Of the woes befalling the United States, the one that poisoned the country for two centuries appears to be on the wane. There is a black President. There is a large and growing black middle class. And, after almost 50 years of legal equality, the economic, educational and political experiences of the 12 per cent of Americans who are descendants of slaves are converging with the rest of the country.
Or so it appears – after all, the statistics show 20 years of growing equality. But a few American scholars are asking an alarming question: What if the statistics are wrong? What if, instead of solving its greatest social problem, the United States has quite literally removed the victims of inequality from public records and put them in a box?
It first became apparent that something was wrong when the sociologist Becky Pettit tried to answer a relatively simple question: Of American men born between 1975 and 1979, how many had spent time in prison? The official statistics gave her an answer that was impossible: that “more young, black, low-skill men had been to prison than were alive.”
That made Dr. Pettit realize a fundamental flaw in the way the United States understands itself. All of the data used to measure the social well-being of the country, from the national census on downward, is collected by surveying households. It does not count anyone who is not in a household – that is, who is in military service, in medical institutions or in prison.
Up until the 1980s, that distinction was mostly insignificant. But then, starting with the hyperbolic sentencing policies of Ronald Reagan, the U.S. prison system expanded at an astonishing rate. Before, prison was for violent and repeat offenders. After the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 broadened its use, the prison population expanded fivefold.
The United States now has, by a wide margin, the highest incarceration rate in the world. There are 2.3 million Americans in prison or jail, more than three in 100 Americans are in the penal system – and half of those are black. More than 8 per cent of black men, and an astonishing 37 per cent of black men without high-school education, are in prison. By 18, one quarter of all black American children will have seen one of their parents behind bars.
Prison has now supplanted education and welfare as the main social service provided to the disenfranchised. Blacks are seven times more likely than whites to be in prison. It’s self-perpetuating, because imprisonment increases rates of criminality, poverty, educational failure and family breakup.
But Americans do not see these effects. Prisoners don’t appear on the census, the unemployment-rate, educational-attainment records or the voting rolls.
What happens if you include them? That is exactly what Dr. Pettit has done in her new book, Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress.
In short, many of the gains in racial equality during the past 20 years are erased completely if you include the full American black population.
The black high-school dropout rate, if you include the population behind bars, is 40 per cent higher than it would be otherwise. That means that “black men have experienced no improvement in high-school completion rates since the early 1990s.”
The jobless rate among young, black, male high-school dropouts more than doubles if you include the prison population, and the employment gap between blacks and whites, which officially has narrowed since 1980, has actually increased by 16 per cent.
Likewise, it turns out there has been no improvement in wage inequality since the early 1990s. In 1980, black American men earned 52 cents per capita for every dollar earned by white men. In 2008, if you include the incarcerated, that was 28 cents.
And voter turnout, thought to have been four percentage points higher among blacks than whites in 2008, is in fact more than six points lower.
There genuinely have been great gains for black Americans with education. But instead of expanding these gains, the United States has used prisons to freeze half the black population out of them. Canada is in danger of doing the same to its native population under new tough-on-crime laws – and as the U.S. example shows, sticking a country’s social problems in a box does not make them go away.