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More Black Men Are In Prison Than Were Enslaved in 1850

March 2013
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Photo courtesy of “Slavery by any other name.”

Michelle Alexander: More Black Men in Prison Than Were Enslaved in 1850

by Thoai Lu

It’s a heartbreaking, but often understated, reality that America’s criminal justice system imprisons black folks at astonishingly high rates. The U.S. Bureau of Justice estimated that as of 2008, there were over 846,000 black men in prison, making up 40.2 percent of all inmates in the system. But in a recent talk, noted author Michelle Alexander put those numbers in grave historical perspective.

“More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began,” Alexander, an Ohio State law professor, recently told listeners at the Pasadena Branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Alexander’s seminal book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” argues that prisons have become the latest form of economic and social disenfranchisement for young folks of color, particularly 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 answer to that question doesn’t require a lot of digging.

“Most of that increase is due to the War on Drugs, a war waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color,” she said. LA Progressive reported that even though studies have proven that whites use and sell illegal drugs at rates equal to or higher than black, four of five black youth in some inner-city communities can expect to be incarcerated in their lifetimes.

In an interview with Washington Journal, Alexander said:

Once labeled a felon, you can be subjected to all forms of discrimination that once applied to African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. You may be denied the right to vote, you’re automatically excluded from juries, and you’re legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, relegated to a second-class status much like… your parents or grandparents may have been…

Alexander’s research shows that seventy percent of past black men who are released from return within years. It’s a trend we’ve seen play out recently during the fallout from former HBO series star Felicia “Snoop” Pearson’s drug arrest last week, which unravels the high black recidivism rates and the discrimination they face in seeking employment after being released. Take a look at those startling numbers here.

What results from this form of mass incarceration? As we saw during last fall’s elections, millions of America’s black voters have been disenfranchised. An estimated 5.3 million Americans have currently or permanently lost their right to vote because of felony convictions. But for black men, the rate is seven times the national average. These numbers are sure to take on even more significance as the 2012 campaign season kicks into high gear.


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