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The Myth of Black Progress: New RSF Book Shows How Mass Incarceration Masks Persistent Racial Inequality

For Immediate Release, September 2012 Contact: David Haproff, (212) 750-6037

NEW YORK—The Russell Sage Foundation has published a ground-breaking book by sociologist Becky Pettit that calls into question the prevailing assumptions about black progress in the United States.

Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress examines the hidden ways incarceration impacts our perception of African American advancement in mainstream measures of voter turnout, educational attainment, and employment.

Most national population surveys—including the U.S. Census— fail to count prison inmates, who are disproportionately young black males. Pettit’s research shows that these methods have rendered the inmate population invisible. As a result, mass incarceration—and our failure to acknowledge it in our data sets—has effectively overstated black progress in the United States and concealed persistent racial inequality in political engagement, wage growth, educational attainment and other areas.

For example, by excluding incarcerated Americans, the 2008 Current Population Survey:

  • Underestimated racial inequality in the high school dropout rate by 75 percent.
  • Overstated the employment rate of young, black male dropouts as 42 percent, while the employment rate is 26 percent when inmates are included.
  • Overestimated overall black voter turnout by 13 percent and turnout among young, black male dropouts by 64.2 percent.

“By systematically excluding inmates and former inmates from key data, we’ve clouded our understanding of the American political, economic and social condition,” says Pettit. “I hope that by bringing the mass of incarcerated people into public view, the book will give the public, social scientists and policymakers a more complete picture of our contemporary reality—and influence public policy debates accordingly.”

A crucial complement to The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander—which argued that mass incarceration replaced segregation as a system of social control—the book’s findings have implications for the upcoming election and beyond. They call into question what strides African Americans have made in recent decades—and during President Obama’s time in office—and assumptions about black voter engagement. They also raise questions about which types of policies would best address entrenched social and economic problems.

Becky Pettit is professor of sociology at the University of Washington. She is also the co-author of Gendered Tradeoffs (Russell Sage Foundation 2009), which examines how gender and family obligations influence economic inequalities in 21 advanced industrialized countries. Pettit is the Editor of Social Problems, the official journal of the Society of the Study of Social Problems, and a founding member of the Scholars Strategy Network. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Princeton University and a B.A. in sociology from University of California at Berkeley.

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The Russell Sage Foundation is the principal American foundation devoted exclusively to research in the social sciences. Located in New York City, it is a research center, a funding source for studies by scholars at other academic and research institutions, and an active member of the nation’s social science community. The Foundation also publishes, under its own imprint, the books that derive from the work of its grantees and Visiting Scholars. It is best known for its support for research programs on low-wage work, social inequality, immigration, and behavioral economics.

For further information on this or any other Russell Sage Foundation publications, or to schedule an interview with the authors, please contact David Haproff at 212-750-6037.

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