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When Statistics Haunt

For the most part, I try to avoid statistics. I’m more of a words kind of girl. Words have the power to etch faces into the fabric of my mind. Stories put flesh on the skeletons of a number.

But occasionally, a statistic moves me.

It sticks.  I can’t shake it.

A number. Chasing after me.

This is one of those numbers:

One in three black men born in America will go to prison at some point in their lives.

1 in 3.

One in three.

I can’t make my mind comprehend that number. Not because it’s too big, but because it’s too clear. It’s too easy to understand. Do you have 60 men in your church? Imagine 10 of them gone from your community, another 5 on probation, another 5 with criminal records. Do you have three sons? One of them will go to prison. Do 15 men work at your job? Imagine doing your job without five of them.

incarceration rates of black men

I moved into our neighborhood three years ago as a young, fresh faced white girl with optimism, energy, and book smarts to spare. But all those words never could have prepared me for the realities our urban neighborhoods are facing. They never could have shown me the wreckage that statistic—-1 in 3—-leaves behind in a community. Those words couldn’t explain the tragedy of a child growing up without a dad. They couldn’t help me understand what it’s like to raise children by yourself and work three jobs just to scrape by. They couldn’t come close to crafting a picture of a community stripped of workers, role models, leaders.

Don’t mishear me. These single moms are hard-working and passionate. They care deeply about their children. They want to see them grow up strong and smart and safe. They are leaders and fighters.

I talk to them. I’ve heard their stories. The ones who have lost sons to prison and the ones who’ve lost their sons to bullets. They hurt. They ache for their lost sons.  They soldier through the days, some of them emboldened by their loss and others silenced…waiting…hoping for a change they aren’t even sure is possible. They are strong, so very strong. They are survivors in every sense of the word.

But a community of survivors doesn’t thrive. We are just making it. We are just getting by. We’re working too many jobs, shouldering too much responsibility, mothering too many fatherless children. We’re grieving, every day. Trying to do it without them.  Longing for our lost sons and husbands and fathers and coworkers.

We’re hobbling. A community walking with a cane. Every step forward labored, uneven, a struggle.

Sometimes I like to imagine what our neighborhood would look like if suddenly all those black men returned. If their gifts were developed. If they were fixing up boarded houses and singing in the coffee shop next door. If they were working at the grocery store and bringing home a pay check. If they were going to Parent Teacher conferences and volunteering at the church.

If these men didn’t have to worry about records. If their job applications weren’t thrown away without a glance. If they could come back to our neighborhood and be full partners in this work. This work of parenting and neighboring and providing and teaching and leading.

It’s such a beautiful picture—what could be—what could’ve been.

Oh how we need the gifts, the skills, the HELP of all those men.

What horrifies me more than anything is that that number–1 in 3–doesn’t even capture all the men our neighborhoods are losing to violence every day.

I don’t have answers. I’ve read books on the problem and papers on the solution. We can talk about injustice, and broken systems, and policies that crush communities. We can talk about mass incarceration and the war on drugs and the gospel and hearts that need Jesus.  But I don’t have the privilege of leaving the answers in the books, solving the problem on paper then leaving the words to rot, undone.

We are living this everyday. It is next door. It is across the street.

It is real.

That statistic.

One in three black men.

And it haunts me.


If you’d like to read more about the numbers, and look at one possible solution, I suggest starting with this fact sheet from the National Network of Safe Communities and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 

You can also check out this fact sheet from the NAACP and this report from the U.S. Department of Justice (these stats are a bit outdated, but still show the trend of imprisonment).

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  • Life in the Slow Lane March 26, 2013, 11:01 AM

    “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” Mother Theresa

    It’s time to abolish the death penalty in this state and in this country.

  • k d April 4, 2013, 2:06 PM

    powerful thought provoking post.

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