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