hearts and minds

August 6, 2006

Art and Disparity in Prison (first published in Feb. 2005)

“Outside The Box” was an arresting and moving display at the Cedarburg Cultural Center of “Artwork by Prisoners in Wisconsin Correctional Institutions”.

America now imprisons a higher percentage of her people than any other country on earth. This recently acquired dubious numero uno distinction is due largely to a huge escalation in the number of incarcerations for drug violations. The escalation is not due to increased use of illegal drugs. It is due to the ‘war on drugs’ waged selectively and with varied tactics in different communities since the late 1980’s.

A special character of our prisons is the glaring and growing disparity along color lines of the imprisoned population. One of those lines is followed in this column. Similar disparities afflict Native American and Latin American populations.

During and since the 1990’s, black prison incarcerations rose precipitously while white prison incarcerations were much lower per capita, and did not rise. Drug offenses account for most of the increased imprisonment, and for the increased black/white disparity. By the end of the 20th century, Americans with African ethnic origins were seven times more likely than Americans of European ethnicity to be imprisoned.

The black/white disparity in imprisonment in Wisconsin more than doubled during the 1990’s. By spring of 2002, Wisconsin reported the highest incarceration rate of Americans of African descent in the entire nation. Wisconsin. Not Mississippi, not Texas, not Alabama. Today, a Wisconsinite with African ethnic origins is twenty times more likely than a Wisconsinite of European ethnicity to be sent to prison.

The highest color disparities are for drug offenses and those disparities increased markedly through the 1990’s. In 1999, the black/white ratio in the rate of new prison sentences for drug offenses rose to 67 to 1! Do you think that the illegal use of drugs is really 67 times more prevalent among Wisconsinites with African ethnicity than among Wisconsinites of European ethnicity? Not hardly. Illegal drug use for all ages is very slightly higher among so-called black vs. so-called white Americans. Drug use among juveniles is actually lower for black youth than for white.

Yet by 1998-99, by far the largest color disparity in Wisconsin was in new prison sentences for 18 to 19 year old persons with no prior felony conviction. If you are 18 or 19 and have never before been convicted of a felony, you are 100 times more likely to soon go to prison in Wisconsin if society labels you black than if you’re labeled white. That’s outrageous. It’s bad enough if we’re unaware of these numbers. But it’s despicable if we don’t care or we think it’s just fine.

Every ignorant racist will tell you that people of color are born with more rhythm and less intelligence, thicker skulls and lower morals; that they don’t value human life and they’re criminals by nature. People of African descent were declared by Manifest Destiny to be fit only to be chattel beasts of burden. And every “American” knows the only good “Indian” was a dead “Indian”.

Racists today hide behind pseudo-religious facades and have committed the murderous bombings of churches, clinics and the Oklahoma Federal Building. Sophisticated racists in denial cite the discredited The Bell Curve and are more subtle in their deprecations.

But the crucial fact about America’s color lines is that there is one and only one biological race of human beings – the human race. Biology and the allied sciences, especially the developing field of genetics, have conclusively proven this. Genes define our shared humanity and our individuality, but genes do not and cannot define our color lines. (See “The Race Myth” by Joseph Graves.)

America’s races are socially (and crudely and superficially) defined, not biologically defined. There is no credible evidence and no logical or theoretical justification for asserting a genetic explanation for differences in intelligence or character between one socially defined “race” and another. There is overwhelming evidence establishing that 500 years of American history, including experience with the current environment, fully explains any observable difference in such complex traits as measured intelligence, attainments, social behavior, and accumulated wealth.

Regardless of how and why the color lines are defined, there is no genetic difference from one side to another, certainly not one hundred to one … or seven to one.

How much faster will we move forward in solving our emerging economic, social and environmental problems if we develop and use America’s full palette of intellect, rather than profaning minds and souls by rearing them in deepening poverty and neglect and consigning them to prison where inmate art may remind us how “great is our sin”? Shall we harvest the bitter fruits of polarization, or seek the American high road of justice?

Published in February 24, 2005

For more information on prison disparity, see http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~oliver/RACIAL/RacialDisparities.htm, and
read The Race Myth, Why We Pretend Race Exists in America, by Joseph Graves, Ph.D.


  1. Thanks. Your article was informative. I linked to UWM Sociology. I
    appreciate the new resource web.

    Comment by Lititia — February 12, 2007 @ 5:22 pm | Reply

  2. I think you muddy the waters somewhat by raising the issue of genetic racism in the latter part of your essay. It is racism enough just to demonstrate that an 18-19 year old black kid stands a much greater chance of being convicted of a felony for possession of a minor amount of some drug than a white kid. I believe that the disproportionate imprisonment of young black males for minor drug offenses is designed to reduce the threat of racial unrest of the kind seen during the urban riots of the 1960s. If the government locks them up, they can’t protest in the streets and incidentally, they can’t vote!

    The book “The Bell Curve” has been seriously discredited along with theories of genetic differences (see “The Rising Curve,” “The Science and Politics of IQ” “Not in Our Genes,” and many other sources). But just by raising the theory of genetic differences you can be fanning the flames of genetic racists and deflecting attention from the basic fact that the disproportionate number of young, black males in prison is by definition racist and most likely also classist since it takes money to hire a good lawyer to manipulate the legal system in favor of their client.

    Comment by Ken — February 16, 2007 @ 5:21 pm | Reply


    Unfortunately, many of our neighbors, including family, clergy, politicians, and staff on board well-funded think tanks, believe that the prison statistics CONFIRM their views – views which we call racist. They think, for example, that disparate infant mortality and longevity statistics demonstrate that those suffering that disparity are themselves solely or largely to blame for their own afflictions. They think that racial disparity in educational attainment is due to inherent biological superiority/inferiority. They reinforce those views among their peers, and raise their children to adopt those same rationalizations. The Bell Curve has been thoroughly discredited in some circles, but a convincing academic scientific argument does not necessarily reach the people.

    I anticipated that simply listing the appalling facts of Wisconsin’s number one position in the nation regarding disparity in imprisonment would have an unfortunate effect on many readers. There are many people who, on reading of this outrageous disparity, would react by thinking something to the effect that:

    “Oh my. I knew that blacks were more criminally inclined than us good Americans, but I didn’t know they were THAT much worse. And I didn’t know OUR blacks in Wisconsin were SO MUCH WORSE than the average American black. That article convinces me even more to demand that my children go to an all white school and that we live and work and recreate and worship in an all white community, instead of mixing with that criminal element which I can easily identify by skin color.”

    One reader wrote that he agreed with me that there are too many blacks in prison, and opined that we should correct this by sending all blacks back to Africa. I am certain that there are many readers who, unfortunately, would not agree that the disparity statistics demonstrate racism by definition. It is, then, the assumptions and the framework of those many readers which must be effectively addressed. Otherwise they will discard the facts or fit them to their existing framework and assumptions.

    I postponed submitting my article until I found a way to counter that misuse of the data I summarized. The second half of the essay is the way I found, even though it required that I omit additional appalling statistics regarding the consequences of this disparity, due to length limitations.

    Due to our technological wizardry, our scientific accomplishments, and our penchant for self-proclaimed objectivity, we have decided that we now stand at the pinnacle of wisdom and knowledge. However, pernicious, corrosive Race Myths are currently even more prevalent among Americans than are stupefying Creation Myths. I don’t think they will go away by ignoring them for fear of fanning the flames of their virulence. In the second half of my brief essay I chose therefore to undermine the foundations of racist thought. (A staggering oxymoron, “racist thought”, don’t you think?)

    Remember, Ken, I am not writing for a magazine subscribed to and read only by people who consider themselves enlightened progressive liberals – (none of whom, OF COURSE, are even closet racists – heaven forbid!). I’m writing for those who yet have an open mind, and for the people, and the children of the people, who keep re-electing Sensenbrenner and Bush, who elected right-wing-nut Glenn Grothmann UNOPPOSED to the State Senate, and who remain unarguably in the majority in our neighborhood. When Russ Feingold first ran for the U.S. Senate, Ozaukee County gave him the lowest percentage electoral support of any county in the entire state. During his re-election in 2004, Ozaukee County had moved up to third from the last in support for Russ, behind Washington and Waukesha counties. We have lots more room to improve.

    I learned a lot from reading Dr. Graves book, The Race Myth, and from reviewing the research of Dr. Oliver. Dr. Oliver approved the accuracy of my summary of her research, and said that the final version of my article “Looks Good!” Dr. Graves commented, “Dear Clyde, Excellent, well-reasoned essay!” That’s a pretty welcome compliment from an evolutionary biologist who’s near the top of his game and the top of his field. But I learn best and most from criticism, not from compliments, so thank you for taking the time and thought to comment. Despite my defense of it, I’m still not convinced that my essay hit the bulls eye. It certainly has drawn more criticism than compliments, both from white liberals and white conservatives. (Whatever those labels mean.) For what it’s worth, I have received no critical comments from any people of color who have read it.

    Comment by Clyde — February 16, 2007 @ 5:43 pm | Reply

  4. Could it be that blacks commit more crimes?

    Not that we automatically label them as criminals?

    Comment by Elizabeth S — October 9, 2007 @ 11:55 am | Reply

  5. Thank you, Clyde.

    I think you’ve tackled what has to be one of THE most blatant and devastating expressions of institutional racism today: the prison-industrial complex. Feel free to weigh in at the RACE website blog.

    Comment by Joseph Jones — May 20, 2008 @ 9:33 am | Reply

  6. Elizabeth, it appears to me that you did not read the last third of the article, beginning with the sentence, “Every ignorant racist will tell you that …”.

    And you ignored the cited fact that illicit drug use is actually somewhat lower among young people of color than among so-called “white’ youth, but that the disparity in incarcerations of youthful drug offenders is documented to be up to 100 to 1.

    I can’t decide whether your comment validates Ken W’s critique of my presentation, or whether it demonstrates the necessity (as well as the futility in many instances) for making the argument the way I did.

    Comment by clydewinter — May 20, 2008 @ 10:13 am | Reply

  7. […] (For example, abortion rights, voter fraud, the death penalty, definition of marriage, criminal justice, or womens rights are types of issues that the two parties have free rein to manipulate and exploit […]

    Pingback by Governing People for Profits « hearts and minds — November 12, 2009 @ 5:59 pm | Reply

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