While Barak Obama a Black male was recently re-elected for president many African American men without a high school diploma, being in prison or jail is more common than being employed - a sobering reality that calls into question post-Civil Rights era social gains.
Nearly 70 percent of young Black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lives, and poor Black men with low levels of education make up a disproportionate share of incarcerated Americans. In her book Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress, sociologist Becky Pettit demonstrates another vexing fact of mass incarceration: most national surveys do not account for prison inmates, a fact that results in a misrepresentation of U.S. political, economic, and social conditions in general and Black progress in particular.
Invisible Men provides an eye-opening examination of how mass incarceration has concealed decades of racial inequality. The book examines the hidden ways incarceration impacts our perception of African American advancement in mainstream measures of voter turnout, educational attainment, and employment. Most national population surveys including the U.S. Census fail to count prison inmates, who are disproportionately young Black males.
Pettit’s research shows that these methods have rendered the inmate population invisible. As a result, mass incarceration and our failure to acknowledge it in our data sets has effectively overstated Black progress in the United States and concealed persistent racial inequality in political engagement, wage growth, educational attainment and other areas.
On the day Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, Pettit said, “there was hope that perhaps the U.S. was becoming a post-racial society.” But it wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now with his re-election. The gap between Blacks and whites remains wide in employment, income, wealth, and health. The unemployment rate and the employment-to-population ratio reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics are based on a survey of households - people “who are not inmates of institutions (for example, penal and mental facilities and homes for the aged) and who are not on active duty in the Armed Forces.”
The reported figures are bad enough. The employment/population ratio for Black males aged 16-24 was 33 percent in August, vs. 52 percent for white males of the same age group. But the Black number is skewed upward by the exclusion of jail and prison inmates. The white number is also skewed upward, but less so because a smaller share of young white males are incarcerated. We’ve developed a distorted idea of how young, Black men are faring says Pettit.
By excluding incarcerated Americans, the 2008 Current Population Survey: Underestimated racial inequality in the high school dropout rate by 75 percent; overstated the employment rate of young, Black male dropouts as 42 percent, while the employment rate is 26 percent when inmates are included; and 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.”
A crucial complement to The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander which argued that mass incarceration replaced segregation as a system of social control the book’s findings have implications for the upcoming election and beyond. They call into question what strides African Americans have made in recent decades and during President Obama’s time in office and assumptions about Black voter engagement. They also raise questions about which types of policies would best address entrenched social and economic problems.