Since the election of Barack Obama as the first black American president, a number of public commentators have declared that a “post-racial America” has now arrived. However, almost every indicator of social and economic well-being says otherwise.
From alarming disparities in academic achievement to inequalities in employment, wealth, and housing, the statistics describe an America of racial inequity. Social and economic disparities have essentially remained stagnant since the mid-1970s. In many cases, disparities have gotten worse.
This blog entry is the first in an occasional series of entries that explores some of these disparities, their causes, and potential solutions. This entry looks at disparities in the state and federal prison system. It’s a great place to start because the disparities are so stark.
According to a report on prisoners in the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ (BJS) 2008 Bulletin, which presents the most recent statistics available, over 562,000 black males were serving sentences in prisons under state or federal jurisdictions as of 12–31-08. That’s 85,000 more black male inmates than white male inmates.
The disparities are even clearer when you examine incarceration rates, as reported in the same bulletin. More than 3,161 black males of every 100,000 in the general US population are in prison, compared to 487 white males per 100,000. In other words, if you’re a black male, you’re more than six and a half times more likely to be incarcerated than if you’re a white male. The incarceration rate of Hispanic males is almost four times that of white males.
Furthermore, a BJS report published earlier this decade observed that if you’re a black male, the likelihood you’ll go to prison sometime during your lifetime is a whopping 32.2 percent! That’s a one in three chance of losing your freedom, your right to vote, and your future job prospects sometime during your life. For Hispanic males, the likelihood is one in six. But for white males, the likelihood drops to 1 in 17.
Even if we were to grant that no racial bias exists in arrests and prosecution (which would be extremely hard to believe), the disparity alone speaks of a divided criminal justice landscape. White men have little reason to fear the law relative to black men or Hispanic men.
Apart from outright discrimination, various justice policies have led to these disparities. Drug policy offers a revealing example.
For instance, drug policy mandates stiffer sentencing guidelines for offenses involving crack cocaine as opposed to powder cocaine. This policy has led to an imprisonment rate for drug offenses by black males that is up to ten times that of whites (as reported in “The Vortex”, a Justice Policy Institute Report, quoting 2002 BJS statistics).
Why? Blacks tend to buy and sell crack cocaine while whites buy and sell powder cocaine. But the rates at which whites and blacks buy and sell cocaine has been, and remains, virtually the same (as also reported in “The Vortex”). The policy decision has, in effect, targeted blacks for incarceration.
Other drug policy decisions that produce disparities, and are overtly discriminatory, include racial profiling and prosecutorial misconduct. The disparities produced by these policies clearly rebut any reliable notion that we live in a post-racial America, at least with regard to criminal justice.
This is not to say that imprisoned men of color have done nothing wrong. But let’s at least shape a criminal justice system that treats them the same as white men, offering the same opportunities for fair treatment and for rehabilitation.
I hope that a post-racial America will someday be possible. But we need to take lots of action.
For instance, “One Voice, One Vote,” a report published for the NAACP by Community Policy Research Training Institute and Frontline Solutions, identified a number of discriminatory policy practices and what can be done to combat them. Some of the recommendations regarding drug policy include:
- Repeal sentencing guidelines that distinguish crack cocaine from powder cocaine
- Sentence non-violent drug offenders to community service and drug treatment programs
- Require law enforcement agencies to record racial information for arrests and traffic stops
- Pass stricter safeguards against abuse of the informant system
Taking actions such as these would be a good start, but we need to do more than this to address the inequities in the criminal justice system and in many areas of our lives. I hope to explore a number of these areas and identify some potential solutions in upcoming entries.