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Originally published March 14, 2012 at 8:49 PM | Page modified March 14, 2012 at 8:48 PM

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Discovering an invisible population

A UW professor says black-white gaps are much larger than they seem.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Book information

"Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress": Becky Pettit, Russell Sage Foundation,

June release

"The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness": Michelle

Alexander, The New Press,

312 pages, $19.95

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We ought to be used to bubbles bursting, the dot-com bubble, the housing bubble. Wherever illusion exists, eventually truth injects a deflating needle.

Now comes a book that declares the appearance that gaps are closing between white and black Americans is, in many instances, a mirage.

Becky Pettit, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington says that because there are so many black men in prison, and because they are not accounted for in many studies, we are not seeing the country clearly.

Her book about that, "Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress," is due out in June, but she's been speaking about the ideas at its core for the past few years.

Pettit told me that about four years ago she was investigating the risk of spending time in prison, which is especially high for young black men who haven't graduated from high school. She saw that they weren't showing up in other data.

Social scientists were producing reports about Americans based on the studies such as the monthly federal Current Population Survey, which gathers data only from people living in households. She said the data gives a mostly accurate picture, but not when it comes to black men because of the disproportionately large number incarcerated (about 40 percent of the prison population). Taking them out of the equation changes how we see black people as a group.

There is no doubt that progress has been made on many fronts, but it looks better when the least successful aren't counted.

Much has been written about the criminalization of young black men, beginning with disproportionate punishment in schools. Maybe you've read the recent indictment of the criminal-justice system, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." But Pettit, who has also written about the inequalities in the system, is talking this time about the effect of not counting the black prison population. When prisoners are fully counted, what looks like progress in lowering dropout rates evaporates.

And she said it was reported that voting by young black men reached a record level in 2008, but if you factor in the increase in the black prison population the voting level is the same as it was in the 1980 election.

That may not be important to political parties because prisoners can't vote, but she said it should concern anyone who cares about democratic engagement.

Black voting power is eroded by mass imprisonment.

Earnings comparisons also look much worse when you take into account black people in prison.

The past three decades haven't been as good as they seemed in many ways.

Most Americans thought the middle-class dream was healthy even as maintaining it became more difficult, supported at first by a single wage earner, then two, then borrowing. Life looked good. Few saw the rot underneath until the floor caved in.

Well, we're not done digging out hidden weaknesses.

Pettit said our view of the nation may also be missing undocumented immigrants, children in foster care, and others who don't have stable homes.

The issue of Census undercounts of certain groups has been raised for years, but this is something beyond that. In this case we're talking about populations we aren't even trying to include in many kinds of government reports.

The data we use affects how we understand a whole range of issues — education, incarceration, politics. And it means we craft social policies in the absence of crucial information.

If we overestimate how much progress is being made, we may walk away from addressing significant problems before they are, in fact, solved.

Pettit said, "I'm arguing, let's take stock of the limitations (of current data) and ask how do we do this better."

Pettit said she took the title of her book from Ralph Ellison's classic novel, "Invisible Man." Her work reflects something he wrote in the prologue: "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me."

Ellison's book was published in 1952. Maybe we've made enough progress since then to welcome a call to see our country more clearly.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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