The United States holds 25% of the world’s prison population with over two million incarcerated individuals. African-Americans represent about 13% of the U.S. population, but are incarcerated at six times the rate of white Americans, according to the NAACP. At face value, any politician can use these statistics as a sweeping indictment against African-Americans, the contentious idea that “black people just commit more crime.” These indictments are supported by incarceration rates and usually precede policy changes, like the former New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s cherished “stop-and-frisk” policy, which systematically targeted African-Americans living in the city. And those who cannot afford legal counsel are those who accept plea bargains or otherwise fail to uphold their innocence using the law.
In 2005, former federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy explained that “some identifiable groups commit crime at a rate that is higher than the national rate. Blacks are such a group. That is simply a fact.” This is a long-held argument by elected officials in America. The perceived reality by the white public is complicit with this narrative, as studies have shown.
Stereotypes aren’t harmless. One commonly held belief is that a group’s behavior ultimately earns them their stereotype, but this view is naive. Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley found that the way people perceive themselves is actually by the way others perceive and interact with them. When young black Americans are seen as criminals, they eventually internalize this perception. Cooley’s “looking-glass self” theory states that one’s sense of self is developed through the judgments of others, and that people internalize stereotypes at an early age, which can stick with them throughout life.
Research shows that African-Americans are criminalized at an earlier age than any other race. The American Psychological Association found that, on average, Americans perceive African-American adolescents to be roughly four and a half years older than their actual age. When Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy was found playing with a toy gun, police described him as a “young man, maybe 20,” before an officer shot him twice without provocation, as the video and disciplinary actions against the officer have proven. In other words, public perception is fatal to African-Americans.
America’s status as the great melting pot would suggest that the lived experience of white Americans is similar to that of minorities, but the misperception of black communities only continues. According to the Pew Research Center in 2015, 70% of blacks believe they are treated less fairly than whites when dealing with police officers. Conversely, only 37% of whites believe that blacks are treated less fairly than whites. This comes in the wake of a 2013 American Values Survey that found that 75% of whites don’t have any friends of color. Knowing this, it’s easy to see how the majority can fail to understand the lived experiences of minorities.
The ways that we look at one another are dependent on the bias we carry, and this naturally is not impervious to police officers, whose job is to respond to distress calls and investigate suspicious behavior. The perception is carried through trial and conviction. Since 1926, the percentage of African-Americans in prison compared to all other races has been rising, from 24% to 38% by 1960. After the civil rights movement, that disparity widened to 44% by 1986. Now, even with an African-American President, the rate is expected to pass 60%, so that one in three black men will be jailed at some point in their lifetime. So, we cannot look at disproportionate incarceration rates without looking at disproportionate arrest rates.
While overt racism has become less prevalent, there has been a conventional racialization of violent crime and drug use. From policing to prosecution, communities of color are subject to harsher punishments and more aggressive profiling. In 1992, 92.6% of those convicted for crimes involving crack cocaine were black, and only 4.7% were white. That same year, the U.S. Public Health Service found that 76% if illicit drug users were white. Three years later, the United States Sentencing Commission found that almost all whites charged with possession of crack cocaine for the first time were processed through diversion programs that involved little or no jail time.
For many African Americans who have been caught up in the War on Drugs, clemency is their only chance at redemption. Sharanda Jones is currently serving a lifelong prison sentence for a non-violent drug offense. In 1999, Sharanda Jones was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for her first and only drug offense. This was a result of “tough on crime” legislation from the 1980’s and 90’s that allowed for harsh mandatory minimums for drug offenders. Although Sharanda Jones has applied for clemency, her petition is only one of nearly 20,000 that Barack Obama has received during his presidency.
Of course, there is always an argument to be made about blacks oppressing themselves. From Booker T. Washington to Bill O’Reilly, many believe blacks are not a victim of the system, but a victim to their poor personal choices. Bill O’Reilly stated that “they have to condemn the irresponsible behavior by their own,” citing that money and social programs fail to address the disintegration of moral values in the black community.
If this assumption is carried by police departments, it could help explain the high rates of incarcerated African-Americans. We must take a closer look at the social conditions that drive over-policing, the racialization of crime, and the destruction of communities of color.
Criminologist Elliott Currie believes that, “The best deterrent to crime is the creation and maintenance of stable communities and communities in which people may reasonably expect that good behavior will lead to esteemed and rewarding social roles.” If the criminal justice system begins and ends with punishment, and recidivism is almost unstoppable, then that system must have no power to reform people or communities.
After doing time in prison once, 70% of black males are back behind bars within three years. When inmates are freed, they often lack the skills and community support that is necessary to successfully reintegrate with society. After being incarcerated, people face housing discrimination, job discrimination, often can’t vote, and in some cases, may even be unable to see their families while on probation. Facing these odds, it is no wonder that African-Americans believe they will never be given a fair chance to succeed.