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?