Are There Really More Black Men In Prison Than College?

Activists, filmmakers, and even the president invoke the conventional wisdom that there are more black men in prison than in college. Ivory Toldson, a professor at Howard University, says that's a myth; he explains his findings to host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, we'd like to take a critical look at a piece of conventional wisdom that you've probably heard more than once. You might have heard this in a movie; you might have heard this from a politician; you might have heard this from a TV pundit. But you've probably heard that there are more African-American men in jail than in college. Even then-candidate Barack Obama talked about this at an NAACP candidate forum, back in 2007.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have more work to do when more young black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America.

MARTIN: Now, that's a powerful image, but is that really true? Something our next guest has taken a look at. Ivory Toldson is an associate professor at Howard University School of Education. He wrote about this for TheRoot.com, and he says...

IVORY TOLDSON: It's wrong. There are 1.4 million black men in college right now, and there are about 840,000 black men in prison.

MARTIN: That is a huge difference.

TOLDSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Now, is that because those numbers were always wrong, or are there more black men in college now than in prison now?

TOLDSON: I believe they were always wrong, and there is some debate about that. The citation of that stat came from the Justice Policy Institute's report "Cell Blocks Versus Classroom," which they wrote in 2002. When they analyzed the data, they looked at the National Center for Educational Statistics head count of black men in college, and compared that to the Department of Justice count of inmates at the time. And they came up with almost 100,000 more black men in prison than in college.

Now, what's transpired since then is there's been more than a 100 percent increase in the number of black men in college, as reported by the National Center for Educational statistics. And so what I did was, I pulled the data from 2001 that the Justice Policy Institute used; and I noticed that at least 1,000 colleges weren't reporting their head count of black males then. 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.

MARTIN: Why do you think that this myth has persisted?

TOLDSON: Yeah. Well, in the '90s, there was a rapid expanse of the criminal justice population and right now, the rate of incarceration among black males is seven times that of white males. And so I think that we had this feeling that something was wrong, and so we got this catchy stat to go along with it.

MARTIN: Well, what do you think have been the consequences of this widespread belief - do you think there is one?

TOLDSON: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think there's consequences to young, black males who are trying to figure out how to get into college. Then they have this ominous stat that they are more likely to go to prison than to college. Also, a lot of people who work with our young, black males in high school settings and middle school settings don't really understand the black community that well. Eighty percent of all teachers are white; and so if this frames their understanding of who our young, black males are, then their expectations are a little bit lower.

I also think it influences the types of programs that we use to help them get into college - because the way that we have juxtaposed college and prison has led to some erroneous assumptions, like if we put in violence-prevention programs and gang- abatement programs, that's somehow going to inspire young, black males to go to college because we've looked at them on this mythical fork, you know, of one foot in college and the other foot in prison.

MARTIN: So your argument is that this kind of leads to this idea that young, black men need to be contained as opposed to encouraged to seek college?

TOLDSON: Right.

MARTIN: And you think it should be the other way because, in fact...

TOLDSON: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: ...you say that's really where the population is. You also say, in your piece for TheRoot.com, that it's not that there aren't enough black men in college. It's that there is a problem that there aren't enough black men in competitive colleges.

TOLDSON: Exactly. Yeah.

MARTIN: What do you mean by that?

TOLDSON: Well, if you look at the representation of black males in college, they represent about 5 percent of the college population. If you look at the adult population of black males in the United States, we represent about 5.5 percent of the adult population. So contrary to popular belief, we aren't under-represented in higher education, but we are under-represented at competitive universities and over-represented at community colleges. The black males who...

MARTIN: Just to give your stat, you said that - in your piece, you say that the top 10 colleges for enrolling black males consist of three for-profit colleges, four community colleges and...

TOLDSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...three public, four-year institutions.

TOLDSON: Right.

MARTIN: What's the problem with that?

TOLDSON: The problem is that young, black males are not being advised to seek out the most competitive alternatives, and they're not being prepared in the way that we should be preparing them, I think, because we believe that just getting them into any college is a success.

MARTIN: Or keeping them out of prison is its own success, where...

TOLDSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...therefore, the expectations are low.

TOLDSON: Yes.

MARTIN: You know, you teach at one of the premier historically black...

TOLDSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...universities in the country, Howard University. Have you talked about this with your students? And what do they say, when you raise this?

TOLDSON: A lot of them are surprised. They all understand, though. And in fact, during our convocation speech, our keynote speaker mentioned that there are more black men in prison than in college, and during...

MARTIN: Did you jump up and wave?

TOLDSON: No. I...

MARTIN: Did you wave, no?

TOLDSON: I restrained myself.

MARTIN: No, no.

TOLDSON: I restrained myself. But I was very proud, though, because during the convocation luncheon, everyone from the president of the university - you know, down to students, came up to me and asked me - you know - did you hear the speaker? You know, we've got to correct that. They know the statistics and, you know, we're just trying to catch on.

MARTIN: But, before we let you go, I do want to ask, though. Do your numbers include the number of young, black men under criminal-justice supervision? If they're not in prison...

TOLDSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...they may be on probation.

TOLDSON: Right.

MARTIN: They may be on parole. They are not free actors.

TOLDSON: Right. I haven't done that, myself. I've seen someone else do that, and it came up a lot closer. But there are still more black men in college.

MARTIN: So what should people say now? People who want to talk about this - what should they say?

TOLDSON: I would like to see the issue of mass incarceration divorced from higher education. I think that the nature of those problems are completely different. We are grossly over-represented in the criminal-justice system, and everyone who is doing work related to sentencing disparities, the crack versus powder cocaine ratio, all the biases that go on in every stage of the criminal justice system - they should continue that fight, but they really don't need to discuss kids in college as a part of that fight.

And there's a lot of things that young, black males are missing from education right now in their preparation to go to college. So I would like to see the advocates who are working on fair practices at school, reducing these resource disparities where we have under-qualified teachers teaching our young black males; but we lack college preparatory classes, and a curriculum that would even get them admitted to the most competitive universities. That needs to be worked on.

So what I would tell people to say is, just stop saying that there's more black men in prison than in college. Work in your lane, and make a difference.

MARTIN: Ivory Toldson is an associate professor at Howard University School of Education. He wrote a piece for TheRoot.com. That's an online publication that focuses on issues of particular interest to African-Americans. The title is "More Black Men in Jail than in College: Wrong." And he was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C., studios.

Professor Toldson, thank you for speaking with us.

TOLDSON: All right. Thank you so much for inviting me.

MARTIN: We'd like to mention that we did reach out to the Justice Policy Institute. Their representative said the organization stood by the findings in their 2002 report - which was titled "Cell Blocks or Classrooms?" - and that more information about their methodology is available on their website.

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