“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.