At this point, it's almost a cliché to declare "There are more black men in jail than in college." I've heard it my entire life—from adults, friends, politicians, and assorted pundits. When he was just a presidential candidate, then-Senator Barack Obama told the NAACP that "We have more work to do when more young black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America."
It's a great soundbite. But it isn't true. As Howard University professor Ivory Toldson shows in a story for The Root, the original report on black male college enrollment—the Justice Policy Institute's "Cellblocks or Classrooms," first published in 2001—is far out of date. "If we replicated JPI's analysis," writes Toldson, "we would find a 108.5 percent jump in black male college enrollment from 2001 to 2011. The raw numbers show that enrollment of black males increased from 693,044 in 2001 to 1,445,194 in 2011."
By contrast, of the estimated 2 million inmates held in state or federal prison—or local jails—841,000 are African American men. To be fair, those numbers are from 2009. Toldson provides a more direct comparison using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the Census Bureau's American Community Survey and the Department of Justice's statistics on prison enrollment:
In 2009, the DOJ's most recent year for data on prison populations, there were more than 150 percent more black males in college than incarcerated. Given the declining prison presence of African Americans—incarceration rates fell sharply between 2000 and 2009, and remain on a downward slope—and the growing presence of blacks in higher education, the difference between the two populations is likely larger.
This is great news. Whether it will affect our conversations over the status of black males is, of course, a different question.