July 18, 2014

Chart of the Week: The black-white gap in incarceration rates


Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law, there still remains gaps between blacks and whites on many social and economic measures. Our Chart of the Week looks at one of them: the higher incarceration rates of black men compared with those of white men.

The above graphic from the Washington Post’s Wonkblog shows that black men in their prime working years, especially those without a high school diploma, are much more likely to be in jail than white men are.

While institutionalization rates rose for both blacks and whites from 1980 to 2000, it was especially sharp among the less educated black men – rising from 10% in 1980 for those ages 20 to 24 to 30% in 2000. In 2010, the institutionalization rate for this group dropped to 26%, but, as was the case in 2000, they were more likely to be institutionalized than they were to be employed (19% employment rate in 2010). Institutionalization and employment trends were similar, if not more dramatic, for black men with no high school diploma ages 25 to 29.

The chart is based on a study by University of Chicago economists Derek Neal and Armin Rick, who tabulated Census Long Form data from 1960 to 2000, and American Community Survey data from 2010. Neal and Rick’s study was in part a follow-up to a 1989 paper by James Smith of the RAND Corporation and Finis Welch of UCLA, which found substantial progress in closing the black-white gap in education, employment and earnings from 1940 to 1980.

But in the U. Chicago study, Neal and Rick concluded that progress on similar measures have sputtered since 1980, in part because of the disproportionately high incarceration rates. They noted, for example, that while employment rates for all men had declined since 1980, “these declines in employment and increases in incarceration have been much more dramatic among black men than white men.” The authors attributed part of this trend to the change in prison policies in the 1970s and 80s.

In 2010, all black men were six times as likely as all white men to be incarcerated in federal, state and local jails, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study. We also found that black-white gaps in median household income and wealth had widened in recent decades, while gaps in high school completion and life expectancy had narrowed. In last year’s survey, fewer than half of all Americans (45%) said the country has made substantial progress toward racial equality, and 49% said “a lot more” remains to be done.

Category: Chart of the Week

Topics: Race and Ethnicity, Socioeconomic Class

  1. is an associate digital producer at Pew Research Center.


  1. Teflon KC1 year ago

    There is a reason why Blacks fill up jails at shocking rates. It’s called American domestic policy.

    *“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”* John Ehrlichman, (White House) President Nixon’s Chief Domestic Advisor

    *Former LA Police Officer Mike Ruppert Confronts CIA Director John Deutch on Drug Trafficking*

    *Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion – Gary Webb Interview (1998)*

  2. Anonymous1 year ago

    I will solve all Your problems, if you really think that just because you are impoverished and are black there is no hope, you are wrong there is financial aid along with the ability to join the military. By joining the military you set up a good opportunity for yourself , you get a free education, you get paid, along with the ability to set up your descendants with a better start. So please don’t act as if it has to do with race, it has to do with the choices people make and education is free anyways all the way up to high-school so drop out rates and poverty aren’t linked.Also if you are telling me McDonald,Burger king, Walmart,Wendy’s,KFC, and any company like that really cares if you have your diploma you’re wrong also in high school you can go to a trade school and learn anything you need to start a business they’re are possibilities everywhere all you have to do is try. Its not about race but about the choices each person makes.

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      The military is disproportionately black…. so, I guess that is not working out as well as you say it will.

      1. Anonymous1 year ago

        Care to quantify that statement with proof?

  3. Christopher2 years ago

    While race & poverty are powerfully linked, it seems evident that it’s also about policing policies. For example- Are college students suddenly not using drugs? If we were able to look at stats regarding arrests in poor neighborhoods for drugs & patrols by police and compare that to the arrests & policing on college campuses, I believe that we would find a great disparity leaning vastly towards greater focus, patrolling & arrests in poor areas vs college campuses. If drug sniffing dogs were used on current campuses, don’t you think they’d be busy finding drugs?
    Also the conviction rate of college students, I’ll bet, is much lower than those arrested in poor neighborhoods.

  4. GB2 years ago

    It’s not about race, folks, it’s about poverty. If you are born in poverty, you are more likely to and drop out of school. And if you drop out of school, your chances for employment drop dramatically. And if you don’t have a job — or opportunity, or hope — you are more likely to commit crime. And without money, your chances of incarceration skyrocket. That’s why people of color are more likely to go to prison for minor drug offenses, which make up the majority of their convictions, than a white person arrested for the same crime. And by the way, most illegal drugs are consumed by whites. I’d love to see a similar study of arrest versus incarceration rates of blacks and whites

    THAT’S why black-American incarceration is so out of balance with their population share.

    The racism lives in the minds of those white Americans who don’t recognize, and perhaps refuse to recognize, the opportunities they received that are not available to our poor. Not all white Americans, for sure; in fact, I think the whites of this mindset are quite in the minority. Most of us whites are just pushing through our day, working to make the most out of what we have. We don’t have the time or inclination to worry about the have-nots or think about the blessings that helped us achieve our “have-ness.”

    But until we as a culture get past our mindset that says “I have mine, go get your own” and “I deserve mine, you don’t,” then poverty will continue to win and our nation will continue to lose. Of course, the whole situation is great business for the prison industry. But as the gap between haves and have-nots continues to grow, for Americans of all colors, maybe our prison industry won’t be able to keep up and something will have to change.

    1. GPS2 years ago

      I think that it is extremely important to separate “whiteness” from “having parents with money”. My parents have money, so I get advantages. I see people with different ancestries whose parents have money, and so they get advantages. I see people with my own ancestry whose parents don’t have money, and they don’t get advantages. Comparing apples to apples DOES show there is an advantage to being white. But stating that whites have a huge advantage simply FROM BEING WHITE, without reference to the advantages of having parents with money, is disingenuous. That argument leads inevitably to a call for equality by abolishing all ability for parents to work hard to give their descendants advantages. I, for one, do not want my kids being raised in a creche without knowing me, and being prevented from giving them the best start into society possible.

    2. Anonymous1 year ago

      You are right in what you said. But you are also wrong. It is yet still about race.

  5. Wm2 years ago

    Despite many studies to “prove” racism is the cause of increased incarceration of black men almost all reliable research has shown that the increased crime rates of black men is the primary cause of increased incarceration. The rates of incarceration are closely proportional to the rates of criminal activity in nearly all cases–there are NO disproportionate incarceration rates. Black men commit 250% to 600% more crimes than other men in the U.S. and are incarcerated at close to those rates. Blacks kill as many people each year as the rest of the population despite being only 12% of the population, etc.–look at the FBI crime statistics.

    1. Davida2 years ago

      “According to the FBI, in 2011, white people committed about 6.58 million crimes; blacks committed 2.7 million. It’s important to understand that these numbers include all forms of crimes, including violent and non-violent, such as property.”

      So please tell me where you got the “fact” that black men commit 600% more crime than all other men in America.

      Ignorance is not bliss, don’t spread your opinion as if it’s fact.

      1. Lee2 years ago

        Are you taking into account the white and black population numbers? Census shows the U.S. population is 63% white, 12% black. Taking your crime statistics into account, it would mean a black population less than 1/5 the size of the white population is committing 1/2 as many crimes. I believe the statistics Wm is quoting come straight from the FBI crime study.

        What’s more important is the WHY. That’s what really matters, and must be addressed.

        1. Truthteller2 years ago

          2.7 is not 1/2 of 6.58. What needs to be addressed is the concentration of police attention on black communities and whether that was a chicken or egg effect. Black incarceration going up RIGHT AFTER the Civil Rights Act was passed is supposed to be some happy coincidence? No, it was the latest means to suppress black freedom. After slavery ended, it was Jim Crow and sharecropping. Blacks endured that from 1877 to roughly 1965. Since then, it’s been the prison-industrial complex. You site those numbers as if they’re in a vacuum. If there are 100 cops and 75 of them are focusing on getting numbers in poor black communities, well OF COURSE the numbers are going to be skewed! But no one who makes these borderline Stormfront.org assertions about blacks and crime and poverty and the police never want to do any critical thinking. White people do just as many drugs, but get arrested a fraction of the time…because cops simply aren’t proportionally doing their jobs. Black people (mostly men) are the prime targets to keep these for-profit prisons humming. Take a man with no recourse to fight, someone who is already seen as a threat to society, and just throw them in jail/prison. White people won’t bat an eye and some will look at it as a way to keep themselves safer. Collateral damage…that’s it and that’s all.

    2. Carolyn Johnson2 years ago

      The FBI also states that “White individuals were arrested far more often for violent crimes than individuals of any other race and accounted for 58.4% of those arrests.” And the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that “whites were more likely to kill children, elderly, family members, and their significant others. They commit more sex related crime, gang related crime, and are more likely to kill at their place of employment.”

  6. Andy Logar3 years ago

    There is a strong correlation between under-achievement in school, including school drop-out rates and criminality, repeat offenses (long rap-sheets) and high black incarceration rates. This correlation cries out to be manifested in appropriate chart form.

    How can anyone expect a school drop-out, in the midst of a high tech competitive world, to engage in anything but criminal activity for the rest of his life? The educational system is failing the American black – it is is the black cultural break-down begins. National focus must be brought to bear on quality vocational education for youths who are not college material but who would do well in the trades. Give black youths a trade and a chance at an honest living and watch crime and incarceration rates plummet.

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      “The educational system is failing the American black” Yes. you are correct, but It’s designed that why on purpose.

    2. Jon Byley1 year ago

      “The educational system is failing the American black” Yes. you are correct, but It’s designed that why on purpose.

  7. Daniela3 years ago

    i was sentenced as a yo i did 3 years iercrancated fallowed by 3 years of community control and probation ive been in college for the past 11 months working towards and aa in criminal justice then im going to try law school but i do not have the funds my main goal before my charge was the military although when i was released the army told me they had quit excepting moral waivers 6 months prior is there a way to have my probation modified to military i know of several cases during veitnam were this was put into effect is there anything that could help me at this point in my life i would greatly appreciate it.

    1. john may2 years ago

      I applaud you in admitting your wrongs, standing up doing your punishment and now seeking an education. You are in control of your destiny not the Government. I would speak to your PO and also look into an attorney that can also assist in this area. There are free legal clinics if you provide your city I can see on finding you a referral. Good luck to you and never give up!! you can change not only your life but you can change the path for your future children!!

  8. Astralis3 years ago

    We need to start talking about the black crime rates. 50 percent of all murders in the US are committed by black men, whose victims are also black. Is there something wrong with talking about this?

    1. Knowledge3 years ago

      This is a great point, maybe because they are mocking their oppressors. It’s like raising a child and these characteristics have been passed down from generation to generation. Luckily some have broken that trend. They learned the hatred and killing from their oppressors. Remember that!

      1. tou tou2 years ago

        it is so far out of control we are dealing with 6th, 7th, 8th generation welfare single female families.

        stop the bleeding. address what is here or forever suffer the consequences.

  9. Anthony Alexander3 years ago

    Once again shall we restate the obvious????

  10. Ken3 years ago

    Clearly, we must find a way to convince black men to obey the law. That’s the key to achieving racial equality. With fifty years of “affirmative action” in school admission, hiring, promotion, etc., it’s clear that we’ve missed the mark and should have emphasized the need to behave morally and ethically at all times and in all ways. We should have emphasized — and still can — the need to do what’s right and avoid what’s wrong. That will usually keep us out of the pen.

    1. Mak3 years ago


    2. murray_g6@denison.edu2 years ago

      Yeah, no. Most of these people are drug offenders. Whites are just as likely (even more likely by many reports) to do drugs. There’s a lot of reasons for these incarceration rates, but I’m not convinced of any of yours.
      If you’re interested in changing your mind, you should check out The New Jim Crow or White by Law, the latter I’ve read and the prior I’m reading. They discuss the operations of the judicial system and provide in part an explanation of why there are incarceration rate disparities.

    3. E2 years ago

      No what needs to change is the african american community needs to not be our scape goats. The reason more african americans end up in jail is because we have a system set up against them. What neighborhoods get patroled more let me answer that poor n black neighborhoods… African americans are arrested at a rate of six times higher than white americans. You bring up the point black men shoot black men well arent you a lucky idividual that if something goes wrong for you you have a system to call that you trust to do the right thing. But imagine that if every encounter youve ever had with the people who are suppose to protect you has been a bad one than whos left to call. What we need to change is our stop n frisk laws. What needs to change is societies views on young black men being a threat.

  11. Packard Day3 years ago

    Second only to Black crime rates, Black incarceration rates are the national scandal of our age. Clearly, when it comes to both doing the crimes and then having to “do the times,” African-American men (as a cohort) tend to punch way over their weight.

  12. Susan Sered3 years ago

    Incarceration rates are beginning to decline but we do not seem to have any policies or programs in place that will repair the damage of decades of mass incarceration. I work with women whose boyfriends, husbands, sons and brothers get out of prison and can’t find jobs and are ineligible for public housing. The suffering the men experience in prison spills over onto their families when, for instance, a woman is evicted from her housing for “allowing” her boyfriend to stay with her. susan.sered.name/blog/sex-race-p…