A long time ago, I used to deal with the Angry White Male phonomenon in a confrontational manner. Today I saw some statistics that reminded me of those bad old days:
6. Black Men Are Disproportionately Incarcerated 5 million: Number of men of any race who have ever served time in state or federal prison in 2001 1.9 million: Number of black men who have ever served time in state or federal prison as of 2001 704,000: Number in 1979 630,700: Number of white men in prison or jail 818,900: Number of black men in prison or jail 195,500: Number of black men ages 18-24 in prison or jail 17: Percentage of black men who have ever served time in prison
But before I deal with any puny fractions here, I want to make a note of the difference between a statistical concern and a moral concern. As followers of the Bennett controversy should know by now, what is rational in utilitarian terms is not always rational in moral terms. The reverse is true as well. What is dismissible in utilitarian terms is not always dismissible in moral terms.
Still, I'm going to stress the stats.
As we have long known, those of us who follow Ellis Cose, blackfolks who have nothing to do with crime or criminality are always being unfairly asked to be accountable for the legendary disproportionality. Whenever I hear that argument I say that in order to be consistent, black should be disproportionately commended for the good. It usually it doesn't work, but it depends upon the aim of the interlocutor. Just as this 17% figure tends to show up when the subject is crime, I like to shoot back the 30% figure with regards to black enlistment in the armed forces. 'We' may be overrepresented in jail, but our overreprentation in patriotic duty is way more impressive, statistically speaking. Of course it never seems to have the moral sway it should with the sorts of folks who bring up the 17%. I wonder why.
Even so, it should be a cursory bit of knowledge that there are about 36 million or so blackfolks in this country now, roughly half of which are men. So while it's fun to toss around the idea that 17% of prisoners are black, those 17% are only (given the figures above) about 4.5% of black American males. In other words, 95.5% of us aren't. So when has 4.5% of a population become the responsibility of the rest, or justified some characterization of the rest?
Let me put it this way, let's take a similar statistic about gay men.
Only 6 percent of men in the NCHS study reported engaging in oral or anal sex with another man during their lifetimes, while the percentage of men reporting same-sex sexual behavior in the CUNY-Queens College study fluctuated over the years between 3.5 and 5.5 percent.
So imagine that I as a man asked for advice about my marriage, and you know that since about 4.5% of men are homosexual, you start talking about what gay men do. It's something I think very few people would suggest, but the relative statistics are the same. This is why I tend to get incensed when matters of African American politics and culture touch the waters of jail and crime stats. Let's see if this rhetorical device works for me in the future.
In the meantime note that while the statistical percentages suggest that this problem be pushed off to the side, there is a larger moral issue at hand - which is the issue of crime and punishment itself. Surely only a few of any society are criminal, but they will continue to get a disporportionate amount of our political attention, and rightly so.
So the next time I say bah and humbug to any discussion about black crime, understand where I'm coming from. I don't even *know* any black men in jail.