America has the world’s highest rate of incarceration, currently 738 per 100,000. Our nearest competitor for this dubious distinction is the Russian Federation with 607 and Cuba with 487. “The US incarcerates at a rate 4 to 7 times higher than other western nations such as the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany and up to 32 times higher than nations with the lowest rates such as Nepal, Nigeria, and India.”
http://www.nccd-crc.org/nccd/pubs/2006nov_factsheet_incarceration.pdf Despite possible protestations that this is because we have the best law enforcement, my sense is that the reasons lie more in the system, than those who enforce it. No one ever lost an election in America because of the perception they “were tough on crime”.
“Race: Black males continue to be incarcerated at an extraordinary rate. Black males make up 35.4 percent of the jail and prison population — even though they make up less than 10 percent of the overall U.S population. Four percent of U.S. black males were in jail or prison last year, compared to 1.7 percent of Hispanic males and .7 percent of white males. In other words, black males were locked up at almost six times the rate of their white counterparts.” http://www.nccd-crc.org/nccd/pubs/2006nov_factsheet_incarceration.pdf
Despite possible protestations that this is because we have the best law enforcement, my sense is that the reasons lie more in the system, than those who enforce it. No one ever lost an election in America because of the perception they “were tough on crime”. “Race: Black males continue to be incarcerated at an extraordinary rate. Black males make up 35.4 percent of the jail and prison population — even though they make up less than 10 percent of the overall U.S population. Four percent of U.S. black males were in jail or prison last year, compared to 1.7 percent of Hispanic males and .7 percent of white males. In other words, black males were locked up at almost six times the rate of their white counterparts.”
These two sets of statistics when viewed together tell a terrible tale of how racial oppression still exists in this country despite our Black President and Black Attorney General. This Administration hasn’t caused of this problem, but they don’t seem to have made any progress dealing with it. We do know that there has been a widespread effort to play down the racial division that continues to plague this country. This continues despite Civil Rights Laws, Martin Luther King’s Birthday and TV beer commercials that always include at least one black male friend enjoying the camaraderie. Clearly there is a disconnect between how we Americans want to see ourselves and the reality for many Black males. I’m focusing on the problem of black males in this piece, rather than the general oppression of Black people, because the effect of this process is a function of the general racist climate of this country and is a major contributor to the continuance of this oppression. There have often been discussions on this blog about the devastating effects of the “War on Drugs” and this quote is illustrative of the tenor of theses discussions. “Nationwide, black males convicted of drug felonies in state courts are sentenced to prison 52 percent of the time, while white males are sentenced to prison only 34 percent of the time. The ratio for women is similar – 41 percent of black female felony drug offenders are sentenced to prison, as compared to 24 percent of white females. With respect to violent offenses, 74 percent of black male convicted felons serve prison time, as opposed to only 60 percent of white male convicted felons. With respect to all felonies, 58 percent of black male convicted felons, as opposed to 45 percent of white men, serve prison sentences”. http://www.civilrights.org/publications/justice-on-trial sentencing.html
It is clear to me that racism exists today in America, despite supposed gains and that this disparity in the treatment of race is not only devastating to Black people, but its continuance is disastrous for our entire society. The degeneration of our political system during the last five decades may not be solely due to racial prejudice, but those who have helped bring it about certainly have used racism to empower their viewpoints, even as their rhetoric has shifted from overt to covert. I’m moved to write this because I believe that unless this problem becomes accepted in our public consciousness, there will be no escape from the downward trend of our nation towards political and economic disaster.
I’ve presented enough evidence of the racialist tendency of our system and the reader either will accept what it suggests, or substitute their own pre-judgments of what these statistics mean. My discussion focuses on how this reality impacts upon Black people in America and thus impacts us all, despite our race and/or ethnicity. What set me off thinking about this was a TV Program called “Our America” with Lisa Ling. The episode was entitled “The Incarceration Generation”. http://www.oprah.com/own-our-america-lisa-ling/our-america-video.html
Personally, this episode brought up an admixture of tears and anger as I watched. It showed the life arcs of some Black males about to be released from prison, the effects on their families of their incarceration and then by their release. The premise, which I endorse, is that this generation of jailed Black men will, and has already impacted on the coming generation of Black men. The message was we must somehow stop this cycle, but the solution to stopping the cycle is not clear macro-cosmically and too slow if change is measured person by person.
As much as I’m prone to pontification, I really can see only one way that this continued racism is ever going to change. To the possible delight of our more conservative and/or libertarian commenter’s, I don’t believe that the first step towards this change would benefit from government intervention via legislation or fiat. While the original issue decided in “Brown vs. Board of Education“, that Blacks and Whites were receiving unequal schooling due to segregation and unequal funding, the general judicial remedy which became School Busing was not only in hindsight a failure, but actually increased tension between races and diminished White support for Civil Rights. It was a decision that tried to solve the problem cheaply, rather than first ensuring that the funding for Black and White (indeed all) schoolchildren was equivalent. How much more elegant to have hoisted the segregationists on their own petard of “separate but equal”, than to have demanded and overseen that they indeed provided equal funding
and support to Black schools. I understand that this was not the remedy being requested in this suit, but looking back it might have been a far more effective strategy. All of the gains in White sympathy for the struggle of Black people for their Constitutional freedom, were negated when the sad results of hundreds of years of slavery was dumped upon the educational systems specifically of the working classes. It resulted in the “Southern Strategy” that got Richard Nixon elected, using code words in place of outright racist rhetoric. Fighting crime became the code for cracking down on Blacks and the upward spiral of the incarceration of Americans began with the inception of the ridiculous “War on Drugs”. When people are steeped in false, bigoted notions of the “other”, reinforced by a corporate media that finds sensationalizing crime garners profits, minds won’t be changed by legislation.
Certainly, steps must be taken to end the “War on Drugs”, to deal with racist law enforcement issues and to ensure that each American, regardless of skin color and/or ethnicity, is afforded equal rights under our Constitution. But first, before any palliatives are presented by our politicians, the problem of America’s continuing racism and its disproportionate effect on Black males must be brought into the open, discussed and hopefully acknowledged. Without that nothing changes since racism cannot be obliterated by enforcement, it merely morphs underground where it nevertheless festers. It is preferable to directly know ones’ enemies by their words, than to have those beliefs covered up.
Among the great ironies of modern America is how bigots have learned to couch their bigotry in terms that are inherently dishonest, yet provide them verbal cover when challenged. At times, among the less controlled public voices like Limbaugh or Beck it, their bigotry comes through, but even then they will cry foul if they are called on it and pretend that charging them with bigotry is absurd and bigoted in itself. When people are accused of “playing the race card”, the accuser is probably racist, knowingly or unknowingly. I think that many refuse to personally acknowledge their own bigotry, knowing rationally it is wrong, yet they find comfort and cover in the hypocrisy of code words and denial, from even themselves.
The other effect of incarceration of Black men disproportionately, is that it then becomes extremely difficult to obtain jobs after their release. As one man put it on the Lisa Ling show “Would you hire a former felon?”. We’ve set up a system where recidivism is the norm for all prisoners and this is mainly because after serving ones sentence, there are far less opportunities to find gainful employment. I know this from personal experience since my father served time for a “white collar” crime before my birth and his whole working/economic life was affected until his death 20 years later. He was White, had a massive vocabulary and a dynamic personality. He could never get credit and a family member had to co-sign in order to get a mortgage for our house. My father earned a good living as a car salesman, but his many attempts at starting his own business was affected by an inability to obtain adequate financing due to his prior incarceration. My father had many advantages over many black men with criminal histories, but the primary one was his skin color
When you perpetuate a system that incarcerates such a large swath of the Black male population, sentences them disproportionately to other racial/ethnic groups and prevents them from going straight after they’ve served their time, you create instability and chaos within the Black community. The evil history of slavery and racism remains with us today. Until we acknowledge the reality of how it perpetuates itself, it will never cease and our country will continue its’ downward spiral of economic disparity and debilitating racial/ethnic tension.