Retire the Myth: Black Men, Jail and College

Show Me the Numbers: More on the falsehood and how it’s caused a missed opportunity to solve real issues.


(The Root) — “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 sound bite.

The Overrepresentation of Black Men in Prison Continues to Be a Problem

Trends (pdf) 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 sound bite 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.