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.


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 (pdf), 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.”

Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is a tenured associate professor at Howard University, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education and contributing education editor for The Root. He can be contacted at Follow him on Twitter.

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