Michelle Alexander, who wrote the book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” was interviewed on Democracy Now on Friday, January 13, 2012. According to the interview, there are more African Americans under correctional control today than there were enslaved in 1850. More African American men are disenfranchised today than in 1870 as a result of felony disenfranchisement laws. And, as a percentage of the total population, there are currently more blacks imprisoned in the U.S. than in South Africa at the height of apartheid.
|This Ain't Beverly Hills (Image from Flickr, by Dark Sevier)|
Alexander points out that the high incarceration rate for African Americans is due largely to the war on drugs and the “get tough” movement (e.g., Three Strikes laws, Zero Tolerance laws, minimum sentencing rules), which have disproportionately affected poor people of color, and which were designed as a backlash against the Civil Rights movement, as they reduce black participation in the political system in much the same way that poll taxes and literacy tests did in the past.
The majority of U.S. prisoners are serving time for nonviolent and drug-related crimes which are committed by middle class and white Americans at a similar rate to poor African Americans, but which are largely ignored in middle class white neighborhoods. Thus, the problem is not entirely due to racism, but is also due to continued class distinctions and wealth inequality.
Racism certainly continues to plague our society and influence police profiling and arrest rates. According to Alexander, over 600,000 people were detained by the police in New York City in 2010, 90% of whom were black or Hispanic. In only 15% of those cases was a suspect even described; thus, 85% of the frisks, searches and seizures had no compelling probable cause, but were the result of racial profiling. Even an affluent African American is more likely to be arrested due to his or her skin color than a white neighbor, as Henry Louis Gates discovered in 2009.
However, the overwhelming majority of prisoners in the U.S. are poor, and communities of color continue to have the highest poverty rates. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 27.4% of African Americans and 26.6% of Hispanic Americans were living in poverty in 2010, compared with 9.9% of white and 12.1% of Asian Americans. As long as people remain poor, they will have few choices other than living in ghettos and other poor communities which have historically been targeted by police, thus increasing their chances of being stopped, detained, arrested and incarcerated. They will continue to find themselves in situations where criminal activities are necessary just to survive. Those who are arrested, whether or not they are guilty, will continue to be dependent on overworked and sometimes low quality public defenders. And if they are poor, especially if they are not white, they will continue to face prejudice and bias in the legal system, increasing the chances that they will do hard time.