Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration, Race, & Data

I’ve been feeling a strong draw to get back into my unfinished blogging project about violence and inequality, specifically in the United States, in relation to race and racism. It is a daunting task, and for the moment I must focus elsewhere, but let me for a brief moment revisit this topic.

The most interesting book I’ve read about the American racial order is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. The reason my mind has been brought back to this is because of another book I picked up a short while ago. It is Invisible Men by Becky Pettit.

The reason this book caught my attention is simple. Pettit, like Alexander, focuses closely on the data. It is a struggle trying to grasp what all the data means, and it is nice having books like these as guides. Invisible Men has the added value of looking not just at the data but also what data is collected (or not) and how it is collected, which gives us a rare opportunity to glimpse some blindspots.

I have just started the book and so can’t speak of it in detail at the moment. Let me just offer a passage to give you a taste of it (Kindle Locations 198-216):

“The intensive press coverage of America’s criminals and the extensive supervision of inmates by correctional authorities belie the invisibility of inmates, parolees, probationers, and others involved in the criminal justice system to the outside world. Inmates are a social group isolated socially, physically, and statistically from much of the rest of society. The vast majority of our nation’s inmates come from very few jurisdictions, and the facilities in which they are housed are even fewer in number (Heyer and Wagner 2004). Even our national data systems, as well as the social facts they produce, are structured around a normative kind of economic, political, and domestic life that commonly eludes those under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

“Inmates and former inmates are less likely than otherwise similarly disadvantaged men to hold down steady legitimate jobs, to participate in civic life, and to live in settled households. Even their institutionalization involves a segment of the state cut off from the usual methods of social accounting. We categorically exclude inmates and former inmates from the social surveys routinely used to gauge the condition of the U.S. population, and we systematically undercount them in the U.S. Census and social surveys.

“More than one hundred years ago, Émile Durkheim (1895/ 1982, 54) coined the term “social fact” to describe phenomena that both characterize and explain features of society: social facts are “the beliefs, tendencies and practices of the group taken collectively.” In his own research , Durkheim commonly relied on statistics such as rates of births, marriages, or suicides to isolate and examine social facts.

“This book documents how our collective blindness hinders the establishment of social facts, conceals inequality, and undermines the foundation of social science research, including that used in the design and evaluation of social policy. The decades-long expansion of the criminal justice system has led to the acute and rapid disappearance of young, low-skill African American men from portraits of the American economic, political, and social condition . While the expansion of the criminal justice system reinforces race and class inequalities in the United States, the full impact of the criminal justice system on American inequality is obscured by the continued use of data collection strategies and estimation methods that predate prison expansion.”

And then a little further on, the author sums it up and points out its relevance for us (Kindle Locations 222-225):

“The promise of the civil rights era has been undercut by a new form of invisibility manufactured by mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex. Yet the invisibility of large segments of the American population and the inequality it conceals is not a natural or inevitable product of prison growth.”

That gets the gears of my mind going. How can we understand something and discuss it when it is invisible to our collective sight? This makes for quite the challenge. We need to be very careful about the data upon which we base interpretations, speculations, theories, and conclusions. What is left out?

8 thoughts on “Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration, Race, & Data

  1. I don’t know that it is out of our collective sight. I think it is rationalized more than hidden. That said, it is also easy to forget that majority of those in prison and those in poverty are “white” for the same reasons as above. When people do not think those people are “white” they can have a false notion that their group is paying of the benefits of others–but really that is not the case. The New Jim Crow is like the old Jim Crow in one key respect–it can be used to silence poor whites too because at least they have someone lower down to kick, while often those chains are around the wrists of the poorest of them as well. That is not to say that it is not racially targeted, it absolutely is and the percentages bare that out, but in raw numbers… the rationalizations that justify mass minority–or to be frank, Black, First Peoples, and Hispanic, we are talking three specific minorities (one is not really a racial category either)–emprisonment, also can be used to stomp on the lower class of the majority.

    The Invisible Man, however, is a good metaphor because that book is far more cynical than a lot of post-civil rights area stuff is AND it is cynical about black nationalism. The invisible man is rendered invisible almost by white liberals and black nationalists in that book. I think that is true for average black man in the South even now. Al Sharpton does not speak for them. Obama does not either. Pretty much no one does. And as often minor felons, they don’t get to vote either, so what incentive does anyone have to speak for them? It makes my blood boil just thinking about that too.

    • Thanks for that thoughtful comment. All of that is important to keep in mind. In the end, thinking about poor minorities can’t be understood separately from poor whites. The racial order has always been tied up with the class order.

      Your last point gets at the crux of the matter. These people are ‘invisible’ because, as felons, politically speaking they are irrelevant to the entire process of campaigning and elections. If voting gives you a voice in a democracy, lacking the right to vote is to lack a voice and so to lack the power to get anyone to speak for you as a representative.

      • Yes, but it also should lead us to be skeptical of Democrats and professional pundits using them because they are using them in general to get the votes of other middle–middle class minorities, “modal” minorites and “white” minorites (East Asians, Jews, etc)–and white liberals. These people are still be used and generally to salve conscience. Ellison saw that clearly.

        • I’ve seen discussions along these lines, maybe in some of the books I’ve read, but I forget where.

          The example I remember had to do with Claudette Colvin. Before Rosa Parks, she refused to give up her seat for a white person. But the civil rights lawyers decided not to fight for her case because se wasn’t a model minority. She had had some problems. Part of it was a practical issue of winning a case. Even so, I have to wonder if she was seen by some as being less worthy.

          Such examples can be broadened. This probably explains why there has been less of a civi rights fight to get voting rights back for felons. Even many civil rights activists, leaders, and lawyers see felons as deserving having their rights taken away or else not deserving the time and money being used to advocate for them.

          The same goes for why it has taken so long for prison reform to get much attention by the mainstream.

          • The same reason those sex offender lists can’t get reformed. Everyone who knows the policy agrees it is counter-productive and are so broad that urinating in public can get you on the list in many of those states and thus treated like a pedophile, yet no one is going to touch them. I will be honest with you, it is why I do not have much hope for representative democracy in the long run.

          • I understand your doubts. I’d like to argue that you are wrong, but I have little objective evidence to offer for having faith in democracy. For me, it comes down to seeing few alternatives. If democracy fails us or we fail at democracy, I’m not sure where else we can turn. But maybe there is something we cannot yet imagine. Or maybe we’ll just continue stumbling along until civilization collapses or a new form of authoritarianism takes over. Time will tell, as always.

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