More Black Men May Be Taking Bar Exams Than Are Behind Bars

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All human actions have one or more of these seven causes: chance, nature, compulsions, habit, reason, passion, desire.

Aristotle

The ‘myth’ that more African-American males are in prison than in college isn’t helping anyone who’s working toward a BA.

While running for president in summer 2007, Barack Obama told a crowd at an NAACP forum: “We have more work to do when more young black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America.”

Last December, Charles Barkley, a broadcaster and former NBA player, told Bob Costas: “You know, we’ve got more black men in prison than we do in college, and crime in our neighborhoods is running rampant.”

Barkley and Obama are merely two among many prominent Americans, black and white, who, while arguing for creation of stronger opportunites for African-American males, have promulgated the idea that more black men are behind prison bars than on college campuses.

There’s just one problem in that plea for action: The assertion isn’t true.

New research shows there are now 600,000 more African-American men in colleges than in prison, contradicting a “myth” that some advocates believe is undermining progress in the black community.

These advocates argue that the false statistic feeds the “narrative around affirmative action” that says black men need help to achieve equality.

As the Supreme Court prepares to hear a case on affirmative action that could restrict use of race to determine enrollment at public universities, its time to conquer the myth once and for all, Ivory Toldson, a professor at Howard University School of Education, tells TakePart.

“Really what [young black men] need to get into colleges is college-level classes, guidance services, college fairs, college tours. But stats like that give the impression what they need to go to college is a violence prevention program or a gang abatement program.”

“It’s a line that was marketed very well,” says Toldson, who’s researched the statistic. “It’s what a lot of people think is true intuitively and has gotten repeated over and over. That’s one of the reasons why it persists.”

That statistic originated with a study by the Justice Policy Institute, a criminal-justice reform think tank, which calculated that 791,600 black men were in jail or prison in 2000, and 603,032 were enrolled in colleges or universities. Critics say the JPI study didn’t use accurate data.

“In the past, the numbers still appeared close enough to say, well, you know, maybe there’s something to it, even though you can’t really quantify it right now,” says Toldson. “Right now we’re at a point where they’re not even close.

“We’re at a good point for us to just move past that myth and start thinking about some real problems,” continues Toldson. “Really what [young black men] need to get into colleges is college-level classes, guidance services, college fairs, college tours. But stats like that give the impression what they really need to go to college is a violence prevention program or a gang abatement program.”

One government policy instituted in the 1960s that was designed to place more black men into college is affirmative action, a program that factors race into the university admissions process. But affirmative action might soon be alive only in history.

A Supreme Court ruling is pending in Fisher v. The University of Texas, a case that is being brought by Abigail Fisher, a white student who was denied acceptance by the University of Texas at Austin. Fisher’s lawyers argue that her grades and test scores were higher than those of some students who were admitted, and only the university’s policy of considering race led to her denial, which, according to the lawyers, was unconstitutional.

The college-versus-prison statistic has helped perpetuate the argument for supporting affirmative action, says Janks Morton, a Washington, D.C.-based filmmaker whose first documentary, 2007’s What Black Men Think, confronted persistent myths and fallacies about black men in American society.

“You come up with this thing that black men need a hand up, they need help, they’re not able to achieve on their own, and then that ties into the narrative around affirmative action,” Morton tells TakePart. “If you really look at the data right now, the majority of [black men] are making these strides without this kind of affirmative action narrative.

“It tends to highjack the conversation, and I think it distracts from the accomplishments of young black men.”

Affirmative action, he adds, “might need to be rethought and rescaled back.”

Morton says there’s resistance in the black community to abolishing the prison-versus-college myth because some advocates have a financial stake in it. “It’s a money extracting proposition for organizations that are vested in that kind of advocacy around black male identity.”

Morton says the faulty statistic imperils the progress of the next generation of African-American men.

“We have to think about what the internalization of this negative messaging has done to a generation of young black people,” he says. “There are so many positive achievements of this group right now that we can start to raise the bar of expectation. We can use the model of young black boys who are achieving and elevate that.”

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