hearts and minds

April 12, 2016

Racial Disparity, Mass Incarceration, and the New Jim Crow

Racial Disparity + Police Brutality + Mass Incarceration = Violation of Human Rights + Intimidation + Individual and Community Impoverishment and Disenfranchisement

first researched and published in Feb. 2005; updated in Dec. 2014


The USA now imprisons a higher percentage of her people than any other country on earth. This distinction, acquired around the turn of the 21st century, is largely due to a huge escalation in incarcerations caused by drug law enforcement. The escalation is not due to increased use of illegal drugs. It is a result of the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ waged selectively and with markedly different tactics in different communities, since the 1980’s.  A special character of our prisons is the glaring disparity of the imprisoned population along color lines.  The huge Black/White disparity is spotlighted in this essay.  But similar disparities afflict Indigenous and Mestizo peoples of the western hemisphere.  Since 1990, prison incarcerations of people of color rose precipitously while incarcerations of white people were much lower per capita, and did not rise.  Drug law enforcement accounts for most of the increased imprisonment, and for the increased racial 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 African-Americans of any state in the entire nation.  In 2005, a person with apparent African ancestry was twenty times more likely than a person who passes as “pure” White to be sent to prison in Wisconsin.  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 is virtually the same for Americans of all ages, regardless of race. Drug use among juveniles is actually lower among Black youth than 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 be soon sent to prison in Wisconsin if society labels you Black than if you’re labeled White.  It’s inexcusable to be unaware of this outrageous disparity.  It’s despicable if we don’t care.


Claiming to be “colorblind” in the USA is just claiming to be blind and ignorant.  But the plain truth is that there is only one biological race of human beings – and that is the human race.  Biological 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.  America’s races are socially and culturally defined, not biologically defined.  There is no credible evidence and no logical or theoretical justification for asserting a genetic difference in intelligence or character between one socially defined “race” and another.  Overwhelming evidence establishes that history and the American experience itself fully explains any supposed racial difference in such complex traits as test measured intelligence, personal attainments, social behavior, accumulated wealth … or direct encounters with the law.


Regardless of how and why color lines are defined, there is no genetic difference between people of color and white people – certainly not one hundred to one – or seven to one.  If we respect, develop and use America’s full palette of ability, rather than condemning the hearts and minds of America’s “untouchables” to deep poverty and neglect, and consigning them to prison and exclusion from opportunity and power, we will be able to solve our looming economic, social, and environmental problems, instead of harvesting the bitter fruits of stubbornly continuing a massive injustice.


See http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~oliver/racial-disparities/, for the peer-reviewed research performed and reported by Pamela Oliver, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology at UW Madison

Read The Race Myth, Why We Pretend Race Exists in America, by Joseph Graves, Ph.D.

Professor of Biological Studies at the University of North Carolina.

These two sources informed and were summarized by the preceding essay.


The question is, why does this destructive, dreadful unjust disparity exist?  Who or what benefits from it?  The unjustified killing with impunity of unarmed people of color by police, security guards, and vigilante bigots is the terror and intimidation part of the picture.  The big picture is a historical continuity in America beginning with four centuries of slavery and colonial genocide, continuing through the century of massive violations of human rights known as the Jim Crow apartheid era, followed immediately by the new, “colorblind” Jim Crow era of mass incarceration, brutal intimidation, and the systematic denial of basic human and civil rights, and denial of economic and political power to people of color, and their communities.  The new Jim Crow is just the latest incarnation and implementation of systemic, pervasive white supremacy and the persistence of the imperial dogma of manifest destiny and it’s illegitimate successors.  We must, finally, at long last, work together to break these chains!


For a more recent, more comprehensive analysis, do not miss: The New Jim Crow – Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, c. 2011.


To supplement the research done a decade earlier by Dr. Pam Oliver, see the 2014 study:

“Racial Disparities in Sentencing” American Civil Liberties Union Oct. 27, 2014 http://act.colorofchange.org/go/5804?t=29&akid=5357.1653942.Vm9aVI or at

Click to access 141027_iachr_racial_disparities_aclu_submission_0.pdf


Note added in February 2016: Right here in Wisconsin (among the worst states of all in terms of measured injustice and racial disparity that impact particularly on people of color) there are escalating struggles being currently waged regarding:

  1. Multiple laws and court rulings that adversely affect voting rights and representative government, and cripple and reverse the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and the Civil Rights Movement itself.
  2. Tenants rights, profits and poverty – Get “Evicted – Poverty and Profit in the American City”, written by Matthew Desmond, which focuses on Milwaukee as an example.
  3. Mass incarceration and police practices and procedures are under outraged criticism and scrutiny by communities of people of color, coupled with a current DOJ inquiry. Get “Just Mercy – A Story of Justice and Redemption”, written by Byran Stevenson.
  4. FBI investigation & community outrage over child abuse and negligence at the state-run Lincoln Hills Juvenile incarceration center in far north Wisconsin.
  5. Segregation, discrimination, and racial injustice long unaddressed and worsening

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