There Are More Black Males in Jail Today Than Were Slaves in 1850

Black men in prisonAnyone who pays any attention to the goings-on in African America should know that our community is having a tough time righting this disproportionate number of black men who end up in the justice system. Thirty percent are either locked up or on probation or parole, and plenty more have at some point been one of the three.

Scroll through any state Department of Corrections’ website and take a look if you’re not a believer. The pictures tell the story, and if they’re not available, the names sure do. You just don’t run across white or Asian Keyshawn Jacksons or Melvin Browns every day.

The magnitude of the situation has been expressed time and time again, but nothing has put it into a more in-your-face perspective for me than claims by author Michelle Alexander, who says there are more black men tangled up in the justice system than there were black men enslaved in the year 1850. Damn.


When I even try to imagine the circumstances and conditions our forefathers were forced to endure, it breaks my heart. But then to see all of that suffering was endured just to usher in more suffering is even more painful. It’s not what our ancestors were hoping for for their great great great grandsons, I know. If you read the writings or transcribed interviews of men from those generations, they had high hopes that their sons and the sons of those sons would be free.

But they’re still not. Still in bondage, just in another way.

There are some mothers who, from the time their baby boys are born, will do whatever it takes to keep their children from becoming one in that sad statistical number. They’ll send them away to stay with relatives who live in nicer areas where their kids can be educated and given more opportunities than lower-income communities could ever offer. They’ll sacrifice their own comfort and dreams to move out of neighborhoods where their sons might fall into the lure of crime or even be remotely tempted by it because, truth be told, sometimes that’s all it takes to wind up locked up. Being black and being in the wrong place at the wrong time can add your number to a cell block somewhere, few questions asked.

But even then there’s no guarantee that the law won’t get a hold of their sons. I’ve seen dudes straight out of the suburbs still manage to hunt down trouble and wind up somebody’s inmate because they wanted to demonstrate how “down” they were, even more than kids from the 'hood because they wanted to prove — the hard way — that they’re not privileged little punks a la Carlton Banks.

There is a string of reasons why so many young, black men are being sucked into the system and their mothers are at the end of almost all of them, justly or not. It’s obvious that, like most major issues afflicting a group of people, there’s no-simple-answer-for-everybody way of remedying them. But as I’ve said time and time again: I’m a believer that it takes a village to raise a child — and it takes more than just one lil’ ol’ mama to produce a young man able to withstand the negative influences lying in wait to envelop him. It takes her and family and neighbors and educators and clergy and mentors and coaches and community members to make an investment in each kid.

In print, that solution sounds real pie-in-the-sky. But ask a guy who knew his behavior was being clocked by 10 or 12 different people rather than one woman who was working, sometimes more than one job, and doing it alone. A support system really does make a difference, and the lack thereof is something I feel really passionately is contributing to these boys being attracted to and enticed by the kinds of people and activities that put them at the mercy of the justice system.

The problem is too many black mothers are protective of their sons against the wrong people. They’d rather cuss somebody up one side of glory and down another for correcting their son’s bad behavior and holding him accountable when he steps out of line than allow him to be checked by a stranger or a teacher or sometimes even a relative who is genuinely concerned for his well-being. That’s foolishness. I feel like this right here: I’d much rather somebody caringly correct my boy for misbehaving or doing wrong than let him to walk around like his stuff don’t stink, only to get the ultimate time-out in the form of 5, 10, 20 years in prison somewhere down the line.  

Why, in your honest opinion, are so many black males heading to jail?

Image via Caitlinator/Flickr

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