More Black Men in Jail Than in College? Wrong

Show Me the Numbers: A 13-year-old report using questionable data gave rise to an enduring myth.

Students at a Morehouse College commencement (Getty); prisoners at the Avon Park Correctional Facility (Getty)

(The Root) -- What does the line "There are more black men in jail than in college" have in common with the Jheri curl? Answer: They were invented by white men (Jheri Redding and Vincent Schiraldi, respectively) and adopted enthusiastically by black people, and they left a nasty stain on the shoulders of millions of black men.

It's been more than 20 years since the Jheri curl faded away into infamy, and I'm proud to say that even in the 1980s, I never sported a curl. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about the line "There are more black men in jail than in college."

About six years ago I wrote, "In 2000, the Justice Policy Institute (JPI) found evidence that more black men are in prison than in college," in my first "Breaking Barriers" (pdf) report. At the time, I did not question the veracity of this statement. The statement fit well among other stats that I used to establish the need for more solution-focused research on black male achievement.

I was in good company. The same year, at a 2007 NAACP forum, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama said, "We have more work to do when more young black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America."

Both President Obama and I brought our own unique style to the line. I was deferential and academic, while President Obama was passionate and eloquent. In contrast, many people, like Charles Barkley, are reckless and aloof when they use the line. Recently he told Bob Costas, "You know, we as black people always, we don't have respect for one another. You know, we've got more black men in prison than we do in college, and crime in our neighborhoods is running rampant." In full context, Barkley was using the line to justify the need for armed defense against black men.

However, just as a Jheri curl would be wrong no matter how you dressed it up today, the line "There are more black men in jail than in college" is wrong no matter how you contextualize, qualify or articulate it.

Today there are approximately 600,000 more black men in college than in jail, and the best research evidence suggests that the line was never true to begin with. In this two-part entry in Show Me the Numbers, the Journal of Negro Education's monthly series for The Root, I examine the dubious origins, widespread use and harmful effects of what is arguably the most frequently quoted statistic about black men in the United States.

Basis for the Myth

More than 10 years ago, the Justice Policy Institute released the report "Cellblocks or Classrooms." While the report should have been a wake-up call to policymakers, one line resonated and echoed more than any other: "Nearly a third more African-American men are incarcerated than in higher education."

JPI has yet to acknowledge that today the enrollment of black males in college is drastically different from when it published "Cellblocks or Classrooms." If we replicated JPI's analysis by downloading enrollment data from the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Post‐Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS), we would find a 108.5 percent jump in black male college enrollment from 2001 to 2011. The raw numbers show that enrollment of black males increased from 693,044 in 2001 to 1,445,194 in 2011.