America’s human rights record
America’s human rights record is appalling at home and abroad. But for this article let us look at only one aspect of it – mass incarceration at home. In 2005, the US with 5% of the world’s population housed 25% of the world’s inmates. Its incarceration rate of 714 prisoners for every 100,000 residents is almost 40% greater than that of its nearest competitors – Bahamas, Belarus and Russia.
The US incarceration rate is 6.2 times that of Canada, 7.8 times that of France and 12.3 times that of Japan. This tragedy has only been possible because those bearing the brunt of prison come largely from racial minorities (blacks and Hispanics) who constitute 70% of the prison population. A 2006 study found that one out of 200 young whites were in incarceration; the rate for blacks was one out of nine. Today, one in every three black males can expect to go to jail during their lifetime. For white males it is one in 106.
Nearly 80% of blacks in jail in America are due to the possession or use of drugs. However, study after study has shown that drug possession and usage rate are similar between whites and blacks. In some studies, white youths are more likely to possess and/or sell drugs than blacks. Yet blacks are 18 times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police for drugs than whites.
A 1995 study done in America asking people to close their eyes and imagine and describe a drug user found that 95% of the respondents pictured a black man. This has only been possible because of the social stigma attached to race in America by the mass media. Blackness has been criminalised. Thus, to especially black people, the State in America is a repressive machine whose main contact with them is through police and prisons.
The US courts, mass media and state and municipal legislatures all provide succour to this criminalisation of blackness. Everyday scores of impoverished black male youths move from poorly funded public schools to well-funded high-tech prisons. Consequently, there are more black people in jail in America today than there were as slaves in 1850. In nearly all states, a convicted felon is stripped of voting rights.
As a result there are more blacks disenfranchised in America today than in 1875 when the 15th amendment prohibiting discrimination in voting rights based on race was passed. Black males are 6% of the US population but comprise 45% of the inmates. The incarceration rate of blacks in America in 2013 was 10 times (yes, 10 times) the rate of incarceration of black people in apartheid South Africa.
There are more blacks in jail than in college in America. In 1980 there were 143,000 black males in jails in America, 463,000 in college. In 2013 black males in jail were 1.2m, in college 600,000. In 1999 alone, 992 black men received their degrees from Illinois state universities compared to 7,000 black men who “graduated” from its state prisons.
In one of the most liberal states of America, California, a black male resident is more likely to go to a state prison than a state college. In America, among black male school dropouts aged 20-40, a third are locked up on any given day. More black males are in jail than in paid employment. There are more blacks in jail in America than the entire prison population of India, Argentina, Canada, Lebanon, Japan, Germany, Finland, Israel and England combined. Yet these nations have a combined population of 1.6 billion people compared to America’s 300m.
The total population of black males with a felony record in Chicago, the home of the first black president of America Barack Obama, is 80% of the adult black male workforce.
Problems faced by blacks in America
Because of mass incarceration, a black child in America today has less chance of being raised by both parents than was the case under slavery.
Nearly 70% of black professional women are unmarried because the mass incarceration of black males has taken potential mates out of the dating pool. Nearly 70% of black males in America have been rendered unemployable in the job market because they have been declared felons.
One in three blacks born in America today can expect to go to jail in their lifetime. So big is the incarceration industry that US prisons employ more people (one million) than the combined workforce of General Motors, Ford and WalMart – the three largest employers.
The US spends $200b a year on law enforcement and prisons – almost as large as the combined budgets of all sub-Sahara African countries.
A 2006 study found that the extent of racial disparity in imprisonment rates is greater than in any major arena of American social life: at 8-1, the black to white ratio of incarceration rates dwarfs the 2-1 ratio of unemployment rates, the 3-1 ratio of non-marital child bearing, the 2-1 ratio of infant mortality rates and the 1-5 ratio of net worth.