"There are more black men in jail than in college" is a line that has transfigured our understanding of persistent problems among black men in the United States. Many activists and scholars recite it to invoke urgency to fight unjust social structures, while culture critics say it to condemn the social failings of black men.
The line is memorable, immutable, provocative and piercing, but as I revealed last week, it is not true.
This realization creates a sense of reprieve and ambivalence among many black people. Since the first article was released, many have argued that the rate of graduation among black males is still too low, and the rate of incarceration is too high – assertions I will not dispute. However, the natures of these issues are different and should not be contorted to produce a pedestrian soundbite.
The overrepresentation of black men in prison continues to be a problem
Trends over the last 10 years reveal long-standing racial disparities in sentencing and incarcerating black men in the U.S. According to the Department of Justice, there were 841,000 black men in jail and prisons in 2009, 49,400 more than there were in 2000; however, the rate of incarceration dropped slightly. Although the rate increase among white males was higher during that time period, the current rate for black males is still almost seven times that of white males. In 2009, black males represented 40 percent of the total male prison population, compared with 45 percent in 2000.
In many ways, propagandizing "Cellblocks or Classrooms?" the report that started the myth, led to the black community missing an opportunity to deal with a pressing issue. Beyond the numerical flaws, "Cellblocks or Classrooms?" argued for responsible allocation of public resources from state and federal governments. Recent evidence suggests that priorities to incarcerate compete against priorities to educate. Louisiana, the state with the highest rate of incarceration among males, has the lowest percentage of black males who have completed college (9 percent).
Other states with low percentages of black males who completed college (9 to 10 percent), including Mississippi, Arkansas and South Carolina, also had incarceration rates well above the national average. By contrast, Vermont, the state with the highest percentage of black males with college degrees (46 percent), has one of the lowest incarceration rates.
We might miss an opportunity again. Recently, a new popular soundbite has emerged. The line "More black men are in prison today than were enslaved in 1850" has become the favorite takeaway from a remarkable book called "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander. Alfred Edmond Jr. explained the flaws in such a statement in his article for Black Enterprise, so I won't repeat them here.
Instead, I'll offer lines from an article I wrote last year that focus the problem away from black men and onto the system:
After the dust settled from the Iran-Contra scandal, the War on Drugs continued to function as the middle passage between poor black neighborhoods and prison industries that thrived on cheap prison labor. Inmates with better health and lower security risk typically worked for a prison industry called UNICOR for about 23 cents per hour. In 2008, UNICOR reported $854.3 million in sales, nearly twice their earnings of 1996. From this, one can surmise that a system that gives longer prison sentences to less violent offenders can generate a healthy profit.
No, this is not as easy to say or digest, but it is a more accurate depiction of the link between slavery and the prison industrial complex. Read "The New Jim Crow" to get a clearer perspective on the systemic challenges and policy solutions for mass incarceration among black males.
"This has negative effects on both ends, as teachers formulate stereotypes about black male students, and these students fight less to battle those stereotypes. The result is the academic failure of black male students who feel as though the school system failed them long before they gave up on the system." –White female teacher, New York City
I remember showing the film "Bring Your 'A' Game" to a group of black male high school students in Harrisburg, Pa. In the movie, narrator Mario Van Peebles emphatically states, "There are more black men in prison than in college – that's a fact!"
When the movie concluded, I asked the young men to react to that specific line. Their response was sullen and disappointed. When I told them the real numbers, their mood immediately changed to hopeful and inspired. Producer Clarence L. Terry shared similar experiences with young men in his movie "Expectations of the System."
In addition, the idea that we are losing black males in college to the criminal-justice system leads to the erroneous conclusion that violence-prevention and gang-abatement programs will increase college enrollment among black males. Merely achieving college enrollment levels that exceed incarceration is not an acceptable objective. Black males need programs – like honors and Advanced Placement classes, academic advisement and academic clubs – to help them excel in school and graduate from college.
Conclusion, context, dissection and the surge of white women in prison
According to the Department of Justice, between 2000 and 2009 the rate increase among white women in jails and prisons was greater than any other race-gender group. During the 10-year period, the rate of incarceration decreased for black men by 0.6 percent, decreased for black women by 12 percent and increased for white women by 44 percent. In 2000 there were more black women in prison than any other race of women. By 2009, at 92,100, the white female prison population was nearly as high as the black female (64,800) and Hispanic female (32,300) prison populations combined.
These are factual statements, but skeptics will point out that because of "regression toward the mean," percent changes are illusive in comparisons between the large starting point of the black male incarceration rate and the small starting point of the white female incarceration rate. However, a 44 percent rate increase is not a complete anomaly, and many who work within the prison system attribute the gains to the rise of crystal meth use among poor rural white women.
Dissecting and contextualizing stats pertaining to white people is natural. We should apply the same diligence when seeking to understand stats about black people. The prison-to-college population comparison, from its onset, has been dubious because it essentially compares college life, a time- and age-restricted experience, with prison life, a condition with an unlimited range of sentences and ages.
The census estimates that approximately 17,945,068 people in the U.S. population are black males, of all ages. Among them, about 6.3 percent are in college, and 4.7 percent are in prison. The remaining 89 percent have already finished college, already served a prison sentence, have a life trajectory that does not involve college or prison or are too young for either to apply.
A young advocate for social justice named Derecka Purnell once asked me, "How do you balance your research on black male achievement with a possible decrease in urgency to help black boys?"
My response was, "Urgency based on hyperbole and conjecture should decrease. Urgency based on truth and compassion will endure."