After President Barack Obama’s resounding electoral victory earlier this month, many are crediting massive voter turnout in African American and Latino communities as the key to his success.
According to the NAACP, swing states in particular saw a dramatic increase in the share of black voters.
In Ohio, for instance, African Americans comprised 10 percent of the electorate in 2004, but this year, rose to 15 percent. Similarly, in Virginia, another battleground state that contributed to the president’s win, the black vote rose from 16 percent in 2004 to 20 percent in 2012.
But Becky Pettit, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, warns that these numbers can be deceiving. While communities of color were certainly instrumental in President Obama’s re-election — perhaps even more so than in 2008 — these statistics mask the reality of growing African American disenfranchisement throughout the country.
“When people make the claim that young black men are more enfranchised than they’ve ever been, that’s not true,” she says. “Among those that are eligible to vote, there is a very high turnout rate. But a lower fraction of them are eligible than were 25 years ago because of mass incarceration.”
Pettit explains that felon disenfranchisement laws in every state except Maine and Vermont have stripped millions of Americans in prison, on probation or on parole of the right to vote. And as incarceration rates balloon, so does disenfranchisement.
In addition, these individuals — who are disproportionately African American — are not counted in voter turnout statistics, leading to the perception that blacks are voting at higher rates than they actually are.
In 2008, Pettit estimates that the black voter turnout rate was inflated by more than 13 percent because it excluded those affected by felon disenfranchisement laws.
Pettit discusses these themes in her new book, “Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress,” showing how inmates consistently go uncounted in the United States, which distorts Americans’ understanding of racial progress and equality, from voting to education and employment.
While the decennial census does tally those who are incarcerated, population surveys conducted in between typically do not, because they count people by household.
Doing this, Pettit says, “You miss certain sub-groups of the population. You miss people in the military, people in long-term care facilities, people who are institutionalized. Such a large fraction of low-skilled black men are not living in households, they’re living in institutions — on any given day, 37 percent of young black men who have dropped out of high school are living in prison or jail.”
The country’s failure to count African Americans is nothing new, Pettit points out. The Three-Fifths Compromise, passed in 1787, held that slaves would only count as three-fifths of a person when the government apportioned members to the House of Representatives, and had the effect of bolstering the political power of whites in slave-holding states.
“The framers of the Constitution certainly understood that how you count people is really consequential,” she says. “How people count is a reflection of power and politics, and the Three-Fifths Compromise was a very explicit discounting of African American power.”
It took nearly 100 years after that for all blacks to be counted in the census.
Today, the population surveys that exclude inmates are used to generate statistics about education, employment, poverty and other social issues — and in turn determine how federal and state resources are allocated.
Ignoring those caught up in the criminal justice system, therefore, understates the needs of certain communities and exaggerates progress.
In employment, Pettit explains that conventional data say half of young black male dropouts were working in the late 2000s. However, factoring in the 37 percent incarceration rate of this group, that employment rate goes down to about a quarter.
Similarly, in education, conventional data that excludes the inmate population underestimates the black dropout rate by 40 percent. “When we’re missing the most disadvantaged segment of the population, that means across the board, we’re overstating how well people are doing,” Pettit says.
On top of inflating African American progress, Pettit says that omitting prisoners also overestimates racial equality. While most data show the black-white gap in high school completion narrowing since the 1980s, when those who are incarcerated are included in these figures, there has been little improvement in the disparity in the past 30 years.
“Maybe that’s what we want to believe, that people are getting ahead, that things are better than they were,” she says. “But that doesn’t really help us target policy effectively.”
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