Everyone already knew that things were bad for black men–the high unemployment rates, the low high school graduation rates, etc., but it turns out things are probably even worse than you thought. Becky Pettit, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, has written a new book, titled Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress, which lifts the veil on the myth of black progress.
In a conference call with reporters, Pettit said that society had “developed a distorted idea” of how young black men are faring. The distortion began in the mid-70s when the number of prison inmates began to snowball. Data used to determine the unemployment rate and the employment to population ration reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics are based on a survey of households; the survey does not consider people who are inmates of institutions, such as prisons or mental health facilities. Because black men are over-represented in the prison population as compared to their proportion in the general population, this dramatically skews the veracity of the claims government surveys make about the progress of American blacks.
According to Pettit’s calculations, the Bureau of Labor Statistics underestimate racial inequality in the high school dropout rate by 75 percent; overstate the employment rate of young, black male dropouts as 42 percent, while the employment rate is 26 percent when inmates are included; overestimated overall black voter turnout by 13 percent and turnout among young, black male dropouts by 64.2 percent.
“By systematically excluding inmates and former inmates from key data, we’ve clouded our understanding of the American political, economic and social condition,” says Pettit. “I hope that by bringing the mass of incarcerated people into public view, the book will give the public, social scientists and policymakers a more complete picture of our contemporary reality—and influence public policy debates accordingly.”
Jamila Akil is a senior editor at Beyond Black and White. Follow her on Twitter @jamilaakil or email her at jamilathewriter-at-gmail-dot-com.