By many counts, the lives of African-Americans in the United States have progressed since the Civil Rights era. National surveys show narrowing over the past few decades of gaps between blacks and whites in education and employment. There’s a growing black middle class and a black president.
The surveys also suggest a smaller racial gap in voting, and many credit a large turnout of black voters for President Barack Obama’s 2008 election.
But when Becky Pettit, a sociology professor at the University of Washington, took a closer look at the numbers, she found that most measures exclude 2.3 million Americans in prisons and jails.
“A disproportionate number of these individuals are black men with little education, whose exclusion from social surveys gives the illusion that black people in America have achieved more than they actually have,” Pettit said.
She describes her findings and their social consequences in “Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress,” a book published this month by Russell Sage Foundation. The title is a nod to Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, “Invisible Man.”
Federal surveys such as the monthly Current Population Survey rely on data collected from individuals living in households, which does not include those who are incarcerated, on parole, in the military or in mental hospitals.
When Pettit factored in inmates, she found that young black men without a high school diploma are more likely to be in prison or jail than have a job, and that nearly 70 percent of young black men without a high school diploma will be imprisoned at some point in their lives.
Standard surveys underestimate high school dropout rates for young black men by 40 percent, Pettit found.
“Including inmates, we find little improvement in the black-white gap in high school completion for the last 20 years,” she wrote in “Invisible Men.”
When inmates are included, employment rates for young, black men with less than a high school degree have decreased by half since 1980. In 2008, 25 percent of all jobless black men under 35 were in prison or jail, compared with 9 percent of young white men.
With more young black men unemployed due to incarceration, the black-white gap in earnings grew too. Pettit calculates that in 2008, average earnings by blacks were 30 cents for every dollar earned by whites.
Since most inmates are ineligible to vote, mass incarceration of black men has affected their participation in democracy. Pettit found that 48.6 percent of all young black men, including inmates, voted in the 2008 presidential election. Without including inmates, it appeared that 55 percent of young, black men voted – a statistic that led many to attribute Obama’s victory to a large turnout of black voters.
“Although blacks who voted in the 2008 presidential election supported President Obama by wide margins, a large fraction of black men were ineligible to vote because they were incarcerated. It is likely that even more will be ineligible for the 2012 election,” Pettit said.
Other consequences of incarceration, such as higher divorce rates, greater economic hardship for families of inmates and poor health status, are also obscured by omitting prison inmates from social surveys.
Pettit argues that shifts in criminal justice policy over the past few decades – not increases in crime – have led to greater incarceration of young black men.
“In any single case it is easy to point to crimes committed and the need to lock a person up,” she said. “But after decades of doing just that, when we step back and look at the criminal justice system as a whole, we can see that very clearly that it has become an institution that increasingly houses American’s most disadvantaged.”
For more information, contact Pettit at 312-988-6585 or firstname.lastname@example.org.