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More Black Men in Prison Today Than in 1850, Despite Low Crime Rate

The number of African American men who are incarcerated now exceeds the number that was enslaved in 1850, despite historic lows in crimes.

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, shared with an audience at the Pasadena branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, “more African-American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.”

Alexander proffers that the prison-industrial complex is the latest form of economic and social disenfranchisement for young people of color, especially young black men. In it, she grapples with a central question: If crime rates have fluctuated over the years and are now at historical lows, then why have rates of incarcerated men of color skyrocketed over the past 30 years?

The author points to the so-called “war on drugs,” and the atrocious sentencing system that stemmed from it, which included mandatory minimums, three strikes law and the abominable 100-1 sentencing ratio for crack and powder cocaine. Over the past 25 years, the war on drugs has focused its discriminating eye primarily on communities of color, despite multiple studies have proved unequivocally that Caucasians use and sell illegal drugs at rates equal to, and often exceed, blacks.

ColorLines magazine’s Thoai Lu reports that the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that as of 2008, there were more than 846,000 black men in prison, translating to 40.2 percent of all inmates in the system. Four of five black youths in some inner-city communities in America can expect to have a relationship with the American penal system sometime during their lives.

How can this be possible? If crimes are, according to FBI statistics, at or near historic lows, then why such a large discrepancy? Why aren’t many more whites in jail due to similar transgressions? More importantly, what are we going to do about it?

terry shropshire

1 Comment

  1. Mr. D on April 2, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    there are a few reason black men are more incarcerated today than 1850. One of them has to do with the family structure. The lost of manufacturing industry. The persistent bias in hiring practices that effectively locks some blacks out of decent paying jobs. So how do we fix it. We have churches we have people. We have money as a collective. How do we fix this major problem? We say it takes a village to raise a child. Where is the village? Individually we have to make sure that we take care of children and as a community we have to find a way to help one another. This rampant consumerism leaves allows hollow. When what would fill us is the satisfaction of making a difference. A measured provable results. And it is happening but in small pockets around the country. What is going to take to have a large scale project move forward across the nation?