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.

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?