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You’ve Come A Long Way, Brother


The year 1926 was in the thick of the Jim Crow era. In the American South, racial segregation was the law of the land. Schools, jobs, public accommodations, movie theaters, water fountains and most everything else were segregated. In the North, jobs and labor unions were segregated and the U.S. armed forces had separate units for blacks and whites. In that year, 106 out of every 100,000 black residents of the United States were admitted to state or federal prison. And though blacks made up less than 10 percent of the U.S. population, about one out of four state and federal prisoners was African American.

Sixty years later, the country was very different. The military had been integrated; racial segregation had been struck down by the courts; the 1964 Civil Rights Act had outlawed discrimination in employment. But despite these indisputable improvements, some things had gotten worse.

In 1986, 342 out of every 100,000 blacks were admitted to state or federal prison — a more than three-fold increase over 1926. (White prison admissions had grown too, from 36 to 63 per 100,000 — but the rate and its growth paled beside those of blacks.) Moreover, in 1986 blacks made up 44 percent of the new prison admissions, though they constituted less than an eighth of the population.

Over the next decade, the number of federal and state prisoners continued to skyrocket and the black share of that prison population increased to nearly half. Out of every 100,000 African Americans at year-end 1996, 1,571 were serving sentences of at least a year in federal or state prisons; for Latinos, the figure was less than half as high — but a still enormous 688 per 100,000; for non-Hispanic whites, it was 193 per 100,000. In 1995, 3,250 out of every 100,000 black males were imprisoned (compared to 851 per 100,000 for black males in South Africa at the end of the apartheid regime). A recent Department of Justice study estimated that a black male has a greater than one in four lifetime chance of serving a sentence in federal or state prison.

Law-and-order types argue that these astronomical incarceration rates actually help African Americans by removing harmful criminals from their midst. But in fact the opposite is the case. Many of those arrested are non-violent drug offenders. (The penalty for possession of 5 grams of crack — the form of cocaine popular among blacks — is the same as that for possession of 500 grams of powdered cocaine, the form preferred by whites.) Blacks are more likely to be targeted by the police, and on average receive longer sentences than whites. The imprisonment of so many males has had a devastating impact on the black community: destroying families, undermining employment, and enrolling thousands in the nation’s leading school for crime — the prison system. In short, the very factors that cause criminal behavior are exacerbated by imprisonment rates that are unprecedented amongst the world’s democracies.

There is one other, less obvious consequence of the massive incarceration of African Americans. According to a recent report prepared jointly by Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project, in forty-six states and the District of Columbia, prisoners are legally barred from voting; in 32 states, felons out on parole are also disenfranchised; in 29 states, those on probation are denied the right to vote. And in 10 states even those who have fully served their sentences permanently lose their right to vote. No other country on earth is known to take away the vote for life from offenders who have finished serving their sentences. In the United States, even the young, first-time offender who pleads guilty in order to avoid jail time (as many do, whether guilty or not) may be disenfranchised for life. In Mississippi, Alabama, and Virginia, more than four out of five of those who have lost the right to vote are neither in prison, on parole, or on probation.

These criminal disenfranchisement laws are especially onerous on African Americans. Because of these laws, it is estimated that more than one out of eight black males in the United States are unable to vote. In two states, Alabama and Florida, almost one out of three black males are barred from voting.

Thus, more than three decades after the U.S. Congress passed the 1965 Voting Rights Act in an effort to guarantee African Americans their Constitutional right to participate in the political process, more than a million black men — 1,367,100 — are denied the right to vote — and this number is likely to grow.

Racial equality in the United States still remains a distant dream.

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