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The Myth of Black Progress - New Book Shows How Mass Incarceration Masks Persistent Racial Inequality

Submitted by News Desk on Wed, 09/05/2012 - 12:54pm
Zoe Bridges-Curry, (202) 560-5990,
Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress

New York, NY – The Russell Sage Foundation published a ground-breaking book today by sociologist Becky Pettit that calls into question the prevailing assumptions about black progress in the United States. Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress examines the hidden ways incarceration impacts our perception of African American advancement in mainstream measures of voter turnout, educational attainment, and employment.

Most national population surveys—including the U.S. Census— fail to count prison inmates, who are disproportionately young black males. Pettit’s research shows that these methods have rendered the inmate population invisible. As a result, mass incarceration—and our failure to acknowledge it in our data sets—has effectively overstated black progress in the United States and concealed persistent racial inequality in political engagement, wage growth, educational attainment, and other areas.

By adding incarcerated Americans back into the existing data, Pettit finds:

·         The black high school dropout rate in America may be much higher than widely believed. In fact, existing surveys have underestimated racial inequality in the high school dropout rate by 75 percent.

·         Contrary to conventional wisdom, the racial educational attainment gap may not have decreased in two decades. When inmates are included, the data shows little improvement in the black-white gap in high school since the early 1990s.

·         Disparities in employment rates are even worse than generally believed. The employment rate for young, black male dropouts is 26 percent when inmates are included, compared to 42 percent when they are excluded.

·         Data surveys for the 2008 election overestimated overall black voter turnout by 13 percent and turnout among young, black male dropouts by 64.2 percent.

“By systematically excluding inmates and former inmates from key data, we’ve clouded our understanding of the American political, economic and social condition,” says Pettit. “I hope that by bringing the mass of incarcerated people into public view, the book will give the public, social scientists and policymakers a more complete picture of our contemporary reality—and influence public policy debates accordingly.”

A crucial complement to The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which argued that mass incarceration replaced segregation as a system of social control, the book’s findings have implications for the upcoming election and beyond. They call into question what strides African Americans have made in recent decades—and during President Obama’s time in office—and assumptions about black voter engagement. They also raise questions about which types of policies would best address entrenched social and economic problems.

Becky Pettit is professor of sociology at the University of Washington. She is also the co-author of Gendered Tradeoffs (Russell Sage Foundation 2009), which examines how gender and family obligations influence economic inequalities in 21 advanced industrialized countries. Pettit is the Editor of Social Problems, the official journal of the Society of the Study of Social Problems, and a founding member of the Scholars Strategy Network. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton University and a B.A. in sociology from University of California at Berkeley.


The Russell Sage Foundation is the principal American Foundation devoted exclusively to research in the social sciences. Currently, the Foundation is dedicated to strengthening the methods, data, and theoretical core of the social sciences as a means of improving social policies. The Foundation is a research center for a select group of Visiting Scholars each year, a funding source for studies by scholars at other academic and research institutions, and an active member of the nation's social science community. The Foundation also publishes, under its own imprint, the books that derive from the work of its grantees and Visiting Scholars.