Thursday, January 24, 2008

Just the Facts Today-o, Day-o

Like every other Internet megalomaniac, I have a Google alert that notifies me every time my name is bandied about in cyberspace. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen anymore except for the difficult fact that the chapel at the University of Vermont and a speaker’s venue is named “the Ira Allen Chapel.”

This is not some cosmic joke; rather it reflects the fact that the founder of said university, the founder of Vermont and the lesser known of the Green Mountain Boys was, indeed, Ira Allen. So, this week I was alerted to a news story in the Burlington paper about a Martin Luther King Day speech by one of my folk music and social justice idols, Harry Belafonte.

However, as a recovering journalist I despair when bad facts are used in service of good causes. Belafonte, as have John Edwards, Barack Obama and many others, casually dropped an assertion into a speech that was just plain wrong.

The supposed fact is that there are more minority men in prison than in college.

But according to the Census Bureau, in 2005 there were many more black men in college than federal or state prisons and jails of any age -- including lifers. For black men between 18 and 24, more than four times as many black men are in college than incarcerated. (Hispanics have a lower rate of imprisonment and a lower rate of college attendance than blacks, but it is not likely at all that there are more nonwhite males in jail than college.)

Belafonte et al may bring a gasp from an audience, but they also reinforce a stereotype, which has the added distraction of being untrue.

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