Freedom is like religion to us
Justice is juxtapositionin’ us
Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us
Truant livin’ livin’ in us, resistance is us
That’s why Rosa sat on the bus…
-Common, “Glory”

It’s difficult to imagine America without prisons and jails. Few things are as American as tossing people into institutions for a hefty profit. Harder still is to imagine not having blacks to fill those prisons. New York State receives $60,000 dollars per inmate per year to house prisoners. Annual average cost to the taxpayer across America is $31,286 dollars.

The closest figures that are available cite a 3 time higher rate of excessive force used during arrest (tasers, dogs, pepper spray, and physical force). I say the closest figures because a lot of police departments don’t release this information. Also held back are many numbers for false reports filed. Or numbers of quotas that have to be met. Last year, these brave black cops with the NYPD actually came forward to mention incidents when they had to do just that, and sued the police department. They spoke about being forced to give out tickets to black and Latino kids just for jumping turnstiles, rather than focus on other, more pressing issues. Now, the NYPD has denied that it has a quota-based system. Which, is ludicrous to say. Something rarely mentioned is the numbers of tickets police were writing, fining blacks, and pocketing millions, in Ferguson, MO. Due to such high rates of felony incarceration, 1 out of every 13 blacks can expect to lose the right to vote, while whites is 1 out of 56.
Black Incarceration rates, black incarceration, incarceration rates by race, black men in prison

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And then there’s the 13% figure that many people love to point out. It says that half of all crime in America is committed by blacks. You’d think I’d be pissed, but I actually love when people use this 13% statistic, as if all blacks are committing all of that 50% crime stat. The truth is, there are no details on what percentage of that 13 is committing these crimes. Possibly because it’s just easier to say we’re all savages who rape, steal, kill, and destroy.

Now, is this data complete? Because I don’t see any figures on how many of these crimes are bogus, merely written out by cops attempting to fulfill a quota or by other biased laws. Do these specific figures talk about how many blacks are committing smaller, petty crimes that are being judged more harshly than they would for another race? Because there is data out there about the overhanded nature of petty crimes related to race—but I’m just wondering if this is incorporated into that 50%.

Here are some statistics about how blacks fair in the criminal justice system:

According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, blacks are 7 times more likely to be wrongly convicted of murder; 3.5 times more likely to be wrongly convicted of sexual assault; and a whopping 12 times more likely to be wrongly convicted of drug crimes.

  •        65.4% of black men have been sentenced to life without parole for non-violent offences, compared with 17.8% of white men.
  •        Black kids are tagged and sent away at 4 times the rate of whites.
  •        1-in-3 blacks can expect to see the inside of a cell as opposed to 1 in 17 whites.
  •        Blacks have an incarceration rate that’s 5 times greater than whites, or for every 1,000,000 residents of prisons, 2, 306, verses 450 inmates.
  •        Blacks get a 20% longer sentence. Or for every 10 years spent, Caucasians will only spend 8 years.
  •        Black women can expect to enter prisons at a rate 3 times that of their white counterparts

Despite the 13% figure, blacks represent 47% of the overturned convictions. Murder cases where blacks were wrongly convicted were 22% more likely to happen than with whites. Among drug convictions, innocent blacks are 12 times more likely to be convicted than innocent whites.

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mass incarceration, black incarceration rates, incarceration rates by race, criminal justice system, black excellenceNow, I know what you’re gonna say, “Alex, what about the negative figures? What about the hoodlums? How about we speak on how the black community is tearing America apart through gun violence?” There’s always someone who loves to downplay the overzealous trigger fingers of mass shooters by pointing out how often people in the Hood are killing people in the Hood. Well, the FBI has stats, which you can check out here.

The truth is, yes, the African American community has been in disarray for years. Interfighting, gangs, etc. I grew up around violence myself.

Indeed, the plight of poverty and racism can’t explain away what we as a community have done to each other. It really is a trend that I hope will stop. However, healing does not come without medicine and rehabilitation. It damn sure doesn’t come from tossing more brothers in the clink.

I say this not as an excuse for what my people have done and are doing to themselves. Too many people dismiss the black community’s decrying injustice because of the rate of violence inside the community.

mass incarceration, black incarceration rates, incarceration rates by race, criminal justice system, black excellence
Photograph by Giles Clarke / Reportage by Getty Images

I think the problem people have when approaching the plight of the African American is that they don’t know how math works. You know that 1+1 = 2. This is known…like, universally. But why is that true? Because we’ve accepted it to be so for generations upon generations, since man discovered numbers? Well, no, not exactly. You can actually back it up with evidence. Use your fingers. Use two loaves of bread and divide each. You’ll find one to your right and one to your left.

So, to just say that violence exists within the black community and then condemn it without looking into why it exists, without taking an honest look at the pieces of the equation that make up the whole, is just as misguided as looking at 1+1 and denying it’s 2.

Even before we look at the numbers of incarcerated, and let’s forget about slavery (because I keep hearing people telling me to do that…not in person, of course, just online). Let’s put all of that stuff in the backseat.

When a flawed criminal justice system unfairly targets a specific group, lock away the brothers and fathers a sons in a community, the consequences manifest themselves in various aspects of that community. Economical disadvantage is a huge one. And as we know, poverty breeds crime.

And then there are other systematic racism that hold the advancement of these communities, like voter ID laws.  Voter ID laws that complicate issues just so, or not so, subtly to make it uncomfortable enough that, in some cases, you can’t vote. In several appalling, though not unique cases, North Carolina legislators requested information on minority communities for voting purposes, then restricted all of those practices used primarily by blacks: early voting, same-day registration, and out-of-precinct voting. What’s worse, the legislation justified the taking away specific days of voting by saying, “counties with Sunday voting were disproportionately black and disproportionately Democratic.”

It becomes cringingly clear that it’s almost futile to attempt to change laws when you aren’t even given the opportunity to do so, especially when that change can affect the people who keep getting locked up for laws intended to keep certain races locked up.

Generations of lynching, being forced to co-exist in areas deemed not habitable by whites (AKA The Projects) just to have that same housing taken away several years later because, well, property values have never been lower (AKA Gentrification). This form of property disenfranchisement has always hit the lowest-earning people in the pockets. The widespread visual effect of gentrification, however, has never been more apparent than the nose on your face. In fact, according to Business Insider, nearly 40% of black households with incomes between $15,000-$30,000 pay more than half their income in rent. For households earning less than $15,000, that figure rises to more than 70%.

There’s also the instances of blacks not being able to move out of their Hoods because of redlining, based on housing discrimination. And no better place was there such a grand example of housing discrimination than in my hometown: Chicago. So infamous is the city for how blatantly racist its housing policies are that Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote: “Throughout the 20th century—and perhaps even in the 21st—there was no more practiced advocate of housing segregation than the city of Chicago…housing affects your chances of being robbed and shot as well as your chances of being stopped and frisked.”

So, where is the justice exactly? That’s what I keep asking myself. Each time someone brings up what’s going on in the news, maybe it’s rioting and setting the streets ablaze, in a lawless Chicago, or maybe it’s just a black kid getting shot because he “appeared” to have a gun. Rarely do people who question why the ghetto can be so rough also ask “am I trying not to understand?” I think it’s much more convenient to block out the possibilities for why something is the way that it is if it will confront your own bias, or bigotry. And that sucks. A lot.

The perception that I’m violent or that all people who look like me are capable of unspeakable acts in America is the main reason why it will always come back to race. No matter how often you ask us “why does it always have to be about race?” we will continue to say “because you just asked me that question,” despite how you “don’t see color.” Why is it cool to mention race when it comes to talking about the NFL versus the president, but not cool to talk about race when mentioning white mass shooters, or when talking about numbers of blacks put in prison, but not to mention they got there under false pretense or illegally? You answer those questions, then maybe we can work on it not being about race. But until then, stop pretending to be colorblind.

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Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.