Are young black males really more likely to be in prison than in leading universities?
That was the claim of Prime Minister David Cameron at the weekend as he raised his lance at the closed doors of top universities.
“If you’re a young black man, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university,” wrote Mr Cameron, in an article in the Sunday Times.
The striking headline claim was used as an example to show that “blatant racism” might have diminished, but there were still “under the surface”, residual layers of discrimination.
It’s a powerful contrast, but is it really the case? It might be the right cause, but is it the right statistic?
Not quite, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), which provides data on the sector for the government and funding agencies.
The comparison, according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, was based on there being “2,644 young black British men aged 18-25 in prison”.
These were contrasted with young male black students in Russell Group universities.
But HESA says that in 2013-14 there were 2,655 black students from the UK, under the age of 25 in this group of leading universities. Among under-30s, the number was higher, 3,040.
The following year, 2014-15, the figures were higher again, with 3,430 male black students under-30 and 3,040 who were under-25.
The Russell Group says there were 4,520 black British male students at their universities in 2013-14 and they were more likely to have a slightly older age profile than white students.
In either case, it would mean there were not more young black men in prison than in these universities.
Downing Street says that HESA is the source for their figure too, but interpret the numbers as 2,315 young black male students in Russell Group universities, lower than HESA’s own definitive figure.
Of course none of this takes away from the bigger picture highlighting the lack of black students in top universities.
As Mr Cameron wrote: “It’s striking that in 2014, our top university, Oxford, accepted just 27 black men and women out of an intake of more than 2,500.”
University admissions might be at record levels, but there are stubborn pockets where opportunities do not seem to be evenly shared.
Poor white boys are among the lowest achievers; youngsters from schools in deprived coastal towns and some northern cities get fewer sought-after places than their counterparts in London.
Private school pupils remain significantly over-represented in Oxford and Cambridge and a report published on Thursday calls for these institutions to have less opaque systems for admissions.
But the claim that young black men are more likely to be in jail than university has a long history of its own – particularly in the US.
It’s been used repeatedly in the US as an example of something that’s widely believed but isn’t true. It’s a statistical urban myth, dating back more than a decade.
It makes a hard-hitting connection between two inequalities – the over-representation of young black males in US prisons and their under-representation in higher education.
The power of the image seems to overwhelm any doubts about its authenticity.
As the American Council on Education has put it: “It is a compelling statement. It is also, quite simply, untrue.”
And despite numerous debunkings, it still has currency.
A BBC radio programme examined the widespread claim a few years ago, in the US context, concluding that it wasn’t currently true and was of uncertain accuracy even when it began to be circulated about 15 years ago.
There were suggestions that in 2000 in the US there was a higher prison than student population for young black men, but even this is disputed, with claims that students in many black-majority colleges had not been counted.
Downing Street are sticking to their figures about the comparison in the UK – and to the greater importance of the issue rather than the numbers.
But don’t expect the striking claim – or the underlying argument – to go away any time soon.
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