"There are more black men in jail than in college."
Ivory A. Toldson — Howard University professor, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and deputy director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs — called this, in a 2013 column for the Root, "the most frequently quoted statistic about black men in the United States."
It's also dead wrong.
Where it came from
In 2002, the Justice Policy Institute, a national nonprofit dedicated to reducing incarceration, released a report titled "Cellblocks or Classrooms: The Funding of Higher Education and Corrections and its Impact on African American Men."
One of its key sobering findings was this: "Nearly a third more African-American men are incarcerated than in higher education."
The statistic almost instantly became a talking point. It was often deployed by those who wanted to explain just how dire racial disparities in the United States were, and how desperately the situation facing black men needed attention and intervention.
Even Barack Obama has mentioned it. At a 2007 NAACP forum that he attended as a presidential candidate, he told the crowd, "We have more work to do when more young black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America."
The stat was also repeated by those who wanted to anchor their arguments that that African American communities — and black men in particular — suffered from a dangerous cultural pathology.
In 2012, former NBA player Charles Barkley, explaining why he felt he had to carry a gun, said, "You know, we as black people always, we don't have respect for one another. You know, we've got more black men in prison than we do in college, and crime in our neighborhoods is running rampant."
The Census estimates that approximately 18,508,926 people in the U.S. population are black males, of all ages. In 2013, 1,437,363 were in college, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Prisoner Statistics Program reports that in that same year, 526,000 were in state or federal prisons, and, as of mid-year 2013, 219,660 were in local jails, making for a total of about 745,000 behind bars. The millions of black men not included in those numbers, of course, have already finished college, already served a prison sentence, have a life trajectory that does not involve college or prison, or are too young for either to apply.
Where did we get so confused?
According to Toldson, the 2002 "Cell Blocks Versus Classroom" report that provided the basis of "more black men in prison than in college" was based on data that was was likely incomplete at the time, and has definitely become outdated since.
"I pulled the data from 2001 that the Justice Policy Institute used [for the "Cellblocks of Classrooms" report] and I noticed that at least 1,000 colleges weren't reporting their head count of black males then," he told NPR in 2013. "And I also noticed that a lot of colleges that didn't report any numbers, when the Justice Policy Institute wrote their report, were historically black universities. They were big, state universities that I'm pretty sure had some black males present at the time."
That's right. The number of black men in college used in the report wasn't actually the number of black men in college. It was the number of black men at schools that chose to report this data — a much smaller figure.
Plus, things have changed. Thanks to a variety of factors including the popularity of for-profit colleges, the raw numbers show that enrollment of black males in college increased from 693,044 in 2001 to 1,437,363 in 2013.
Numbers aside, the college vs. prison comparison is problematic on its face. Men (of all races) can be incarcerated at any point in their lives for any length of time, while enrollment in college typically happens during a narrow age range and a short timespan. So contrasting the two experiences is an apples-to-oranges exercise that doesn't tell us much about what's happening with any population.
Why it matters that we get this right
While the scary statistic was probably handy for creating some drama around the plight of black men (and it's true — there are far too many in prison), it's not accurate, and probably never was.
Repeating this false statement does far more harm than good. As Toldson said, "[W]e will not sufficiently support black male college students — nor college-bound students — if we simply keep perpetuating the myth that juxtaposes their needs with those of black males in the criminal-justice system."