Invisible Problems of Invisible People

Many have explored how people are made invisible. As Becky Pettit explains in Invisible Men:

“[O]ur 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.”

In the Washington Post, Jeff Guo made a similar point, including mentioning the work of Becky Pettit and Bruce Western:

“Though there are nearly 1.6 million Americans in state or federal prison, their absence is not accounted for in the figures that politicians and policymakers use to make decisions. As a result, we operate under a distorted picture of the nation’s economic health.

“There’s no simple way to estimate the impact of mass incarceration on the jobs market. But here’s a simple thought experiment. Imagine how the white and black unemployment rates would change if all the people in prison were added to the unemployment rolls.

“According to a Wonkblog analysis of government statistics, about 1.6 percent of prime-age white men (25 to 54 years old) are institutionalized. If all those 590,000 people were recognized as unemployed, the unemployment rate for prime-age white men would increase from about 5 percent to 6.4 percent.

“For prime-age black men, though, the unemployment rate would jump from 11 percent to 19 percent. That’s because a far higher fraction of black men — 7.7 percent, or 580,000 people — are institutionalized.

“Now, the racial gap starts to look like a racial chasm. (When you take into account local jails, which are not included in these statistics, the situation could be even worse.)”

It’s nice for this to get some mainstream attention. It’s much worse when one considers that some studies have found that upward of 6% of prison inmates are innocent of all criminal charges. The system is designed to force confessions through threats. And then, innocent or not, the punishment doesn’t end even after people supposedly pay for their wrongdoings by doing time—more from the article:

“One in thirteen black adults can’t vote because of their criminal records. Discrimination on the job market deepens racial inequality. Not only does a criminal record make it harder to get hired, but studies find that a criminal record is more of a handicap for black men. Employers are willing to give people second chances, but less so if they’re black.”

It’s worse still. Other studies have found that blacks with no criminal records are less likely to be interviewed and hired than whites with criminal records. Even if a black ex-con tries to turn their life around by for example getting college education, they are less likely to get interviewed and hired than a white person of equal background with only a high school diploma. Simply having a black-sounding name will decrease the chances of getting an interview at all.

This is all on top of the fact that the entire policing and legal system targets blacks. For crimes whites commit more, blacks still get arrested more and convicted more harshly.

None of this is new information. It is well known by those care to know. It has been substantiated by decades of data and research. Yet too often we act as if not only the problem doesn’t exist but that those impacted also don’t exist.

12 thoughts on “Invisible Problems of Invisible People

    • My dad was just arguing with me that the US government isn’t controlled by big money. I pointed out that studies have shown that big money does have immense political influence. He denied this, even though he had no evidence to the contrary. It just didn’t fit his beliefs.

      So, I called him ignorant. I told him that I wouldn’t play that game with him. He can have his own opinions, but not his own facts. I said that if he wanted to be ignorant he should honestly embrace it. I refuse to accept ignorance. It’s the one thing I won’t tolerate in the slightest. I will rip any ignorant person a new asshole, even my own parents.

      My dad wants to complain about Trump and then not take responsibility that his kind of attitude has made someone like Trump inevitable. I get so fucking tired of ignorance. I’m past the breaking point.

      If we tolerate ignorance, we will have something like fascism. That is one of the few things I’m sure about.

      It’s just endless ignorance. Ignorance about big money. Ignorance about racism. Ignorance about climate change. On and on and on. Why do we tolerate this ignorance? We should publicly humiliate any and every person who is willfully ignorant. It’s not just that we tolerate it. We embrace it. We think it is our God given right as Americans to be ignorant.

      It really is fucked up. And I’m tired of it all. I don’t want to see my country become an authoritarian regime. People like my father pretend to care. But they don’t really care. To admit what has brought us to this point can’t be even entertained, because that would be to admit in the end that capitalism and corporatism aren’t different.

      My dad is upset. Reality is proving his ideology wrong. Capitalism as free markets and meritocracy is the faith he has held his entire life. As an upper class older white guy, he has wanted to believe the world is just and that he deserves everything he has. That everyone else who hasn’t had as good of a life is to be blamed for their own failure. But if he were to admit that a meritocracy doesn’t exist, his entire sense of reality would come crashing down.

      I understand he is upset. He is going through one of the stages of grief. But if as a society we don’t get to the acceptance stage real quick, things are going to turn ugly. If instead we choose denial and create a politics of denial, the demagogues will gain full control and authoritarianism will follow. Would people like my dad rather live in oppression than to admit they were wrong all along?

      It’s the same with so many Democrats and mainstream good liberals. Everyone is afraid to face the reality of the problems before us. Endless lesser evil that ever leads to greater evil, a road paved with good intentions. We’d rather walk off a cliff than open our eyes. Maybe it will take a Trump presidency to finally wake up all the ignorant Democrats and Republicans.

      I must admit that there will be no satisfaction in telling people that I told them so. I really don’t want to be right about this. But all the evidence is pointing in the same direction. I just don’t see the point in denying reality, no matter how unhappy it is. Reality is reality. We might as well deal with it. I just know in my heart of hearts that we won’t deal with it. It is near inevitable at this point, unless some external event or conditions save us from ourselves.

    • Americans have lived with these lies for so long. What will happen when Americans are finally forced to face the reality of these lies? It seems that Trump is forcing us into that position. I could see my dad becoming a broken man. When people’s fantasies are shattered, they either give up on life or they become extremely dangerous. At that point, anything goes and anything is possible.

    • That is exactly the data I was thinking of.

      What bothers me about my dad is that he sometimes has a casual way of dismissing things that don’t fit into his beliefs. When I told him about this research, his response was that there is lots of research. He didn’t know anything about what I was talking about, and he couldn’t even handle even thinking about it. He didn’t ask for me to point to the research. He simply dismissed it as an act of not just willful ignorance but full on anti-intellectual belligerence.

      My dad is capable of intelligent thought and even sometimes out of the box thinking, but he is constantly hitting against the constraints of his ideological beliefs. He doesn’t know how to reconcile his beliefs with reality, and it is usually reality that gets sacrificed. It is frustrating, because I know he is capable of being better than that.

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