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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 12/14/2007

Most Revealing Fibs: Barack Obama

By Michael Dobbs

Apollo Theater, Harlem, Nov. 29.

"I don't want to wake up four years from now and discover that we still have more young black men in prison than in college."

--Barack Obama, fund-raiser in Harlem, NY, Nov. 29, 2007.

It's baaaack! I tried to nail this myth back in October, soon after this site was launched. Obama made a very similar statement at an NAACP forum in July. He got his facts wrong then--and he is still wrong four months later. The Obama campaign has failed to respond to several requests to support or explain the candidate's statement. So let me take another bash at it.

The claim that there are more African-Americans in prison than in college appears to have originated with a 2002 study by the Justice Policy Institute entitled "Cellblocks or Classrooms," available here. (See table 5.) The data in that study have been challenged. Some researchers have pointed out that comparing college-age African-American males with the entire African- American male population is like comparing "apples and oranges."

The Justice Policy Institute study is in any case irrelevant to the claim that Obama is making, as he is specifically comparing young black men in prison and in college. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 106,000 African-American males aged between 18 and 24 were in federal or state prisons at the end of 2005. (See table 10 of this report.) Another 87,000 were temporarily incarcerated in local jails in mid-2006. According to 2005 Census data, 530,000 African-American males of this age group were in college.

Black male college students outnumber black male prisoners even if you expand the age band to thirty four. There were 276,600 African-American males in federal or state prisons in this age group and 710,000 in college.

What does this mistake tell us about Obama's campaigning style and personality? It is interesting that he made the claim to predominantly African-American audiences. I leave it to others to figure out whether he was trying to shock his listeners or whether he was pandering to them by emphasizing the theme of racial inequality in America. (Obama has been trailing Hillary Clinton among African-Americans, particularly African-American women.)

Or perhaps it is the professorial side of Obama that is coming out. In contrast to Clinton, who rarely departs from her script, Obama sometimes assumes the role of teacher in a university seminar. His willingness to pull facts and arguments out of his head results in the occasional mistake. One example: he recently said that George Bush had never traveled abroad prior to becoming president. That was false.

On a more substantive issue, Obama has been fuzzy about the continuing role he sees for U.S. combat troops in Iraq if he becomes president, and appears to have contradicted himself on how to contain Iran. But that is pretty much par for the course among the Democratic presidential candidates, caught between playing to the base and keeping their options open.

The Pinocchio Test

It is still too early to rank the candidates in terms of their overall truthfulness. Obama's repetition of a hoary myth about African-American males would surely qualify for more Pinocchios, but I am giving the candidates a pass this week. Let me know about any other slips from Professor Obama.

By Michael Dobbs  | December 14, 2007; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama, Candidate Record, Candidate Watch, Iraq, Social Issues  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Most Revealing Fibs: John McCain
Next: Most Revealing Fibs: Mike Huckabee


A fine column.

Posted by: angrydoug1 | December 14, 2007 8:52 AM | Report abuse

Actually, his implying he went to public High School and did drugs is bigger fib...
he went to an elite private HS where his friends said he was studious and ambitous...but that doesn't fit the Saint Barak mold

Or you could go with the lie that living in a foreign country at age six gives one
a perspective...

Posted by: B. Williams | December 14, 2007 9:47 AM | Report abuse

I'd say it's a fair statement that living in a foreign country at age 6 gives perspective, but obviously not as much perspective as if it were at an older age.

On the other hand, if he's implying that he went to public school when he in fact did not, then that would be a pretty serious lapse in honesty.

Of course, the cynic in me can only think that type of thing par for the course with a politician. How sad is that?

Posted by: afsljafweljkjlfe | December 14, 2007 9:53 AM | Report abuse

"Is there a 'cocaine shortage'?" Do you folks at the Post realize the ironic (yet amusing) juxtaposition of this story with the "Most Revealing Fibs: Barack Obama' feature on your website? Might want to change that.

Posted by: mickeynATL | December 14, 2007 10:01 AM | Report abuse

Look folks,

Just take a look at Bush's eyes, for example, his TV conference after the NIE.

Did you see his little piggy eyes, so transfixed and void.

Flack suit George was high up in the sky, with Lucy in diamonds. He seemed so stoned that I thought he was about to unzip his fly and water all the reports.

He had that revealing look of a full fledged addict.

C'mon Prez, you use the same stuff (your) Reverend Haggard used, in his hard porn sessions, with male escorts?

Time will tell.

Take it easy, anyway with the stuff Georgy Boy. Too much meth is dynamite.

Posted by: bekabo | December 14, 2007 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Why dont you tell us about the long storied reputation of Chicago Democrats for Honesty. While you are doing that menttion the bribe he accepted from the Chicago realestate developer (now in jail for bribing public officials BTW) while he was serving in Chicago, the bribe he admits was a lapse in judgement.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 14, 2007 10:41 AM | Report abuse

The last thing we need right now is another CROOK in the Whitehouse, we already have had 8 years of that.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 14, 2007 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Rezko, a Syrian-born U.S. citizen who owned a real estate development business and a group of fast-food franchises, has spent his career showering Illinois officials with campaign money. He was a top fundraiser for Democratic Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

His connection to Obama began when the future senator got national attention as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. Rezko was impressed by what he read and offered Obama a job.

The two men kept in contact and he became one of the earliest donors to Obama's campaign when he ran for a state Senate seat in 1996.

Their relationship came into the spotlight last October, the same month Rezko was indicted on federal charges, with the disclosure that Rezko had played a role in the senator's purchase of a home.

Obama bought a house and lot. Rezko's wife bought an undeveloped property next door. The two parcels had once been a single tract of land.

Obama paid $1.65 million for the house and lot while Rezko paid $625,000 for the undeveloped lot. Six months later, Rezko sold a strip of his property to Obama, who wanted to increase the size of his side yard. Obama paid Rezko $104,500, which he says was the market rate.

While Obama has said that the transaction was handled ethically, he has conceded the perception of favor-trading it created was a "boneheaded" mistake.

Rezko is charged with plotting to shake down money management firms hoping to do business with the Illinois Teachers Retirement System, a $39 billion state pension fund, for kickbacks.

He also is charged with swindling the General Electric Capitol Corp. out of $10 million in a deal involving the purchase of pizza restaurants.

Rezko attorney Joseph J. Duffy declined to comment on the case.

While Obama turned down Rezko's offer of a job back in 1991, he ended up in a group of real estate deals involving the developer anyway. He accepted a position at the law firm then known as Davis Miner & Barnhill.

At the firm, he represented community groups that partnered with a developer in getting city and state housing rehabilitation loans. The developer was Rezko. Obama estimates he did only about five hours of work.

Burton said Obama has fought "for the toughest possible ethics rules" and that is not "changed by anything that has happened to Tony Rezko."

Posted by: Honest Injun | December 14, 2007 10:46 AM | Report abuse

wow, honest injun, that was informative.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 14, 2007 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, but I'd consider a 26 year old, 30 year old, or 34 year old to be a "young black man" too. And so would most people. Include up to 34 or 35 in your age range and Obama's statement holds up.

Also, for all his faults, Obama is, if nothing else, the most sincere candidate in this race, and so I can't seem to figure out why the fact checker spends so much time on Obama, constantly criticizing statements that make valid and important points, and are rarely exaggerated or outright false. Does anybody out there think there are too few young black men in prison? Geez. There is an epidemic of young black men in prison! Who would deny that?

Posted by: Anonymous | December 14, 2007 12:31 PM | Report abuse

"Sorry, but I'd consider a 26 year old, 30 year old, or 34 year old to be a "young black man" too. And so would most people. Include up to 34 or 35 in your age range and Obama's statement holds up." Geesh, skewing the sampling like that determines the results. College studies not necessarily just for those under mid-20s, but more so than prison population. Besides, Obama is not black (unless you consider any black blood at all making you black, which is like the Old South or maybe South Africa). Could just as well be called white (and you could call Tiger Woods a Thai-American). Mixed race is a term with a bad connotation.

Posted by: Cal | December 14, 2007 1:23 PM | Report abuse

While I agree that "skewing the sampling like that determines the results", I would maintain that it is disingenuous to accuse a candidate of lying if such a "skew" is so easily possible. OF COURSE a candidate will pick and choose facts. That doesn't make it a lie, nor "Pinocchio-worthy."

Posted by: B-W | December 14, 2007 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Okay, let's grant you that this is Obama's "most revealing fib." What is the point of the fib? That Obama wants the country to focus more on racial justice and education. I'd say that's a laudable goal, even if the math is a bit fuzzy. This is very revealing . . . of a candidate with great priorities!

Posted by: Rich Evans | December 14, 2007 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Why did Obama even bring this up in the first place? Shouldn't America be more concerned with eliminating racial descrimination rather than comparing things like this? Racial diversity is what america is all about, and if people cant see that then they need to take a step back from society and realize what they are thinking. We are all American and our skin color doesn't change that. being black white yellow or blue shouldn't be an excuse for going to prison and not going to college.

Posted by: Carissa | December 14, 2007 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Irrespective of his social, legal, or legislative record, the primary public deception is counterfeiting evidence to support the claim he is qualified--without documented executive, military, and foreign policy credentials--to competently discharge the powers of the presidency.

The Machiavellian (new vs. hereditary rule) campaign to manipulate public opinion to accept and substitute a fictitious presidential image--ideology, friends, wealth, fame, celebrity, image, rhetoric, strategy, personality, charm, and the like--for valid credentials is sophistry.

The primary self-deception, which may also reflect a Faustian exchange of character, is that serving ambition (love of fame) and avarice (love of wealth) leads to happiness; the pursuit of power is freedom; that sophistry as a means to power is justifiable; that sacrificing character for power is not destructive--least of which is reputation; and that the corresponding loss of self is easily recovered.

Posted by: Shaun Hoffmeyer | December 14, 2007 8:41 PM | Report abuse

Oh whatever!
If you read the report yourself, you'll see what any "reasonable person" sees.

What about the section from the report which deals with "The Social Math of Choosing Cellblocks over Classrooms: More African American Men Incarcerated than Enrolled in Higher Education"

Since I don't like people spinning facts for me, or like risking my life to jump on bandwagons, I read the report myself...
what justifies all of this is a either a slow newsday an agenda, or vendetta

Posted by: Mike Bernard | December 17, 2007 11:07 AM | Report abuse

Are you sure you're reading that report correctly? The figures you cite from Table 10 are only for state and federal sentenced prisoners. According to the first page of the report, besides the 1,446,269 people in state and federal prisons, there are others elsewhere, particularly 96,655 in juvenile facilties, and 747,529 in local jails.

Where did you get the figure of 87,000 black men in local jails? This seems too low. That would mean only 12% of those in local jails are black men, while the figures you cite show that 40% of prisoners in state and federal jails are black men.

Posted by: G | December 17, 2007 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Its incredible how many things are able to go unoticed in politics and how the perception of one can vary so largely from person to person.

Posted by: Anonymous | December 17, 2007 5:55 PM | Report abuse

In reply to G, I got these figures from census estimates and Bureau of Justice statistics. I did not say that 87,000 black men were in local jails. I was talking about the population of black men between the ages of 18 and 24. I would have to look at the figures again, but let us say for the sake of argument that there are another 90,000 black men between the ages of 25 and 34 temporarily incarcerated in a local jail on a given day. (These are mainly short term sentences.) That would mean 177,000 "young black men" in local jails, plus another 276,000 in state prisons, which is still well short of the 710,000 in college. you have to compare like with like. Obama specifically referred to "young black men".

Posted by: The Fact Checker | December 17, 2007 10:34 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: Economists for Obama | December 18, 2007 9:53 PM | Report abuse

This statement comes from a person of college age. I am a recent graduate and a Black female. I can tell you from experience that there are more black men outside of college than in. Believing whether or not they are in college opposed to Jail is still up for debate, but I will point out that Federal Financial Aid is not given to those who have a criminal record as a minor especially in cases involving drugs. Federal Financial Aid is the main resource for Black finances when considering going to college. So his statement is correct on many fronts. Black men are missing from Universities across America and the numbers get even slimmer when speaking of completion. But the numbers do not lie when speaking of completion of prison terms. So my question is where are you getting your facts cause I have seen them first hand.

Posted by: Katina Charles | December 19, 2007 11:28 AM | Report abuse

(Obama supporter)

The issue of experience is obviously important in judging a candidate for office. However, history does not give us an especially clear idea of how to judge a candidate's experience or how much weight to give it. If number of years in major office were the best indicator of presidential skill, Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover, W.H. Taft, and George H.W. Bush would have been among the greatest presidents of the past 100 years. John F. Kennedy, FDR, and Ronald Reagan would be among the worst. If experience were highly valued this time around, neither Clinton, Obama, nor Edwards would rate very well, while Dodd, Richardson, and Biden would be among the leaders.

It's a tough call any way you look at it, especially when you're trying really hard not to make a George-W-Bush-level mistake.

Posted by: wesfromGA | December 19, 2007 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Obama should have elaborated on why black men are ending up in jail. The loss of our manufacturing base has caused the uneducated in the country to be left with menial low paying jobs. It is far more profitable for them to work the streets than working at McDonalds. In cities like LA, Phila, Detroit, the working class in poor areas are lucky to make it home intact with their pay. Better education will help, but won't solve the problem since there are not enough positions in this country to be filled by an educated populace. We must rebuild our manufacturing base before our balance of trade and borrowing bring down our great nation. The manufaturing giant we were in the 1940's made it nearly impossible for Tojo and Hitler to win. All of our politicians don't have a clue in how to rebuild our manufacturing base and seem quite happy to get over a 20% return from their investments in "blind trusts" with the current economy which is lowering the standard of living for the middle class. A gov't of the connected, by the connected, for the connected will make our country fall like Rome. We must change before its too late and we become a third world country.

Posted by: James Chirico | December 20, 2007 7:45 AM | Report abuse

I frankly haven't got the time to read each and every of the foregoing comments, but I'd make another point: Obama never said he was comparing apples and apples. When he says there are more "young" blacks in prison than in college, there's no reason to assume he's considering only young *adults.* He doesn't say it, and we shouldn't ascribe that limitation to his comments. He says only "young." Therefore, we can't consider only 18-to-34-year-old African-Americans. We must consider 0-to-34-year-old African-Americans. I'm not exactly sure how the numbers play out, but there are many, many "young" African-Americans imprisoned before they even approach college age. Considering the socio-cultural crisis currently facing young blacks, it's a terrible mistake to disount the 13-to-18-year-olds, just for a start, who are imprisoned as adults. They may not be eligible to attend college, but if you're going to feign at fact-checking so stringently, that doesn't matter one whit. If someone has already made this point, I apologize for the redundancy.

Posted by: Michael Scott Leonard | December 25, 2007 5:46 AM | Report abuse

Cohen will never apologize to a Black man. And now we know, neither will wapo.

Posted by: garvin | January 17, 2008 12:22 AM | Report abuse

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