For every 100 white women age 25 to 54 not in jail, there are 99 white men. For every 100 black women 25-54 out of jail, the equivalent number of black men is 83. That means that for this age group, more than one out of six black men have disappeared from their communities.
The figures come from a New York Times analysis published this week. I recommend it. There’s plenty more to consider, but as the Times put it:
It is a measure of the deep disparities that continue to afflict black men – disparities being debated after a recent spate of killings by the police – and the gender gap is itself a further cause of social ills, leaving many communities without enough men to be fathers and husbands.
Minor differences between the races – premature death, census undercounting – account for one or two of the 16 “disappeared” black men. The overwhelming disparity is attributable to incarceration.
Demographers have long noted racial discrepancies in crime and sentencing. According to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the incarceration rate (people in prison and jail per 100,000 population) was 161 in 1972 and 707 in 2012, a total of 2.23 million people. But the imprisonment rate for blacks was 4.6 times that for whites.
There is little correlation between crime and imprisonment. Rates of violent crime including murder have plummeted over the past 20 years (as I wrote last week), while the imprisoned population has soared. We’ve made a political choice based on fear and separation – that long sentences, mandatory minimums, “three strikes” – will make us safer. They don’t, they just make us harsher (we have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its inmates). And if the idea is to lock up people until they’re too old to commit another crime, that’s not an efficient use of either people or money. Our prison budget is $60 billion a year.
For both black and white, the difference between going to prison or not is education, the NAS concluded. In 1972 and 2012, a tiny fraction of 1 percent of whites with at least some college were incarcerated. For blacks, the percentage for both years was about 2 percent. For white high school dropouts, the share behind bars climbed from 2 percent to 13 percent; for black dropouts, the share mushroomed from 6 percent to 35 percent.
It would be scratching the surface to conclude that incarceration exacerbates social, racial and political inquality, jeopardizing our aspirations for a democracy of, by and for the people. Consider the surface scratched. As the Times concluded, 1.5 million of us are not part of the fabric of society. We are truly disappeared.
So when Chief Justice Roberts writes, as he did in a 2007 decision striking down Seattle’s method of mitigating racial disparities in its schools, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” he’s missing something about the country over which he presides.