More black men imprisoned than were slaves?

NOTICE: As reader Kevin points out, I use some hedgy numbers myself in this post. Proceed with caution.

That’s what Michelle Alexander says, apparently.

Historically, the criminal justice system has targeted African American males in a manner that defeats mathematical logic. Now, data suggest the unthinkable — that there may be more African American males incarcerated currently than there were in the bondages of slavery. A U.S. Bureau of Justice Department report estimates that, as of 2008, there were more than 846,000 black men in prison.  This figure accounted for more than 40 percent of all inmates in correctional facilities.

In a recent interview, Michelle Alexander gave additional detail to these figures to suggest that there are “more African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850 before the Civil War began.”

In the interest of brevity, let me just throw numbers around rather than doing any unnecessary elaboration.

  • Best estimate I can find for imported slaves in the 18th/19th centures: 1.85 million.
  • Blacks in prison right now: 846,000 as per that estimate.

Now, realizing that the 1.85mil doesn’t account for at any given time, but rather a “range”, not to mention it only talks importation and doesn’t touch how many slaves were born in the US during that time, that may be a fair assumption that everything will even out somewhere in that area. So even in absolute numbers things are wrong.

Even ignoring that, though, there’s one problem: it doesn’t take any proportions into account.

  • Blacks in 1850: 3.6 million
  • Blacks in 2000: 34.6 million, using the above info

Using the 1.85mil figure, we can do the following…

  • Percentage of blacks enslaved in 1850: 51.3%
  • Percentage of blacks in prison in 2000-2008: ~2.4%

The problem is that this is a completely meaningless statistic. I’m not going to tell anyone that blacks aren’t unfairly represented in prison populations, all I’m saying is that this is a useless factoid to throw around, because even if it WERE true that there are more blacks in prison now, the black population has increased more than tenfold since then, making it a misleading absolute number. Meanwhile, if we take the percentages, obviously things are much better now.

They aren’t rosy, and if I run the numbers in terms of which races are represented the most in prison things are in dire need of remedy, but please. Let’s not muddle things with bad stats. Numbers don’t lie, but the people who use them often do.

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5 responses to “More black men imprisoned than were slaves?

  1. not here to say your point about the stats being bad, just pointing out that your own numbers are craptastic as well seeing as you focused on the number of black slaves and number of blacks in prison when the quote clearly says the number also includes those on probation. Find out that number and work it out again and you’ll be getting somewhere. “more African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or
    parole than were enslaved in 1850 before the Civil War began.”

    • Can I say this is why I love my readers? You’ll correct me when I make a mistake, and this is a great example. I’m not sure what that number would be, but I’ll certainly try to find it, although I don’t think the over-arching point (that comparatively speaking there are NOT more blacks in legal trouble than were slaves) will prove incorrect.

      I should get some of y’all writing for when I’m just feeling too depressed to…

  2. If the number on probation bring the number up over the slavery number (an I doubt it), then I would love to argue the point that the quote is accurate. Their would be more blacks in prision than were slaves…she never says “in proportion” so we can’t just throw that into the mix, we just have to go total vs total. And if we really want to argue semantics, than she would be absolutly right, because slaves were not African-American…just African. Meaning WAY more African-Americans are in jail than were slaves.

  3. If the number on probation bring the number up over the slavery number (an I doubt it), then I would love to argue the point that the quote is accurate. Their would be more blacks in prision than were slaves…she never says “in proportion” so we can’t just throw that into the mix, we just have to go total vs total. And if we really want to argue semantics, than she would be absolutly right, because slaves were not African-American…just African. Meaning WAY more African-Americans are in jail than were slaves.

  4. Their were 3.2 million slaves in America in 1850 and almost 4 million in 1860. Some 775,000 blacks were free at this time. What troubles me is that I never hear Alexander state one simple number: how many black folks today are in the criminal justice system? If that number is so important, where is it? It would have to be more than 3.2 million.

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