Mass Incarceration has Become the New Jim Crow


I am deeply troubled by the circumstances facing many Black Americans, the descendants of the slaves who toiled away on my family’s cotton farm when I was a boy. And it isn’t just African Americans who I’m concerned about; it’s also Latinx and all people of color, as well as poor white folks, but I’ll talk about that later. Just like the years of Jim Crow, we all have a tendency to accept things as they are and not question the why of it. Does anyone in white America wonder where all the Black men are? Do they care?

The fact is, the unjust mass incarceration of Black men, seemingly collateral damage resulting from America’s endless “wars” on crime and drugs, is now all but institutionalized in our society. A good many Americans are content to believe the nation’s crime rate remains low because so many Black men are safely locked behind bars, although fortunately most of them have sense enough to keep their shallow-brained opinions to themselves. Former education secretary but ever-present political commentator William Bennett summed up this attitude perfectly when he said, “if all Blacks were aborted, we’d have no crime problem.” That pretty much says it all, don’t you think?

Personally, I find the unjust imprisonment of a persecuted minority to be a highly unsatisfactory solution to some of our country’s most fundamental structural problems, most especially our totally unacceptable, relentlessly growing economic inequality. And as opioids and heroin continue to destroy thousands of lives every year, it should be clear that America hasn’t won the war on crime and drugs, but merely used them as an excuse to undertake its latest shameless offensive against the “other,” of which there are many in our history.

Most people don’t even realize how many Black men are in prison. Did you know that as many as one in nine African American males between the age of 20 and 34 are in prison? Or that at any given time more African American males are in prison than are in college? Or that as many as a third of African American boys born in 2001 are likely to be incarcerated sometime in their lifetime? Jim Crow made a mockery of African American “freedom” for almost a hundred years, and there’s no question that mass incarceration has become the new Jim Crow.

Some choose not to see, while others, in fairness, don’t realize what’s happened, what’s been going on for years now, certainly since the 1980s and picking up speed in the 1990s. It’s like a plague, the real version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers in which Black men mysteriously disappear from society. There really is a “sunken place,” trust me.

How often does white America stop to consider the tragedy of these lost lives, what these men could have given to their families and children, and our country, IF they had been permitted to be productive members of society? As James Baldwin told his young nephew in The Fire Next Time, published in 1962, well over 50 years ago, “They have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. . . . It is their innocence that constitutes the crime. . . .”

And it’s not just the prisoners’ lives that are ruined. For every Black man in jail there’s a child without a father, a family that never was because a child was never born. Black women shouldn’t have to be the sole parent to the majority of Black children. It isn’t right that three quarters of Black children are born out of wedlock, or that more than a third of them continue to live in the poverty that often results. African Americans are sometimes criticized for having children at an early age, before they’re prepared to support a family, but isn’t it obvious—if a lot of Black men didn’t father children before going to prison, they never would.

But if every Black man were released from prison tomorrow, it wouldn’t solve the fundamental problem. How many of these men have the skills they need to get a decent-paying job in today’s knowledge-based economy?  The bottom line is that we need to invest a lot less in the prison-industrial complex and a lot more on educating our children.  In the meantime, rather than practice opportunity for all, as it preaches, America locks up people it doesn’t want and/or doesn’t know what to do with.

Mightn't more education, training and jobs be a better solution?

The fact is, right now our country doesn’t have enough decent-paying jobs for all its people, so putting a significant number of its least desirable citizens in prison has become the default solution. Putting aside the pain and cruelty of robbing these men of their God-given potential and their right to the pursuit of happiness, isn’t it obvious that having so many unproductive people living at taxpayer expense is a terrible burden on our country? Maybe it’s just how much white America is willing to pay to keep Black men in their place, that “sunken place” that seems to have no end. Maybe locking them up is the only way that white America can abide their existence, a “final solution” to a problem it still dare not confront. I hate to think that mass incarceration is simply the latest manifestation of the lynchings that went on for so many years under Jim Crow, but maybe that’s the sad truth—if America can’t terrify and control Black men one way, well heck, maybe we’ll do it another.

So let me ask you—can you understand how hard it is for a Black male to grow up in America, even if they’re securely middle class and are blessed with a stable and intact family? I’ll tell you what it’s like—it’s as if you’re always on a precipice, just one unpredictable, unknown revelation from the reality of your vulnerability making itself felt. Can you begin to imagine what it’s like to have that hanging over you? It’s a sunken place, all right!