Monday, October 27, 2014

Rumor and Innuendo

A kind of rumor or urban myth has been going around for many years.  As a critical thinker, I pride myself on not being one to take these things at face value without doing some research.  The assertion in question is whether, as even then-Senator Barack Obama said in a 2007 speech, “we have more black men in prison than we have in our colleges.”

This bears looking into.  The belief that this is true gives already-prejudiced white people fuel for their convictions, gives unmotivated black high school students a reason to give up on their education and gives black women a reason to lament about the lack of eligible husbands and fathers.  The latter two groups are coaxed away from the idea of opportunity and toward the idea of being victims of the system.  This thought is dangerous and destructive, especially if it’s not true.  Much like Liza Doolittle, people tend to live up to or down to the expectations set for them by others and by themselves.

My first source contained an interesting chart that is reposted here.  The sources for the data on this chart are clearly printed as footnotes and appear to be legitimate.  The site points out that colleges changed the way they reported attendance in 2002, which may make the earlier numbers understated.  In any case, from that point and beyond, the data contradict that widely held belief.  It appears that consistently from 2003 on more black men are attending college than are incarcerated.

That alone is interesting, but taking it a step further, it would be more interesting to know how the number of black men in college compare to the number of black men of college age in prison.  For that information I sifted through the Bureau of Justice data and found everything I needed in one chart.  With the help of MS Excel I extracted the data from that chart and calculated the pertinent numbers (shown in bold).  The results show that in 2013 the number of black men in prison actually decreased from the 2010 numbers in the first chart and that those of college age were only about 1/7 of the total.  There are far more black men of college age in college than in prison!

It is true that black men are still disproportionately imprisoned, but young black men face enough challenges getting ahead in society without adding this sense of “piling on” as promoted by a negative belief that can so easily be shown to be erroneous.

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