The Myth: Black Men in Prison vs College

I no longer wonder why myths about there being more black men in prison than in college got so much traction….

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Despite the statistics and credible studies, people believe it. In fact, they will fight you on the point. In 2003, according to Justice Department figures, 193,000 black college-age men were in prison, while 532,000 black college-age men were attending college. Ivory Toldson disputes the myth and says prior statistics were just wrong.

Yet folks are quick to believe it. Some are quick to believe it (and will fight you on the point) because they are racist and have a need to feel superior. But more often, I think the reason most people believe it is because of unconscious bias. Even some black people have an unconscious bias towards other black people. Consider this quote from Jessie Jackson:

“There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life, than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery—then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”‖ Quoted in Chicago Sun Times, Nov 29, 1993.

I think unconscious bias is even more pronounced when someone does not have interaction with certain people groups or interacts only with a small segment of a group. For example, if a lawyer only interacts with African Americans who have been in trouble with the legal system, then that lawyer might develop some unconscious bias towards African Americans (biases that make the lawyer think African Americans have a propensity towards being involved with the legal system or that they lack intelligence). He (or she) might think that African Americans are throw-away-able (“if he/she doesn’t get popped on this case, he/she will catch some time on the next case”). Such thinking might cause him to pressure someone into entering a plea on a questionable case or might cause him not to work as hard on a case.

The problem with not interacting with a certain people group is that it limits the information we receive about that people group. Based on a lack of information, we make assumptions about that group that are unwarranted because our opinions are ill-informed.

I remember a story during a jury selection where a lawyer wanted to strike an older white woman who lived in Kingwood because he thought she wouldn’t be favorable to his minority client. But the client said, “No, I like her. She’s a house wife and probably sits around all day watching Fox News and distrusting the government.” Yeah, I know, that reasoning doesn’t really make sense, but the lawyer went with his client’s desires and left the woman on the jury. Sure enough after the jury acquitted his client that juror was one of the most vocal in favor of acquittal and told the lawyers about how she listened to hip hop music and did not trust the police. The lawyer’s assumptions about her almost caused them to get rid of a good defense juror.

Likewise, other racially based assumptions we make about people are equally problematic.

It’s time to acknowledge the bias and assumptions and work to breakthrough the misconceptions. Starting with the belief there are more black men in prison than in college.