With the presidential election in full swing, and other politicians battling for congressional seats around the country, 2012 has seen more attention than usual paid to the plight of African-Americans. That’s not to say that politicians are actually, earnestly interested in helping Black communities, but many of them are at least saying they are in an effort to court the Black vote.
All that extra attention means that many people are more aware than they’ve been in a long time of Blacks’ current woes: unemployment, poverty, few educational opportunities. We know about these things and we hear about them all the time, from media outlets, of course, and from our own friends and family, as well. Chances are that, in this economy, you probably know someone who’s lost a house, been laid off or is now struggling to put food on the table. Things are bad, and we know that. Sadly, it turns out that we may not have the whole truth about just how bad they are.
According to Becky Pettit, a sociology professor at the University of Washington and the author of the new book Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress, America’s prison industrial complex is responsible for skewing some of America’s most important statistics when it comes to Black men. Unemployment rates and the like are statistics put together by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which surveys households for its data. But because Black men are disproportionately incarcerated at such high rates, Pettit argues that large chunks of data about them are missing from these surveys.
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.
Obviously, we need to find ways to get African-American men into more decent jobs to better help them lift themselves, their families and their communities out of poverty. That’s a given. That being said, there’s something deeply wrong with the fact that people are saying that the number of Black men in jail and mental facilities means we can’t get an accurate measurement of the Black community’s struggles anymore. Perhaps we’re arresting far too many non-violent offenders — like people busted with some marijuana, for instance — and throwing them in jail for years?
We’ve all got a lot to work on when it comes to aiding the progress of Black men, but the criminal justice system needs a lot of self-improvement, too.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)