Young Black Males Headed for Extinction?
"The idea that we can keep incarcerating and keep incarcerating -- pretty soon we're not going to have a young African-American male population in America. They're all going to be in prison or dead. One of the two."
--John Edwards, MTV political forum, September 27, 2007 [Watch the Video]
"We have more work to do when more young black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America."
--Barack Obama, NAACP forum, July 12, 2007.
Where do they get this stuff? Both candidates are way off the mark.
"It''s not true," said Paige Harrison, a statistician at the Bureau of Justice Statistics, with an audible gasp, when the Obama statement was read to her. She dismissed the Edwards claim as a wild exaggeration with no factual foundation, while acknowledging that incarceration rates among young black males are several times higher than for whites or Hispanics.
To deal with the Obama claim first, this is an old myth that has been shot down many times before, most recently by our colleague DeNeen L. Brown in the Washington Post.
According to 2005 Census Bureau statistics, the male African-American population of the United States aged between 18 and 24 numbered 1,896,000. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 106,000 African-Americans in this age group were in federal or state prisons at the end of 2005. See table 10 of this report. If you add the numbers in local jail (measured in mid-2006), you arrive at a grand total of 193,000 incarcerated young Black males, or slightly over 10 percent.
According to the same census data, 530,000 of these African-American males, or twenty eight percent, were enrolled in colleges or universities (including two-year-colleges) in 2005. That is five times the number of young black men in federal and state prisons and two and a half times the total number incarcerated. If you expanded the age group to include African-American males up to thirty or thirty five, the college attendees would still outnumber the prisoners.
Everybody acknowledges that incarceration rates among young black males are much higher than among whites or Hispanics. An August 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis shows that 32 percent of black males born in 2001 can expect to spend time in prison over the course of their lifetime. That is up from 13.4 percent in 1974 and 29.4 percent in 1991. By contrast, 17.2 percent of Hispanics and 5.9 percent of whites born in 2001 are likely to end up in prison.
The trend lines are shocking, but they are not nearly as bad as claimed by Edwards. Let's stipulate from the outset that he was exaggerating in order to make a point. He wanted to emphasize the fact that many young African American men are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty, violence, and criminality.
The problem, however, is that he made no effort to define his terms. He claimed that the "young African-American male population" is threatened with extinction. It is hardly the first time he has made such wild generalizations. In a March 2006 speech, Edwards made the following, equally sweeping and equally erroneous, statement: "Young African American men see their options as going to prison or dying. As a result, they don't invest in their education, they don't invest in their futures and when they father children, they don't support them."
Whew! If his fellow North Carolinian Jesse Helms had come up with a claim like that, he would never have been allowed to forget it.
As for violent deaths, we asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a list of the ten leading causes of death for black males, aged 18 to 24, in 2004. The top three causes of death in this age group were (1) homicide (2,140 deaths), unintentional injury (948 deaths), and suicide (332 deaths). Deaths from HIV AIDS ranked sixth (67 deaths.) If we add the homicide, suicide, and HIV deaths together, we get 2,539 deaths. That is a combined death rate from violent causes or AIDS of around 0.13 percent for this segment of the population. Hardly an epidemic.
Here is what Edwards campaign spokesman Eric Schultz has to say:
"John Edwards was making the point that this President refuses to accept that the odds of young African-American males either dying or being incarcerated is terribly high. Studies show that one in three black men can expect to go to jail in their lifetimes. Unlike George Bush, who just wants to stick his head in the sand, as president, Edwards will address the issue head-on so that all Americans--whether African-American or not--can live a better life and the American dream."
The Obama campaign did not respond to e-mail queries.
Both Obama and Edwards are right to point to the incarceration rate for young African-American males as a national disgrace. But it is ridiculous to argue that "all" young African-Americans--Edwards's word--will soon be "in prison or dead" or that more young black males are in prison than in college. The true data is alarming enough without resorting to hyperbole.
The Pinocchio Test
In our mission statement, we said that we were a fact checking operation, not an opinion-checking operation, and would not hold candidates to account for "exaggerated political rhetoric." By that we meant that we would not fact check statements like the recent claim by Senator Joseph Biden that President Bush is "brain-dead." With the help of a medical dictionary, our colleagues at www.politifact.com termed the Biden claim "ridiculous." and argued that there was "no evidence" that Biden had performed "the necessary medical tests to make such a diagnosis." Biden earned a blistering "Pants on Fire" ruling from Politifact.
Here at the Fact Checker, we take a more relaxed view of statements along the lines of "my opponent is an idiot." Invective is part of the rough and tumble of American political debate. It may be regrettable but there is no point fact checking it. The statements by Edwards and Obama about young African-American men fall into a different category. They are not simply opinion. They rely on facts that can be proven or disproven.
| October 3, 2007; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: 4 Pinocchios, Barack Obama, Candidate Watch, Social Issues
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