When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, the nation celebrated an incredible milestone: the first black president of the United States. We were right to celebrate — there’s no question that we’ve come a long way since the beginning of the civil rights movement to the reelection of the first black president.

(Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

Indeed, the incarcerated population — disproportionately young, black and male — are the new invisible men.

The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other society in recorded history. In 2008, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported that more than two million inmates were behind bars. We have more men and women incarcerated than the top 36 European nations combined — including Russia. And over the past 35 years, the number of Americans behind bars has increased five-fold. Today, one in 31 American adults is under some form of correctional supervision.

Nowhere is incarceration more prevalent than in the African American community. According to an estimate by the Bureau of Justice Statistics , one in three black men will serve time in prison over their lifetimes. My own research shows that one in nine black men was incarcerated on any given day in 2008, and that a full 37 percent of young, black, male high school dropouts were behind bars. In the course of that research, I noticed something strange: The results suggested that more young, black men who had dropped out of high school had been to prison than were alive. How could that be?

It turns out that my collaborator, Bryan Sykes, and I had stumbled on a major glitch in how we collect data about the American population: Prison and jail inmates are simply not included in many of the most important population surveys. That’s a glaring oversight that generates a misleading snapshot of America and overstates the educational, political and economic progress of black Americans. This collective blindness has effectively concealed decades of racial inequality, undermining social science research and leading to misguided policy.

Just how wrong are the numbers we’ve been using?

In 2008, the Current Population Survey — a monthly survey conducted by the Census Bureau — placed the high school dropout rate of young black men at 13.5 percent — evidence of a decline in the black-white gap in high school completion over the past few decades. But if you include prison inmates, the estimate of the nationwide high school dropout rate among young black men is actually 19 percent — 40 percent higher than conventional estimates suggest.

The revised data point to a stunning reality: There has, in fact, been no improvement in the gap in high school graduation rates between white and black male students since the early 1990s. On the contrary, the gap in high school completion has hovered close to its current level of 11 percentage points for most of the past 20 years. 

Most estimates of employment and wages are similarly skewed. Wages of young black men have seen little improvement relative to the wages of white Americans since the mid-1980s. The economic boom of the 1990s did not trickle down to high school dropouts, as some pundits and scholars imagine. In 2008, when 19 percent of young black men did not finish high school, black male dropouts were more likely to be in prison or jail than to be employed.

They have not only lost ground in the employment and educational spheres; their voices are also being drowned out in the political arena. Mass incarceration artificially inflates our perception of voter turnout among black men, as inmates and former inmates are often excluded in surveys used to measure trends in voting. When they are added back into the equation, it becomes clear that the idea that young black men are now more engaged with politics is an illusion.

For example, Obama’s candidacy in 2008 was linked to record high turnout among young African Americans. But when incarceration rates are accounted for, only one in five young black male dropouts voted in the 2008 election. A nearly identical fraction turned out in 1980 to choose between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.

Social scientists depend on good data to explain inequality: the systemic conditions that allow some groups to prosper while other struggle to get by. And policymakers depend on good data to address it.

Unfortunately, the way we’ve been collecting data not only renders certain Americans invisible, but also misrepresents the progress we’ve made in creating a more equitable society. It’s blind spot that none of us — researchers, policymakers, or voters — can afford to maintain.

Becky Pettit is professor of sociology at the University of Washington and the author of “Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress,” published in September by the Russell Sage Foundation.

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