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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 10/ 3/2007

Young Black Males Headed for Extinction?

By washingtonpost.com Editors
[Photo of John Edwards
"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]
[Photo of Sen. Barack Obama]
"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.

The Facts

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.

(About our rating scale.)

By washingtonpost.com Editors  | October 3, 2007; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  4 Pinocchios, Barack Obama, Candidate Watch, Social Issues  
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Comments

I've seen Obama's fact before and it usually says something like, "There are more black males in prison or probation than there are in four year colleges." Or you are more likely to be arrested than to go to a four year college. I'm sure that the numbers would change if you took this into account.

Posted by: acon | October 3, 2007 12:52 PM | Report abuse

While the claims as phrased by Edwards and Obama may be incorrect, last Thursday (Sep 27) the U.S. Census issued a report that stated that more Blacks and Latinos in the U.S. live in prison cells than in college dorms. The report was covered by the AP, and CNN posted the story, although the Wash. Post did not. http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/09/27/census.prisons.ap/index.html

So again, while their claims as stated are may be incorrect, there is sufficient evidence and discussion of this crisis, so that looked at from some angles, one can better understand how they arrived at making their statements.

Posted by: Anonymous | October 3, 2007 1:08 PM | Report abuse

I mean, you guys are quibbling over nothing. If you changed the statement to say, "more black men can expect to go to prison than to enroll in college," then it would be accurate according to your figures.

Posted by: Cedric | October 3, 2007 2:24 PM | Report abuse

What a bunch of crap. Nothing to see here, don't hurt our poor delicate hears with hypebole, Fred Hiatt might get the vapors.

Posted by: sfmandrew | October 3, 2007 2:27 PM | Report abuse

From the article: "In 2005, according to the Census Bureau, there were 864,000 black men in college. According to Justice Department statistics, there were 802,000 in federal and state prisons and jails, "even with the old heads holding on," Morton says."

Given that some fraction of the college students are also "old heads holding on" these statistics are a disgrace. Two questions: (1) what is the total number of black college students aged 18 to 24?
(2) what is the total number of black prisoners aged 18 to 24?

I want to know if "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" includes commuter students, older students etc. And why not limit the comparison to four year colleges? According to the data, that's where the real salary benefits of college lie.

Posted by: Judge C. Crater | October 3, 2007 3:23 PM | Report abuse

Good call, fact checker. It's precisely this kind political rhetoric that is completely unhelpful for the political process. In fact, these are the kinds of statements rabel rousers make to incite people. I'm no Hilary fan, but at least you don't hear her say whatever comes to her head. Whatever she says - and believe me, I don't agree with a lot of it - is at least, studied and mostly factually correct. I get insulted with the kind of crap politicians say to get elected. And they wonder why we don't trust them....

Posted by: Anonymous | October 3, 2007 3:27 PM | Report abuse

What about men who earn their degrees in prison? Do they count for both columns?

Why does everyone need to go to college? What about trade schools? Do they count?

Posted by: hatchlaw | October 3, 2007 3:38 PM | Report abuse

"The trend lines are shocking, but they are not nearly as bad as claimed by Edwards."

Soon is a relative word, does it mean 20 years or 40 years or more?

Utilizing just the three data points given and a linear regression and you get there (every sinlge black male having spent time in jail) before 2100. I realize that the occurence would be unlikely, at some point society will give to the obvious injustice.

The trends however are more than just "shocking" and seem significantly closer to JRE's over-the-top framining.

Given the timelines for Social Security and the general acceptance for the statement that "Social Security will soon be bankrupt" I think pinochioing these statements is well, uneccessary, everone knew they were hyperbole representing a serious issue to begin with.

Do some real reporting or fact checking please.

Posted by: Sean O'Neill | October 3, 2007 8:58 PM | Report abuse

This would be a better column if it wasn't too literal regarding obvious 'point making' language.

No one believes young black males will be extinct - but in the statistics you listed - homicide was the #1 cause of death, combine that with the higher rate of incarceration - and it looks pretty bleak, ie. violent death or jail.

Clearly the politicians were being, um , I don't know, politicians, when they were trying to bring the voters' attention to the high rates of jail and violent death to young black males.

It's important to point out blatent lies and falsehoods being presented as FACT. But when you get into the language of 'puffery' - which is even allowed of tv advertisers by the FTC, you devalue the usefulness of this column.

Posted by: quicklad | October 3, 2007 9:43 PM | Report abuse

Jeeez! more evidence WaPo is going the Fox News and Drudge route.
Whatever it takes to elect Hillary Hawk.

Hillary/Murdoch08


Posted by: annefrank | October 4, 2007 12:34 AM | Report abuse

When the hyperbole is understood by the audience to be exaggerated and not factual, there is no failure of communication.

HOWEVER:
The statements here were gross exaggerations, but because the audiences could not have been expected to know the statistical facts they were fodder for an urban legend.

And here is a problem with this urban legend that the speakers and many well meaning listeners miss. Many decent folks
place a high value on individual responsibility. It rings false to them that a president can effect a reduction in crime, and opening the prison gates is not appealing. They will be uncomfortable with, or condescending to, or fearful of what to them will sound like a description of a black criminal underclass.

I have spent hours explaining to people who are not racists that most black Americans are in the middle class, not in jail, and not even in the "ghetto". Real numbers, actual facts, must be widely known before
hyperbole can have its intended effect.

Fact Checker did well.

Posted by: Mark in Austin | October 4, 2007 8:30 AM | Report abuse

You've taken Edward's comments out of context. At the MTV Forum, within his full remarks, Edward's showed a determintion to give young black people in tough urban/rural settings greater opportunities to succeed. The audience of young people understood what he was saying and cheered him.

Edwards does not use a speech writer, and is more concerned with urging Americans to wake up and help each other have better lives, than with staying cautiously in a safe middle grey area.

Yesterday the Supreme Court began hearing a case on one of Edward's passionate issues. The penalties for crack cocaine is 100 times that of powder cocaine, and unfairly targets many young black people with unbalanced prison sentences. The justices are considering one young man's sentence.

Posted by: Betty Hooker | October 4, 2007 8:35 AM | Report abuse

This is really lame criticism. You yourself state that according to 2005 census figures, 10% of the college age population among blacks is in jail. That is a huge amount...1 in 10. You admit that Edwards was using hyperbole to make a point while also saying: "The trend lines are shocking, but they are not nearly as bad as claimed by Edwards." What exactly was that "claim," then?" YOU DON'T STATE IT! 1 in 10 is pretty bad, my friend. On the death rates, you don't even bother to make a comparison of the 0.13% with rates in the hispanic and white populations. Beyond that, you also mix Obama's incorrect numbers with Edward's rhetorical statements as if the two candidates presented the same flawed information. What kind of "fact checking" is this then? Could it be simplified and biased "fact checking" aimed at torpedoing Edwards? Looks like it.

Posted by: TTJ1 | October 4, 2007 10:38 AM | Report abuse

Extremely weak. Take the two to task for their hyperbole, but your rating scale is way off.

They are essentially getting grief for taking on touchy issues by making exaggerated points. Their opponents (Reep and Dem) refuse to even engage these issues.

Leave the article (facts are excellent things to have) but revise the 4 Pinocchio ranking.

Posted by: viv | October 7, 2007 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Come on - what's the beef with all these (presumably Democratic) commenters? Obama and Edwards are perfectly free to say "yes, I was exaggerating things for dramatic effect - so sue me! The larger point I was trying to make is still valid." Voters can then take that as they will (and decide if they're comfortable with the way these candidates used their factoids).

But bottom line, taken as statements of fact, the claims they made were far enough off the mark to be real howlers. You would be ALL OVER any Republican who made similarly "exaggerated" claims about the economy, terrorism, crime, the benefits of untrammelled free trade, or just about anything else. What's the deal here - are you afraid that Democratic candidates not able to win the rhetorical battle while sticking to the facts?

Posted by: Republican | October 8, 2007 10:18 AM | Report abuse

I am not even sure why this issue is an issue. Does free will not play into this at some point? I don't see these guys complaining because the majority of our pro athletes are black. You know, asian minorities have a very high rate of college attendance. Many of them come from poor countries, with English as a second language. Are we going to make a big deal out of it? Is that unfair to the rest of us somehow? America is supposed to be the place where people can do what they want to do. If a child wants to be a serious student, he has that right and opportunity. If he wants to be a criminal, he has that right. At least the criminal is given food and shelter, the student has to earn his education. This is diversity, don't we love diversity? The system gives us all a chance, it is up to us what we make of it. Obama should know that.

Posted by: mark fishel | October 8, 2007 5:58 PM | Report abuse

I don't understand the comments that it doesn't matter if candidates distort statistics or facts, as long as their hearts are in the right place. I'm for most of the Dem candidates positions--but their actual positions and opinions, not straight-out mis-statements of probable fact. Do you folks who don't mind untruths if told with good intent think that either Obama or Edwards are so stupid that they can't make dramatic points about an obviously bad situation without changing the actual numbers?

Posted by: Max | October 10, 2007 2:37 PM | Report abuse

Please, let's not lose the point. The fact is that young black men ARE an endangered species. Beyond the 10% who await incarceration now, what about the projections which state that 32% of Black males born in 2001 can expect to serve some time in prison, if the current incarceration trends continue??? Even more, what about the other 90% right now? Even, if black men do not go to prison, life in America still has tremendous issues to deal with in their lives. The problem that should be discussed is the problem is more extensive than the disporportionate rate of incarceration of Black men in America.

Posted by: The BLAQUESMITH | October 11, 2007 2:59 PM | Report abuse

The candidates (especially Obama) are not entirely off the mark. See this recent article in the Baltimore Sun that explains some of the numbers. The census that is being referred to is not what many assume it to be. http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bal-op.blackmen11oct11,0,6351538.story

Posted by: See | October 12, 2007 1:41 AM | Report abuse

Atten: Mr. Dubbs. Re: Your column of 10=12-07 titled Fact Checker.
It is obvious to any but the illiterate that the candidates, without exception , will say anything that they think the audience desires to hear. They universaly convince the public that accuracy is the last thing of interest in their presentations. Clinton and Edwards are outstanding in this field and attributes.
It would be an outstanding public event if they appeared in a public forum, with the Fact Checker, in a question and answer program, on the record, sworn testimony,
with perjury penalties for any untruthful
answers.
This event is unlikely, but it might reduce the size of the field.
Sincerely yours, Cyrano. Former Naval Person, W.W. II.

Posted by: Kenneth B. Smith, P.E. | October 12, 2007 5:12 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: Gerri Barker | October 18, 2007 3:34 PM | Report abuse

Why on earth do so many people blindly trust statistics offered by the government?!? Let me pose this question: If there are nearly 1 million young black men in U.S. colleges like certain statistical releases suggest, WHERE ARE THEY? CAN ANYONE NAME A COLLEGE OR UNIVERSITY ANYWHERE IN AMERICA THAT HAS A MAJORITY BLACK MALE STUDENT BODY?!? OKAY, SINCE THAT CANT BE DONE, CAN ANYONE NAME A COLLEGE THAT, OUT OF ITS BLACK STUDENT BODY, THE MAJORITY ARE BLACK MALE AND NOT FEMALE? No!!!! I am a 35 year old black male, and for every young black male I know that is enrolled in college there are at least 10 that I know of that are in jail, prison, or on probation. Even in the entertainment world, the genre of business where blacks are most prominent and successful, more black men than not have the experience of jail or prison vs. college, or at the very least have closely engaged in criminal behavior that could have landed them in prison (Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, DMX, Irv Gotti, Puff Daddy, etc.) Most of the rich black athletes got athletic scholarships and otherwise would probably not have been able to go to college. I am the author of the new book "WHY ARE SO MANY BLACK MEN IN PRISON?" Anyone really wishing to know the whole truth on this issue should read.

Posted by: Demico Boothe | October 22, 2007 7:38 PM | Report abuse

It is amazing how illussionary American White Male Society has become about the African-american condition in this country. If you took a look at the economic impact from the North American Free Trade Agreement, Visa's, and Technology Expertise Importation alone you would no longer be able to be in denial about the push towards extinction of the African-american species. There affect on the African-american survival rate in this country is devastating. In psychiatry their is a term called "Reality Based Understanding." Hubert Humphrey said back in 1957: "If you want to weaken a nation, starve them to death." This is exactly what america is doing to the African-american species.

America racist society needs to stop pretending to be color blind concerning the racism that has been exercised against African-american people/species in this country; despite, the fact that the African-american innovators helped build this Country, but has always been pushed to the back of the line even doing the patenting process in the 1800's. Terrorist and suicide bombers get better treatment in this country than "US."

America's white supremacist society and policies has always misconstrued facts and tweaked statistical numbers to portray to society what it would like the world to believe; but, we know better because we see what is happening in our community, range and habitation. Wake-Up World and keep-It-Real O'bama and Edwards was not playing pinnochio but thrusting a major issue to the front-line in which society wants to deny.

Tyrone Galtney, Endangered Species Organizer-Chicago

Posted by: Tyrone Galtney, Endangered Species Organizer Chicago | October 29, 2007 9:55 AM | Report abuse

It is amazing how illussionary American White Male Society has become about the African-american condition in this country. If you took a look at the economic impact from the North American Free Trade Agreement, Visa's, and Technology Expertise Importation alone you would no longer be able to be in denial about the push towards extinction of the African-american species. There affect on the African-american survival rate in this country is devastating. In psychiatry their is a term called "Reality Based Understanding." Hubert Humphrey said back in 1957: "If you want to weaken a nation, starve them to death." This is exactly what america is doing to the African-american species.

America racist society needs to stop pretending to be color blind concerning the racism that has been exercised against African-american people/species in this country; despite, the fact that the African-american innovators helped build this Country, but has always been pushed to the back of the line even doing the patenting process in the 1800's. Terrorist and suicide bombers get better treatment in this country than "US."

America's white supremacist society and policies has always misconstrued facts and tweaked statistical numbers to portray to society what it would like the world to believe; but, we know better because we see what is happening in our community, range and habitation. Wake-Up World and keep-It-Real O'bama and Edwards was not playing pinnochio but thrusting a major issue to the front-line in which society wants to deny.

Tyrone Galtney, Endangered Species Organizer-Chicago

Posted by: Tyrone Galtney, Endangered Species Organizer Chicago | October 29, 2007 10:00 AM | Report abuse

Sobering information about the use of hyperbole by political candidates. Nonetheless, even more sobering are the real statistics. I'd be interested in an article that focused on tangible solutions to a real epidemic that will ultimately affect all Americans- whether directly as victims or indirectly as benefactors of a prison system that costs more to sustain than our current public education system.

Posted by: Ronald Evans | November 4, 2007 9:18 AM | Report abuse

Let me tell you something - I am a young black, college educated woman who believes in the statement made by Senator Obama -- not because of some statistics that may or may not add up - but because on any given college campus in this country, there are a disproportionate number of black men in college than in jails.

I walked the campus of Ohio State University for 5 years, and I can count on my hands how many black males I saw in most of my own classes -- and let's not mention their obscurity on the campus.

But, go inside any jail in these United States and you will find what DOES NOT seem to be visible on college campuses throughout this country - black men.

Black men are disproportionately sentenced for lesser crimes than are their white counterparts and they are penalized more harshly after serving their time and trying to focus on living a 'just' life. This is from my experience - so take your statistics - your numbers that don't mean a thing to those that live this every single day of their lives -- and just do something about it.

Stop wasting your time trying to disprove the obvious because you are to afraid to confront the truth -- approach and engage the elephant in the room in conversation you'd be surprised at just how smart they are.

Posted by: Tashana Hudspeth, Columbus, OH | November 18, 2007 10:17 PM | Report abuse

Homicide is the #1 cause of death for black males and you are trying to show that they are exaggerating?

I agree with the other comments. This is typical MSM garbage. Just elect your corporatist Hillary/Republican candidates and keep on with the status quo.

Posted by: Lame | November 28, 2007 10:43 AM | Report abuse

There is a reason that they are in prison and there is a reason that they are in college. The QUALITY of the upbringing is the MAIN reason. There is the occasional racist judge, but frankly we have a society of hoodlums that uses color as an excuse to have no respect for themselves and then when one man does escape the community imposed shackles, he is held back by his people in other ways.

When EDUCATION and RESPECT are promoted above the latest deadbeat rapper, then we will rise above these accurate numbers. But waiting for some politician to rescue us is not the answer.

Call me an uncle if you must, but I got an education, a job, and a life.

(Oh, and when I quit feeling sorry for myself and reading the paper, I switched parties)

Posted by: The Dude | December 12, 2007 3:56 PM | Report abuse

Wait a minute - first of all, I question the validity of including two-year colleges, many of which are simply trade schools. Is it honest to refer to someone in refrigerator repair school or auto body finishing school as being in "college"? Second, by your own figures, 28 percent of African American men are in college (and that figure is decreasing) while 32 percent will end up in jail at some time in their lives. It seems to me that 32 percent is more than 28 percent, not less and certainly not ridiculously less. It seems to me that it depends on how you choose to compare the figures - a matter, in short, of interpretation and opinion. I know how important it is for the media to pretend that progressives and Democrats lie just the same as conservatives and Republicans, but it is a pretense, and it poorly serves the electorate in this very important contest.

Posted by: library-max | January 1, 2008 11:40 AM | Report abuse

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