stretches of prison time can account for some–if not most–of the missing Black men.

Starting with Vietnam these black men went to war against a foreign enemy who were not nearly as close to intruding on their citizenship rights as White Supremacy groups were doing at home. They were caught in a system of war and oppression that were designed to ensure that they would never gain any sort of freedom.

Secondly, the drug epidemic hit the inner cities hard bringing with it violent assaults and gun violence.

Finally, all of this violence comes full circle and you can see why some are asking where are the missing black men? Taking stock of these three items and their intersections contributes to the debate about missing black men.



This post is part 1 on this topic.  Part // will address the issue of homicide among Black males.


Fortner, Michael Javen. 2015.  Black Silent Majority. Cambridge, MA:. Harvard University Press.

Hattery, Angela J. and Earl Smith. 2010. Prisoner Reentry & Social Capital. Maryland: Lexington Books.

Karnow, Stanley. 1997. Vietnam: A History (2nd Edition). New York: Penguin Books.

Sheehan, Neil. 1989. A Bright Shining Lie. New York: Random House.

Robbins, Lee. 1993. “Vietnam Veterans’ Rapid Recovery From Heroin Addiction: A Fluke or Normal Expectation?” Addiction, 88: 1041-1054.

Terry, Wallace. 1984. Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans. New York: Random House.

Recent Posts