It was a tall claim. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness told a Pasadena crowd last week that more African American men are in the penal system now than were enslaved in 1850.
More African American men are in prison or jail, on probation or parole than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War began.
A chilling claim. But true?
We checked it out.
Frankly, as an Ohio State law professor and author on the subject, Alexander is way more qualified than we are to verify the claim. (She ran the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU in Northern California, too).
And, yeah, we have a prison problem, however you want to slice it. As the New York Times noted a few years back, we have 5 percent of the world's population yet produce a quarter of its prisoners.
And as far as we can tell, about 39 percent of them are African American.
Alexander blamed the massive incarceration on American drug laws:
Most of that increase is due to the War on Drugs, a war waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color.
So, here are the numbers we could find. In 1850 there were about 3.1 million slaves in the U.S. In 2009, the last year for which U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers are available, there were about 7.2 million prisoners, people on probation, or folks on parole in the country.
Divide that by 39 percent, the portion of African Americans behind bars, and you have … 2.8 million.
However, that's close. And it's possible Alexander, being an academic, has access to better, more up-to-date stats. (The prison population only seems to be growing, even as crime has gone down).
Any way you add it up, it's a loss of productivity, a loss of fatherhood, a loss for families.