More African-American Men in Prison Than Were Enslaved Before Civil War

More Black Men in Prison Than Slaves In 1850

I noted last month that there are more slaves in the world today than ever before in history.

I just ran across another surprising statistic. There are more African-American men in prison (including those on parole or probation) than there were slaves in 1850 … 10 years before the civil war.

As Colorlines reports:

The U.S. Bureau of Justice estimated that as of 2008, there were over 846,000 black men in prison, making up 40.2 percent of all inmates in the system. But in a recent talk, noted author Michelle Alexander put those numbers in grave historical perspective.

More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began,” Alexander, an Ohio State law professor, recently told listeners at the Pasadena Branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Alexander’s seminal book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” argues that prisons have become the latest form of economic and social disenfranchisement for young folks of color, particularly black men. In it, she grapples with a central question: If crime rates have fluctuated over the years and are now at historical lows, then why have rates of incarcerated men of color skyrocketed over the past 30 years?

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In an interview with Washington Journal, Alexander said:

Once labeled a felon, you can be subjected to all forms of discrimination that once applied to African-Americans during the Jim Crow era. You may be denied the right to vote, you’re automatically excluded from juries, and you’re legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, relegated to a second-class status much like… your parents or grandparents may have been…

What results from this form of mass incarceration? As we saw during last fall’s elections, millions of America’s black voters have been disenfranchised. An estimated 5.3 million Americans have currently or permanently lost their right to vote because of felony convictions. But for black men, the rate is seven times the national average. These numbers are sure to take on even more significance as the 2012 campaign season kicks into high gear.

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