Barack Obama

Truthiness on Young Black Males in Prison Cells vs. College Dorms


The Washington Post Fact Checker column is an invaluable source on the truthiness of campaign rhetoric. Democratic presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John Edwards made headlines earlier this year with claims about the number of young black men in prison. As the Post Fact Checker recalls:

"The idea that we can keep incarcerating and keep incarcerating—pretty soon we're not going to have a young African-American male population in America. They're all going to be in prison or dead. One of the two."
–John Edwards, MTV political forum, September 27, 2007

"We have more work to do when more young black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America."
–Barrack Obama, NAACP forum, July 12, 2007.

According to the Fact Checker, these claims just ain't so. On Obama's college/prison claim:

According to 2005 Census Bureau statistics, the male African-American population of the United States aged between 18 and 24 numbered 1,896,000. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 106,000 African-Americans in this age group were in federal or state prisons at the end of 2005. See table 10 of this report. If you add the numbers in local jail (measured in mid-2006), you arrive at a grand total of 193,000 incarcerated young Black males, or slightly over 10 percent.

According to the same census data, 530,000 of these African-American males, or twenty eight percent, were enrolled in colleges or universities (including two-year-colleges) in 2005. That is five times the number of young black men in federal and state prisons and two and a half times the total number incarcerated. If you expanded the age group to include African-American males up to thirty or thirty five, the college attendees would still outnumber the prisoners.

On Edwards' claim that young black males will become an extinct population:

The problem, however, is that he made no effort to define his terms. He claimed that the "young African-American male population" is threatened with extinction. It is hardly the first time he has made such wild generalizations. In a March 2006 speech, Edwards made the following, equally sweeping and equally erroneous, statement: "Young African American men see their options as going to prison or dying. As a result, they don't invest in their education, they don't invest in their futures and when they father children, they don't support them."

Whew! If his fellow North Carolinian Jesse Helms had come up with a claim like that, he would never have been allowed to forget it.

As for violent deaths, we asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a list of the ten leading causes of death for black males, aged 18 to 24, in 2004. The top three causes of death in this age group were (1) homicide (2,140 deaths), unintentional injury (948 deaths), and suicide (332 deaths). Deaths from HIV AIDS ranked sixth (67 deaths.) If we add the homicide, suicide, and HIV deaths together, we get 2,539 deaths. That is a combined death rate from violent causes or AIDS of around 0.13 percent for this segment of the population. Hardly an epidemic.

As the Post Fact Checker notes, the situation is bad enough for young black men that it doesn't need to be exaggerated. One solution goes largely unmentioned by Obama and Edwards–if they really want to keep a lot of young black men (and others) out of prison, end the idiotic Drug War. According to Drug War Facts:

Of the 250,900 state prison inmates serving time for drug offenses in 2004, 133,100 (53.05%) were black, 50,100 (19.97%) were Hispanic, and 64,800 (25.83%) were white.

Whole excellent Post Fact Checker article here.