Imprisonment and Men of Color

According to an article on AlterNet, the American criminal justice system is disturbingly raced and gendered to the detriment of men of color. 1 in every 15 black and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men in America are currently incarcerated. One in three black American men will be imprisoned at some point in their lives.

Seriously. One in three. If you’re white and have spent most of your life in majority-white spaces, you might want to go figure out how many people in your family, your graduating class, your knitting circle, whatever would have been imprisoned. I’ll be here when you get back.

Now, some people are going to be like “1 in 3 black men in America are incarcerated? That’s not necessarily racism. Maybe black men are just more likely to be criminals!” and then go off muttering something about dysfunctional ghetto culture and The Bell Curve. (Incidentally, you guys should see some of the comments I deleted about Trayvon Martin. I’m almost tempted to make this Race Week just to piss them off.)

What these lovely “well, maybe men of color are JUST CRIMINALS. Have you thought of that, huh?” people never seem to think about is that even if the difference were entirely because men of color are more likely to commit crimes, that is also an indictment of our racist society. Maybe we should wonder about why men of color have so few opportunities that crime seems like a good option, hmm? I dunno about you, but as an upper-middle-class white person, it has rarely occurred to me that it would be a good idea to rob a convenience store. The failing schools, few jobs, and institutionalized racism people of color all too often experience make crime a lot more tempting of an option.

However, all of this is entirely irrelevant, because as it happens the “black people commit more crimes” explanation is not actually true.

Consider drugs, for instance. African American men comprise 14% of regular drug users and a third of those arrested for drug offenses. Maybe the dysfunctional ghetto culture and supposed lower average IQ of black men make it so that they’re really really bad at not getting arrested for crimes? Yeah, that’s the ticket. God forbid we come up with an explanation that involves white people actually having flaws.

Even once you’re in the system, the definitely-not-racism of the American justice system fucks shit up. For instance, black people get sentences that are ten percent longer than those of white people who committed similar crimes; they are far more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences or to go to prison. So once you’ve gotten yourself in the American justice system for a crime that a white person may or may not have been arrested for, you get to stay in there even longer. Yay!

The most awful part, for me, is that even once someone is free, they are no longer free. Thirteen percent of black men have been denied the right to vote because they committed a felony. The wages of black former inmates grow at a 21% slower rate than those of white former inmates– which, incidentally, helps put more black men back in to the criminal justice system, because when a lot of people choose between “not committing crimes” and “having enough to eat,” they are going to pick the second one.

And, yes, all of this is a gendered and not just a raced issue. Women in general are far less likely to be incarcerated than men are; African American women are three times more likely to be incarcerated than white women, while African American men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. Similarly, Hispanic American men are 200% more likely to be incarcerated, while Hispanic women are 69% more likely. Racism in the criminal justice system disproportionately affects men of color.

Why? Because racist stereotypes of black men teach that they are stupid, hyper-violent, and hyper-criminal. That they all take and sell drugs. That they are ready to attack anyone on the slightest provocation, or none at all. It’s a racist idea as old as slavery– the wild savages in the jungles of Africa, the black man who rapes white women and murders white men and must be oppressed by whites for the good of all.

Racism in the justice system does not require that the police officers, judges, and juries all be Klan members who burn crosses on doorsteps (honestly, if people trot out that strawman one more time, it won’t have any more straw left). All it requires is that people are a little more likely to trust a white person than a black person, a little more likely to believe that the black person committed a crime, a little more suspicious of black men, a little more likely to think that people who are “like that” probably did it– the suite of cognitive biases and preconceptions that are all too possible, even for people who don’t think of themselves as racist.

And when all those little bits of racism get piled up together, you end up with a system in which one in three black men will be imprisoned by the time they die.

Premium Membership, The Good Men Project

About ozyfrantz

Ozy Frantz is a student at a well-respected Hippie College in the United States. Zie bases most of zir life decisions on Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and identifies more closely with Pinkie Pie than is probably necessary. Ozy can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter as @ozyfrantz. Writing is presently Ozy's primary means of support, so to tip the blogger, click here.

Comments

  1. herroyaldingwall says:

    On the topic of “failing schools” – here in New Zealand we have politicians blaming schools and teachers for “failing children”. I don’t know so much about the American situation, but what’s really happening here is that the schools who are accused of failing in their obligations to their students are the ones where their (often Maori or Pacific – our equivalent of “black”) students come from heavily underprivileged families (whose welfare support the government are currently working on undermining) and often show up undernourished, and tired from dealing with various poverty-related issues at home.

    We then have a distressing number of public figures come out swinging against any kind of race-component in entitlements for special help, and a persistence of the “poor people are poor because they’re lazy/stupid” Randian bullshit that right-wingers always use.

    Pardon me, my local politics are just winding the shit up out of me at the moment.

  2. herroyaldingwall says:

    Also, the new way WordPress handles comments is really annoying…

  3. dancinbojangles says:

    First of all, I think we SHOULD see some of those comments; it would no doubt make for some entertaining reading! With regards to the main thesis though, I’m really glad this is finally being addressed in an unequivocal fashion in the mainstream. What I find really odd is that longer prison sentences, disenfranchisement and employment discrimination against convicts would STILL do more harm than good, even if black men were in fact slavering idiotic criminal beasts. A rehabilitation-focused justice system is the only way to solve this issue. I don’t even think it would take such a huge change. Even just changing drug policy to be less ass-backwards stupid would do tremendous good.

    @Herroy: Yeah, it’s a similar situation in the US, though malnourishment has less to do with it than a crappy policy stating essentially “the worse a school does, the less money it gets.” Because obviously cutting funding and neglecting a school will make it perform way better. Always under the guise of “accountability.” Translation: Politicians don’t want to take any accountability. Also, I’ve always been baffled at Ayn Rand’s adherents. It’s like they don’t have even the most basic grasp of history, and don’t understand how money works, in spite of being so obsessed with it. So dumb.

  4. Another point on the “it doesn’t take all police officers, etc to be Klan members for the system to be racist.” It doesn’t take everyone in the system being racist, even in the relatively minor way you describe, to have a racist result. All it takes is SOME people in the system being racist, and others in the system protecting and abetting them with in-group thinking.

  5. Well Rehabilitation, prevention, and a stronger focus on shared humanity.

  6. pocketjacks says:

    The United States has 760 people in prison per 100,000. Every other developed country except the UK is in the double-digits and even they are barely above 100. Currently the US has more people in the penal system than Stalin’s USSR.

    This is neither the product of genetics in a defective subpopulation nor because of a unique American frontier culture, because this gap essentially didn’t exist even up until about 30 years ago. It has ballooned largely as a result (but not solely as a result of) the drug war. Legalization of most drugs, and marijuana in particular, would deal the single biggest blow to the prison-industrial complex.

    I’m disappointed that the OP downplayed the gendered aspect of US CJS to the extent she did, given the name of this site. It was reduced to a single sentence, heading a paragraph that sounded like it was supposed to highlight the genderedness of the issue, but really didn’t. (It would have done so if instead it compared the sentencing disparities between white men and white women, and black men and black women, and so forth.) There was a debate on this here recently and I’ll repost the links and studies here if someone tries to dispute me on this; suffice to say, a lot of the stereotypes black men suffer from are only extreme versions imputed to all men.

    The most awful part, for me, is that even once someone is free, they are no longer free.

    The most perverse part of this is that, due to employer blacklisting that makes it hard for ex-cons to get jobs, many of them remember a higher quality of life in prison. Talk about perverse incentives.

    @daelyte,

    I’m worried that progressive education theories is creating a soft bigotry of low expectations that hurts the American schoolchildren who need the most help. (Kids aren’t succeeding? Re-define success!) I think pretty much everyone learns better hands on than from lectures or textbooks; it’s just not practical on a mass scale. There’s no alternative to good old-fashioned book-learnin’*. Countries that have been recently passing the US on every educational measure besides postsecondary have not been doing so by embracing holistic Montessori systems but by stressing the fundamentals, prizing academics highly from all areas of the culture, and giving schools and teachers the funding and social prestige to back it up. Those countries have kinesthetic learners too, you know.

    *Actually, maybe laptops and tablets replacing books may make it easier for very visually-oriented kids to do better and emphasize slightly different parts of the brain, but let me make the frightfully bold prediction that the same type of kids who have been excelling with books will do so in the Kindle/Galaxy tab era, while the same type of kids will struggle, and the “different modes of learning” will have accounted for very little.

  7. Thanks for taking on this issue, Ozy. Adam Gopnik had a good piece on mass incarceration at The New Yorker a while ago: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2012/01/30/120130crat_atlarge_gopnik

    Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.

  8. The United States has 760 people in prison per 100,000. Every other developed country except the UK is in the double-digits and even they are barely above 100. Currently the US has more people in the penal system than Stalin’s USSR.

    This is neither the product of genetics in a defective subpopulation nor because of a unique American frontier culture, because this gap essentially didn’t exist even up until about 30 years ago. It has ballooned largely as a result (but not solely as a result of) the drug war. Legalization of most drugs, and marijuana in particular, would deal the single biggest blow to the prison-industrial complex.

    I agree, the war on drug is a disaster for the US, and specially for Blacks people because their incarceration rate is much more higher for drug-related offenses than it is for Whites people. As an example, here’s are the stats for California :

    http://cjcj.org/files/Misdemeanor_marijuana_arrests.pdf

  9. @pocketjacks:
    “Legalization of most drugs, and marijuana in particular, would deal the single biggest blow to the prison-industrial complex.”

    Yes.

    “I think pretty much everyone learns better hands on than from lectures or textbooks; it’s just not practical on a mass scale. There’s no alternative to good old-fashioned book-learnin’*.”

    Educational video games. My sister played a math game, and within weeks should could add, substract, multiply or divide any pair of two-digit numbers together – as a reflex. We found out many years later that she has ADHD.

  10. Hey Ozymandias42,
    This question may be a little off-topic, The most stressful part of getting a new job, or getting into a new school, is the interview. No one wants to give a bad impression by stumbling over difficult interview questions. The best way to look like a prepared professional is to actually make the effort to be prepared. If you are well-spoken and honest when you give your answers, you should do fine. Avoid saying anything that could reflect badly upon you but don’t lie because employers and educators will usually do a background check before they accept you. This is especially true in these hard times.
    Keep up the good work

Trackbacks

  1. [...] 1 in 3 Black Men Go To Prison? The 10 Most Disturbing Facts About Racial Inequality in the U.S. Criminal Justice System (Via). [...]

Speak Your Mind

*