The United States imprisons 25% of the world’s incarcerated population, more than any other country on this entire planet. African Americans occupy the prisons at more than five times that of whites and in some states, ten times the rate. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 35% of the state prisoners are white, 38% are Black (although they make up only 12% of the population), and 21% are Hispanic.1 In twelve states, more than half the prison population is African American. So, is the rate of imprisonment of African Americans due to more crime by them, a new phenomenon or is there a more cynical, historical reason? Well, aside from the hardships imposed on Blacks after the Great Migration, including redlining neighborhoods and employment discrimination, leaving many Blacks unemployed and poor, there’s an even more horrific history to Black incarceration.
After slavery, during Reconstruction years, many whites were extremely reluctant to relinquish their free labor so found ways to circumvent the laws against slavery imposed by the Union. Hence, the creation of peonage. This was a set of laws designed to keep Blacks in bondage. Laws were created in most southern, confederate states that made it illegal to be unemployed (imagine that!). Any Black man that couldn’t show proof that he was gainfully employed was charged with vagrancy and exorbitant fines were imposed. If he was unable to pay the fines, he was incarcerated and forced to work off his debt, often at the previous slaveowners plantation or to other private citizens who benefitted from the labor. In addition, freed Blacks who worked as sharecroppers or other jobs, were forced to sign contracts for a specified period of time. If they left before their contract ended (sometimes enticed by recruiters from the north looking for cheap labor) they again were arrested, often beaten, incarcerated and then forced to work for free. In addition, some states created minor laws, such as making it illegal to spit in public or walk alongside railroad tracks, allowing for the exact same punishment. All of these laws were enforced by all white police and state militia forces, often made up by Confederate Veterans of the Civil War.
By the 1870’s, 95% of the prison population in southern states was Black. Southern states maintained great economic advantage due to these peonage laws, just as they did during slavery. By 1928, this private sector convict leasing came to an end. The ramifications, however, were devastating to the Black community. A criminal brand had been placed on the Black race identifying them as a threat to society. During the first half of the 20th century, there was an explosion of Black incarceration in northern states as well as the south. The Black population in the north increased significantly due to the Great Migration. Eventually, northern states succumbed to the growing fear of crime by Blacks, generated by both a small spike in actual crime and the sensationalizing of that crime by the media. This fear intensified policing practices which gave way to mandatory sentencing priorities, leading to mass incarceration of Blacks. By 1940, Blacks comprised 67% of the prison population.2 While lower class whites, immigrants and Blacks were deemed to be the criminal elements of society, measures were taken to improve the life of lower class whites and immigrants to alleviate the need for them to commit criminal acts. Blacks, on the other hand, were afforded a different set of measures. Blacks were deemed to be inferior, as theorized by “bootleg” scientists. This theory reinforced the racially superior attitude perpetuated by those determined to subjugate Blacks. This, combined with the branding of Blacks as public enemies, triggered the negative stereotype of Blacks as criminals. This backdrop set the stage for the treatment Blacks receive to this day. While no one denies Blacks, along with all other racial groups commit crimes, Blacks are more likely to be stopped for no reason or minor infractions, falsely accused, forced into confessions despite being innocent, abused during arrest and while in custody and, as seen all too often, killed just because. It seems evident that the treatment of blacks today is directly related to the history of black incarceration, negative stereotypes and racial discrimination in general.
1.The Sentencing Project: “The Color of Justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in State Prisons
2.Vera.org: Reimaging Prison Web Report