“There are more black men in jail than in college” is a line that has transfigured our understanding of persistent problems among black men in the United States. Many activists and scholars recite it to invoke urgency to fight unjust social structures, while culture critics say it to condemn the social failings of black men. The line is memorable, immutable, provocative and piercing, but as I revealed last week, it is not true.

This realization creates a sense of reprieve and ambivalence among many black people. Since the first article was released, many have argued that the rate of graduation among black males is still too low, and the rate of incarceration is too high — assertions I will not dispute. However, the natures of these issues are different and should not be contorted to produce a pedestrian soundbite.

The Overrepresentation of Black Men in Prison Continues to Be a Problem

Trends (pdf) over the last 10 years reveal long-standing racial disparities in sentencing and incarcerating black men in the U.S. According to the Department of Justice, there were 841,000 black men in jail and prisons in 2009, 49,400 more than there were in 2000; however, the rate of incarceration dropped slightly. Although the rate increase among white males was higher during that time period, the current rate for black males is still almost seven times that of white males. In 2009, black males represented 40 percent of the total male prison population, compared with 45 percent in 2000.

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