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The New Plantation

African-American men are now more likely to get a prison record than a college degree.
 
 
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I am not a black man.

But these days, I can't imagine a riskier thing to be.

Keep reading. This isn't about to become a competition of ranking oppressions, or an indictment of white people everywhere. People have it hard in this country, period. Poor people, Indian Nations, immigrants, and women of all backgrounds. It's a long list, and it's a damn shame. It is, in fact, an embarrassment of suffering in a nation with an embarrassment of riches.

But speaking in purely statistical terms, this isn't a good time to be a low-income African American in the U.S. (when was it ever, you may rightly ask?), but especially if you're one of the nearly 900,000 African Americans sitting behind bars at this very moment.

Already, the U.S. Justice Department itself projects that 32% of African-American men born in 2001 will spend time in prison. That's one in three black men, folks. One in three.

And nearly every month, I come across another shocking new study, another class action lawsuit, or a straight-ahead government report that confirms another escalation in what amounts to a national phenomenon of mass incarceration. Nearly every month, I'm left staring at another staggering finding about the disproportionate impact of imprisonment on people whose skin tones largely range from brown to black. And every month, I'm left wondering what to do with the information at my fingertips. What new twist, what new angle on the facts will finally push the issue to the forefront?

And, more to the point, who cares?

Last month, a team of highly respected sociologists, Becky Pettit of the University of Washington and Bruce Western of Princeton University, published a new report in the American Sociological Review . The study, "Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration," reported that African American men are more likely to end up in prison than to earn a bachelor's degree or even serve in the military.

Pettit and Western, who have tackled related topics for many years now, sounded another alarm that should have made front-page news: Fully 60 percent of African-American male high-school dropouts born between 1965 and 1969 had been incarcerated by the time they reached their early 30s.

Could the link between ethnicity, income, education and incarceration in the U.S. be any clearer?

Fifty years ago, the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision resulted in the (gradual and hardly complete) desegregation of schools. The Washington, D.C.-based Sentencing Project set out to find out how much things had changed since then, where African Americans in the prison system were concerned.

Here's what they found. In 1954, there were 98,000 African Americans in prison or jail. By 1974, that number had crept up to 153,500. By 1994, it had grown fourfold to 635,000. And in 2002, it had risen to a record high of 884,500.

What's going on here? No one's denying that crimes are being committed. But the real, underlying questions are how we define criminal behavior; how we decide to punish that behavior; and why, in the face of declining crime rates, are prison numbers – especially for people of color – climbing year by year?

Take California's ten-year anniversary of the "Three Strikes and You're Out" law earlier this year. The law was supposed to take care of the "worst of the worst," but it has been bad news all the way around. Men and women have gotten life sentences for shoplifting, for repeat petty offenses, and out of the very nature of their persistent and untreated drug habits. By the end of 2003, it had cost the cash-strapped state about $8.1 billion in incarceration costs.

When the Justice Policy Institute decided to take an even closer look at the situation in a March 2004 report, Still Striking Out, they found something that made my head reel. The African American incarceration rate for Three Strikes was no less than 12 times higher than that of European Americans.

This is the kind of thing we need to be looking at. We need to look so hard into this that we actually figure out that there's a serious problem at hand. That we're playing with people's lives, breaking apart families (did you know that there are at least 1.5 million kids out there with parents in prison?), and, in essence, guaranteeing intergenerational cycles of crime and imprisonment. There's nothing like serious family instability to guarantee a kid's likelihood of ending up in trouble. Anyone who works in the "system" will tell you that, regardless of where they stand on the issue of prison expansion.

But by their own admission, many of the editors I work with say that while the over-incarceration of African Americans is something they genuinely care about, they're having to push these kinds of "social issues" to the backburner. After all, we've got body bags coming back from Iraq, a November election to see if Bush can actually win (not steal) the presidency, and a budgetary deficit that has entered the realm of the surreal. All true, I know.

But while we wait to see how the elections shake out, another few thousand African-American men get thrown behind bars. Another few thousand get released with a few dollars and a whole heap of shame, anger and alienation trailing behind them (if you're still under the impression that prison generally rehabilitates the people who get sentenced, I'd encourage you to spend just an hour talking with a former prisoner about what they really "learned" under lock-and-key).

There's an inherent challenge in writing about these realities. People assume that I'm a bleeding-heart liberal who romanticizes the plight of prisoners. As someone who has sat face-to-face with child molesters, murderers and rapists – and as someone who has been victimized herself – I can tell you that is not the case. The thing is that I can see people as more than the nature of their crime, which is what gives me the ability to do this work in the first place.

But why, people frequently ask about my work, do you focus on people of color in prison so much? White people go to prison too, you know!

And these people are right about one thing: European Americans do go to prison. In many states, they're actually still the majority of people in prison. The fact is that many European-American men and women are unjustly imprisoned and harshly sentenced, and suffer degradations and cruelties that most Americans would be shocked to learn about (if only the mainstream press paid as much attention to them as to Abu Ghraib). Consequently, I write about them with as much passion as I write about anyone else who suffers an injustice in the criminal justice system, whether that's an European-American prison guard, a Native American chaplain, or a gay prisoner sold into sexual slavery.

For me, it's a question of numbers and probability. And when the probability of a black man going to prison looks the way it looks right now, it's something that I'm more than likely to pay a hell of a lot of attention to, regardless of what news magazines or newspapers are interested in printing.

This is a crisis, people. An absolute crisis on a national scale that deserves every bit as much attention as the war we're fighting overseas. Because this is a war, of sorts, of our own. It's a drug war; a war on crime gone awry; a twisted war on poverty that targets the poor for their choice to survive by the means that they have at their disposal. We don't need to make excuses. We don't need to look the other way when real crimes are committed. We don't need to romanticize the plight of prisoners to get it through our heads that the prison industrial complex has absolutely spiraled out of control.

We're blind if we don't see what all of this is adding up to: Prisons are the new plantation.

And this is a kind of bondage we've never seen before, with repercussions we're only beginning to grasp.

Silja J.A. Talvi writes for In These Times, the Christian Science Monitor, The Nation and other publications. Her work appears in the anthology, "Prison Nation" (Routledge, 2003).