In this year of symbolic optimism, when a black man is a leading contender in the presidential race—as well as being a leading recipient of contributions from Wall Street, big insurance, and military contractors—the need to describe life as it is actually lived by millions of African Americans has never been greater.
Although our black presidential candidate would have us believe that African Americans are, as he has said many times, “90 percent of the way” to freedom, justice, and true equality, the facts seem to say otherwise. As recently as 1964, a majority of all U.S. prisoners were white men. But since 1988—the year Vice President George H.W. Bush rode to the White House stoking white fears with an ad campaign featuring convicted black killer and rapist Willie Horton—the black one- eighth of America’s population furnished the majority of new admissions to its prisons and jails.
The fact is that while U.S. prison populations have grown seven times since 1970, crime rates have increased only slightly over that time. According to Berkeley scholar Dr. Loic Wacquant, the increase in America’s prison population over that time has been achieved by locking up five times as many people per one thousand reported crimes as we did in 1980.
Most U.S. prisoners in 2008 are nonviolent drug offenders. Although federal statistics show the rates of illegal drug use for whites, blacks, and Latinos to be within a single percentage point of each other, African Americans are an absolute majority of the people serving time for drug offenses. The stark and inescapable fact of double-digit disparity between black and white incarceration rates is hard to miss and harder to explain, except in terms of a consistently applied, if rarely acknowledged, policy of racially selective policing, sentencing, and imprisonment.
The ripple effects on black communities and families have been enormous and devastating. Millions of black poor are permanently stigmatized, excluded from much of the job market and opportunities for training and education, and are sent home to the same resource-poor, deindustrial- ized communities in which they lived before prison where there were no services for them and no societal will to educate or train them. America’s enormous prison system, along with its punitive and exclusionary attitude toward the class of people from which prisoners originate, is freezing the black poor in place for generations to come.
Despite requests, I was unable to get breakdowns of federal prisoners by state of origin before publication, so the data excludes the nearly 200,000 prisoners under federal lock and key. Here, based on incarceration data supplied by states (and found on the website of the Sentencing Project), are the ten worst places in the U.S. to be black.
Texas and California, the nation’s two most populous states, each account for more than a tenth of the nation’s 2.2 million prisoners. Kansas and Kentucky, which did not make the 2005 “ten worst” list, replaced Delaware and Nevada in 2008.
The states with the 15 highest disparity rates between black and white incarceration show some interesting characteristics. First, none of them are in the South. Second, blacks make up a negligible percentage, 6 percent or less, in 10 of these high disparity states. Third, the other five high-disparity states either contain or are adjacent to three of the five largest concentrations of African American populations in the U.S.—namely New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
About half of all African Americans live in the South and that number is increasing. Generally, southern states have higher percentages of black population, but lower incarceration disparity rates between black and white populations than elsewhere. No southern state locks up nine or ten times as many African Americans as whites.
Evidently, the highest relative percentages of African Americans, if not the highest absolute numbers of blacks incarcerated, are to be found near large concentrations of northern blacks, but in states where African Americans make up a relatively small percentage of the population.
According to “Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2006,” in the 12 months ending on June 30, 2006 prison populations increased in 43 state jurisdictions and declined or remained the same in 8. Overall, the number of America’s prisoners is increasing at a rate not seen since 1999-2000.
The good news is that the issue of racially selective mass incarceration has begun to be acknowledged by members of the nation’s political elite. Last October a bipartisan hearing on the topic was conducted. Black constituencies for some time have been accustomed to “drive-by” rhetorical mentions of the fact that we are a disproportionate share of the nation’s incarcerated by every candidate for office. Democratic presidential candidates have made cursory nods to the edges of the issue. Obama is promising to spend millions more on re-entry programs, and Hillary Clinton has denounced felony disenfranchisement.
Those are the limits of the good news. Money on re-entry programs is a good thing and felony disenfranchisement is indeed a very bad thing. But both candidates leave unexplored and untouched the foundational reasons for the explosive growth of America’s prison state. Only one state senator (from Oregon) has introduced a bill calling for racial disparity impact statements to accompany further sentencing law; he plans to re-introduce it in the coming session.
Longstanding public policies like racially selective mass incarceration, which profoundly affects the quality of black life, will not change without the birth of a broad social movement in our African American communities to demand it. Politicians dependent on campaign contributors and the favor of corporate media won’t give us this, any more than LBJ would have given us the 1965 Civil Rights bill without a loud, disrespectful, and civil disobedient mass movement in the streets to embarrass and prod him on. It will take a movement on that scale to challenge the policies of racially selective incarceration.
Bruce Dixon is managing editor of Black Agenda Report. This article first appeared on www.blackagendareport. com.