black steel in the hour of chaos

by David Cole

With approximately 2.3 million people in prison or jail, the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world—by far. Our per capita rate is six times greater than Canada’s, eight times greater than France’s, and twelve times greater than Japan’s. Here, at least, we are an undisputed world leader; we have a 40 percent lead on our closest competitors—Russia and Belarus.

Even so, the imprisoned make up only two thirds of one percent of the nation’s general population. And most of those imprisoned are poor and uneducated, disproportionately drawn from the margins of society. For the vast majority of us, in other words, the idea that we might find ourselves in jail or prison is simply not a genuine concern.

For one group in particular, however, these figures have concrete and deep-rooted implications—African-Americans, especially young black men, and especially poor young black men. African-Americans are 13 percent of the general population, but over 50 percent of the prison population. Blacks are incarcerated at a rate eight times higher than that of whites—a disparity that dwarfs other racial disparities. (Black–white disparities in unemployment, for example, are 2–1; in nonmarital childbirth, 3–1; in infant mortality, 2–1; and in net worth, 1–51).

In the 1950s, when segregation was still legal, African-Americans comprised 30 percent of the prison population. Sixty years later, African-Americans and Latinos make up 70 percent of the incarcerated population, and that population has skyrocketed. The disparities are greatest where race and class intersect—nearly 60 percent of all young black men born between 1965 and 1969 who dropped out of high school went to prison at least once on a felony conviction before they turned thirty-five. And the incarceration rate for this group—black male high school dropouts—is nearly fifty times the national average.2

These disparities in turn have extraordinary ripple effects. For an entire cohort of young black men in America’s inner cities, incarceration has become the more-likely-than-not norm, not the unthinkable exception. And in part because prisons today offer inmates little or nothing in the way of job training, education, or counseling regarding their return to society, ex-offenders’ prospects for employment, housing, and marriage upon release drop precipitously from their already low levels before incarceration.

That in turn makes it far more likely that these ex-offenders will return to criminal behavior—and then to prison. Meanwhile, the incarceration of so many young men means more single-parent households, and more children whose fathers are in prison. Children with parents in prison are in turn seven times more likely to be imprisoned at some point in their lives than other children. As Brown professor Glenn Loury puts it in Race, Incarceration, and American Values, we are “creating a racially defined pariah class in the middle of our great cities.”

The most dramatic effects of this incarceration are concentrated on the most disadvantaged—those who are not only African-American or Latino, but also poor, uneducated, and living in highly segregated ghettos. While roughly 60 percent of black high school dropouts have spent time in prison, only 5 percent of college-educated African-Americans have done so. The indirect consequences of such disparities, however, extend much further. Many people cannot tell whether an African-American is a dropout or college-educated—or, more relevant, a burglar or a college professor, as Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates found in July 2009, when he was arrested after trying to get into his own house. The correlation of race and crime in the public’s mind reinforces prejudice that affects every African-American.

Three recent books by scholars who happen to be black men eloquently attest to these broader effects of the racial disparities in our criminal justice system. For Loury, “mass incarceration has now become a principal vehicle for the reproduction of racial hierarchy in our society.” For George Washington University law professor Paul Butler, author of Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice, “the two million Americans in prison represent the most urgent challenge to democratic values since the civil rights era.” And for New York University law professor Anthony Thompson, author of Releasing Prisoners, Redeeming Communities: Reentry, Race, and Politics, it is critical that we examine “the pervasive interplay of race, power, and politics that infuse and confuse our attitudes about crime.”

Butler expresses the personal character of this issue most urgently. Raised by a single mother in a poor black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, Butler graduated cum laude from Yale College and Harvard Law School, clerked for a federal judge, worked for a prestigious Washington law firm, and then became a federal prosecutor in the Justice Department’s elite unit fighting public corruption—an American success story. Yet he dresses, as he puts it, “in the current fashion, like a thug”; has a “nice-sized chip on [his] shoulder, afflicted with the black man’s thing for respect by any means necessary”; and “[doesn’t] like the police much, even though I work with them every day.”

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© MGNTK 2019