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The illusion of racial equality

BY SIMEON TALLEY | DECEMBER 13, 2010 7:10 AM

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In our post-racial America, it is no longer socially permissible to use race as the justification for discrimination or exclusion. Racism, while still a problem, is generally more institutional and subtle than overt. We've long aspired to be a place where race, along with class, gender, and increasingly, sexual orientation shouldn't determine your course in life. If we're not at that magical happy place yet, we're assuredly moving in the right direction.

But what if we haven't made so much progress?

While it'd be nice to think of American society as colorblind, the U.S. criminal-justice system is not. The disparity and the rate at which we are incarcerating African Americans suggest that we see race and that racism is alive and well.

The United States, with roughly 2.3 million inmates, has more people in jail or prison than any country in the world. Sixty percent of those locked up are racial and ethnic minorities. More than 800,000 of those are black males. For black males in their 20s, one in every eight is in prison on any given day, according to the Sentencing Project.

Over the past few decades, the prison population has skyrocketed. In 1980, fewer than 500,000 were incarcerated. The last 30 years has seen a 500 percent increase. The war on drugs, waged largely in poor communities and targeting black males, has left more than 2 million African Americans under the control of the criminal-justice system. Iowa, which has only has a small percentage of blacks, has the highest disparity in incarceration between blacks and whites.

But don't blacks and the poor use more drugs? Isn't the increase in incarceration driven by an increase in crime rates? No and no.

Research shows that people of all colors use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates. In fact, some studies show that white youth are more likely to deal drugs than are black youth. Nonetheless, our prisons are overflowing with black drug offenders.

In addition, U.S. crime rates have generally fluctuated over the past 30 years, but have decreased since the '90s.

That our criminal-justice system operates in such a racially biased manner has caused some to label it a new racial caste system. And mass incarceration in the U.S. is, in fact, a comprehensive and well-designed system of racial social control eerily similar to Jim Crow.

That may lead some to scoff, but it's not hyperbole. There are more African Americans under correctional control today than there were enslaved in 1850. In 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised because of felony-disenfranchisement laws than in 1870 — the year the 15th Amendment was ratified.

Michelle Alexander argues in her recent book, The New Jim Crow, that what has changed since the demise of Jim Crow has less to do with the structure of our society than the language we use to justify severe inequality. Once you've labeled someone a felon, in some states, old forms of discrimination — in housing, voting, employment — are legal.

What's sad is that alongside the accomplishments of the Barack Obamas, Oprah Winfreys, and Michael Jordans, we've allowed millions of African Americans to be relegated to permanent second-class status.

That's not progress. Or, it's not the warm fuzzy feeling we all shared when Obama took the oath of office.

So why should students care? You're likely to have minimal, if any contact, with the criminal-justice system. But the exponential increase in incarceration has had a budgetary impact. Just like guns versus butter, there is prisons versus school and/or college aid.

State expenditures on jails and prisons have swelled. State contributions to higher education have not. And we're not a just or decent society when so many are systematically excluded.


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