Last week, the Justice Policy Institute released a study that examined how states’ spending on corrections and higher education respectively had diverged over the last twenty years. The report particularly highlighted the effect of the relative changes on the male African American community. Indeed, the subhead of the press release ran “More African American Men Incarcerated Than Enrolled In College,” going on to say that “in 2000, there were an estimated 791,600 African American men in prison and jail, and 603,000 in higher education.”
There are several problems with this characterization: the figures are incorrect, the comparison is misleading and the result is what is obviously an unintended reinforcement of a negative stereotype that is damaging to African American men.
To begin with the figures, the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ publication “Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2000” does indeed estimate 791,600 African Americans in prison or jail at that time. However, the figures for African-American college enrollment, derived from the National Center for Education Statistics, look very different from the figures issued by the Census Bureau, which are used in the official government “data book,” the Statistical Abstract. Those figures show a total of 804,000 African-American males over the age of 17 enrolled in college in October 2000. It is unclear why there is such a vast difference, but the Census Bureau data is almost certainly more up-to-date, deriving as it does from the annual Current Population Survey.
Moreover, it is misleading to compare the number of African American men who are incarcerated with the simple number of college students. It is a simple fact that a man can go to prison at any age, but is far more likely to be in college between the ages of 18 and 24 than at any other time in his life. The more meaningful comparison here is to look at how many men of college age are enrolled in college or under custodial supervision. When the figures are broken down by age, a much different picture emerges, one that is much less helpful to the Justice Policy Institute’s case. There were 469,000 African American males between the ages of 18 and 24 who were enrolled in college in 2000, compared to 180,000 in prison or jail. An African American male of college age is therefore over two and a half times as likely to be in college than in prison. That is a significant difference.
What is perhaps most annoying about the way the Justice Policy Institute chose to present its figures is that it helps perpetuate the stereotype that a young African American male is likely to be a troublemaker or a jailbird. In fact, as a careful look at the figures shows, he is much more likely to be carrying books than a gun. Tremendous advances have been made in crime reduction in the African American community (the rate at which African Americans commit murder has halved since 1990), which should not be hidden by presentation of statistics that, however well intentioned, show that community in a negative light.
Moreover, by focusing on the respective numbers of African American males in college as opposed to prison or jail, the study ignores the huge differential in the numbers for females. There are 747,000 African American women aged 18-24 enrolled in college, but only 9,000 in prison or jail. Less than a decade ago, in 1994, there were only 561,000 African American women enrolled in college. That represents a 33 percent increase in only 6 years, despite the relative reductions in State education expenditure highlighted by the Justice Policy Institute. It also means that there is a total of 1,216,000 young African Americans in college, as opposed to 189,000 in custody. That is a huge disparity which should be very good news.
It seems likely, as the New York Times was careful to point out in its coverage of the story, that the relative increase in incarceration spending by the States in the ’80s and ’90s was fueled not by a desire to invest more in the war on drugs by locking up young black males than in their education, but by an actual increase in violent crime. Thankfully, that phase seems to be over. We should be happy that today’s young African Americans of both sexes are far more likely to be listening to an economics lecturer than to the barked orders of a corrections officer.