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October 03, 2005

Stats and Morals

A long time ago, I used to deal with the Angry White Male phonomenon in a confrontational manner. Today I saw some statistics that reminded me of those bad old days:

6. Black Men Are Disproportionately Incarcerated 5 million: Number of men of any race who have ever served time in state or federal prison in 2001 1.9 million: Number of black men who have ever served time in state or federal prison as of 2001 704,000: Number in 1979 630,700: Number of white men in prison or jail 818,900: Number of black men in prison or jail 195,500: Number of black men ages 18-24 in prison or jail 17: Percentage of black men who have ever served time in prison

But before I deal with any puny fractions here, I want to make a note of the difference between a statistical concern and a moral concern. As followers of the Bennett controversy should know by now, what is rational in utilitarian terms is not always rational in moral terms. The reverse is true as well. What is dismissible in utilitarian terms is not always dismissible in moral terms.

Still, I'm going to stress the stats.

As we have long known, those of us who follow Ellis Cose, blackfolks who have nothing to do with crime or criminality are always being unfairly asked to be accountable for the legendary disproportionality. Whenever I hear that argument I say that in order to be consistent, black should be disproportionately commended for the good. It usually it doesn't work, but it depends upon the aim of the interlocutor. Just as this 17% figure tends to show up when the subject is crime, I like to shoot back the 30% figure with regards to black enlistment in the armed forces. 'We' may be overrepresented in jail, but our overreprentation in patriotic duty is way more impressive, statistically speaking. Of course it never seems to have the moral sway it should with the sorts of folks who bring up the 17%. I wonder why.

Even so, it should be a cursory bit of knowledge that there are about 36 million or so blackfolks in this country now, roughly half of which are men. So while it's fun to toss around the idea that 17% of prisoners are black, those 17% are only (given the figures above) about 4.5% of black American males. In other words, 95.5% of us aren't. So when has 4.5% of a population become the responsibility of the rest, or justified some characterization of the rest?

Let me put it this way, let's take a similar statistic about gay men.

Only 6 percent of men in the NCHS study reported engaging in oral or anal sex with another man during their lifetimes, while the percentage of men reporting same-sex sexual behavior in the CUNY-Queens College study fluctuated over the years between 3.5 and 5.5 percent.

So imagine that I as a man asked for advice about my marriage, and you know that since about 4.5% of men are homosexual, you start talking about what gay men do. It's something I think very few people would suggest, but the relative statistics are the same. This is why I tend to get incensed when matters of African American politics and culture touch the waters of jail and crime stats. Let's see if this rhetorical device works for me in the future.

In the meantime note that while the statistical percentages suggest that this problem be pushed off to the side, there is a larger moral issue at hand - which is the issue of crime and punishment itself. Surely only a few of any society are criminal, but they will continue to get a disporportionate amount of our political attention, and rightly so.

So the next time I say bah and humbug to any discussion about black crime, understand where I'm coming from. I don't even *know* any black men in jail.

Posted by mbowen at October 3, 2005 10:11 PM

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There are more black males age 18-24 in college than in jail. Let's keep reminding our black boys.

Posted by: brotherbrown [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 4, 2005 02:44 PM

Ya know, I have to agree with you. I do know a couple brothers that have gone to jail but I don't know anyone in prison. The majority of brothers are trying to do what everyone else is trying to do - make a living. I didn't get my self into a hissy fit over his comment because I know in 60 days another white man will say something stupid and I just don't have the time to deal with it. Maybe after the football season but not while I'm trying to hope my beloved Bears into the playoffs.

Posted by: James Manning at October 4, 2005 06:48 PM

Easily one of your more lucid posts.

Posted by: Negrorage [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 6, 2005 05:36 AM

Here's the thing, while incarcerated black men constitute a minority of all black folk, there is more to the statistical representation than meets the eye. Take the following:

Incarceration Rate: number of prisoners per 100,000 people.

Black: 4,919
Latino: 1,717
White: 717

There may be some merit to your statistical findings, but there is something here worth discussing. It is certainly not a genetic link between crime and race, but it may have something to do with incarceration, criminal justice, economic development, community responsibility, etc. So, to my mind, the statistics suggest a deeper look.

Posted by: Temple3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 12, 2005 05:46 AM

One final note: the statistics don't seem to bear out your position regarding military service either. .72 percent of the nation's black population, an estimate, are on active military duty. .38% of the nation's white population are on active military duty. While there is significant disproportionality here, it does not resemble the 6.8 to 1 ratio in the incarceration rates. I get your point - and don't wholly disagree, but I believe you'll need a stronger empirical base if you wish to strengthen your rhetorical efforts. I hope this helps to clarify some of the resistance in "the popular mind" to what you're advocating.

Posted by: Temple3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 12, 2005 06:05 AM

So, that's roughly 275,000 black folk in the military and more than 870,000 behind someone's bars. Hmmm. 2.2 million in college (male and female - 2000 Census).

Here's the second problem...the 2000 census reported only 787,036 black folk with bachelor's degrees older than the age of 25. further, 389,656 held advanced/professional degrees. It would seem, then, that the incarcerated male group is exceedingly large.

Sure, stats are complicated, but we need to look deeper. I can't say this qualifies as one of your more lucid posts - but I have truly enjoyed the Greensboro stuff.

Posted by: Temple3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 12, 2005 06:53 AM

The approach I would take would be to be a time series analysis within the framework of an international sample. Such a thing, I think would be impossible for a lack of data. But the appropriate comparison would be the track of emergence comparing the American Negro to other ethnic groups within their countries.

It is my contention that the Negro Problem has been appropriately adjudicated through the application of laws enforcing anti-discrimination. When similar laws have been passed in other countries, how fast have the standards of living been raised? Admittedly, this is Thomas Sowell's domain and I believe that he contends that African American resistance to assimilation is a drag on black success. I agree with him with a couple qualifications. A) That America allows more degrees of anarchic freedom than other societies. You can be a hippie or a bum more successfully here than anywhere else. B) That black vs white is not a good standard of comparison.

The overall point I am trying to make in this and in the Drug War post is that I believe many people are using very wrong proxies to establish the baselines of what they see as 'the' black political interest. To the extent this has a material effect on the net migration from the politics of civil rights to the politics of social power, blacks will be retarded in their progress as will perceptions of them.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 12, 2005 07:47 AM

I think your final point is definitely true. The CRM is a perfect example of that. For all its successes, the longstanding quest for economic vitality (through Washington, Garvey and others) has been subsumed by a "broader" political question. The limitations of the political approach should be as clear as the benefits. I would suggest, however, that empirically, you would remain hard pressed to argue enforcement of anti-discrimination. Similarly, Sowell would be hard pressed to argue that assimilation is an option (whether chosen or not) for more than a small percentage of black folk. It remains a central tenet, but the question of how many and to what end remains unanswered. That notwithstanding, I agree with points A and B.

The politics of social power is not what I've been discussing - and I would venture to say that it's far from what nulan has been discussing. Similarly, the politics of civil rights are far flung from the central concern. This is beginning to smell like common ground, but I believe you may have linked my opinions with other folks - without recognizing or fully appreciating the points of nuance and divergence.

In any case, arguing empirically against the significance of incarceration rates for black men is akin to suggesting that the Empire State Building is really a charming duplex. Books like Smoke and Mirrors provide a detailed glimpse into the demographic, policy-implementation, electoral-political, financial-political and social will/malice associated with these phenomena. The role that criminalized narco-trafficking and situational policing play in this discourse is well documented. I believe you've already had a discussion about those numbers.

What remains unclear to me is the extent to which you disregard these numbers and why. In other words, what is your worst case scenario with respect to the retardation of "black progress" and external perceptions of black folk - as it relates to focused initiatives aimed at cultivating leadership and expertise beyond the realm of athletics and entertainment? That, to me, is the unanswered question.

Posted by: Anonymous at October 12, 2005 08:05 AM

that was my post - i guess i was logged out.

Posted by: Temple3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 12, 2005 08:06 AM

It's hard to disambiguate text. One day we'll have to have dinner.

I am struck by the extent to which youth culture is much less racially conflicted in this generation as it was in mine. So I have a great deal of confidence that youth are more well integrated than in the 'crossover generation'. Further, the integration of Asians, especially here on the west coast has further diluted the black white conflict inherent in the dealings of an older generation.

So I expect that the trappings of hegemonic white supremacy are a monster that only inhabits the dreams and desires of a few and that youth have figured their own way out of a maze which ensnares too many others.

I am simply not impressed with the idea that tropes of crime and punishment should be central to the politics of social power or the mainstream. Rather, it is the orientation of the people towards economics that should be stressed. Put another way, in any other country on the planet, there are corrupt cops and crowded jails, but the American opportunity is that there are a zillion ways to make a living. So if our politics, and more importantly, our attitude towards citizenship and belonging in the nation is primarily guided by a defensive posture against law enforcement, there are great opportunity costs.

Indeed I find that white racists are only too eager to engage the black politics of crime and punishment and focus on these matters only reinforce an essentialist argument about race. There's no profit in that. There is certainly a moral battle to be fought on this front, but it has little priority with me, especially considering the permanent nature of safety (all things being equal) that relative affluence provides in this society as a prophylactic against the effects of DWB. Even OJ Simpson proves that.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 12, 2005 10:46 AM

next time you're in nyc...i have about a million places you'd love - brooklyn or manhattan. i'm sure you probably have a long list of favorites as well.

i will say that back east and in the midwest, neither the asian nor latino collectives have been able to dilute the conflict...moreover, the social issues that typically impact teenagers were the first casualties of america's attempt at apartheid...the secondary and tertiary levels of adequate education, housing and employment will be felt as these folks enter their late 20's and early 30's and so on. Many will be "carried" by an extended family - those not as many as a generation ago.

"I am simply not impressed with the idea that tropes of crime and punishment should be central to the politics of social power or the mainstream. Rather, it is the orientation of the people towards economics that should be stressed." - I would agree with that, but it sounds substantially different than suggesting these numbers are not significant and worthy of some significant attention. Moreover, in suggesting the international, one must consider the absolutely disproportionate number of Americans of all groups in prison today. The number are simply out of relationship to all pretensions about democracy, freedom-loving, law-abiding folks...something else is afoot. It is not as simple as Americans have more police so they arrest more people. It is more involved and to that extent, it transcends race.

"So if our politics, and more importantly, our attitude towards citizenship and belonging in the nation is primarily guided by a defensive posture against law enforcement, there are great opportunity costs." - You'll have to lay out an alternative that at least addresses an adequate dose of prevention. In other words, the ACTIVE politics of firms to deepen public subsidy to the development of prisons has consequences. Incarceration rates and criminal enforcement are closely related POLITICAL activities. What the black community, and most importantly white folk, have not called for is an all-out war on white folks using cocaine and these other harmful drugs. The nation has been down this road before - and it took southern politicians raising the spectre of coked-up black folk rampaging on white men and women to usher in the criminalization of cocaine...but back then, it didn't lead to wholesale incarceration of white folk. In New York State, prisons are about jobs for upstate, suburban, rural New York, about identity politics and about ensuring a captive population from city centers like New York, Rochester, Buffalo , Yonkers and Syracuse.

by the way, OJ Simpson was last an example of relative affluence when he walked onto the SC campus. Once he became the starting TB at that school, he became an example of EXTREME CELEBRITY and TREMENDOUS WEALTH - and his proclivity to engage blondes and denounce cultural imperatives sealed his membership as a honorary outsider...his foray resulting in nigrata nongrata status, notwithstanding, he hardly demonstrates rubberized limitations on DWB. At the least, you could quote some numbers on the situational deployment of racial profiling - but that's just it - it ain't situational.

Posted by: Temple3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 12, 2005 01:33 PM