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.