Justin Sullivan/Staff
Racism and Incarceration
Locked In

“Racism” is the easy answer to the question of how America’s prisons got so full of African Americans. A new book offers a more complex and hopeful view.

Appeared in: Volume 13, Number 1 | Published on: August 7, 2017
Richard Thompson Ford is the George E. Osborne Professor of Law at Stanford Law School.
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  • ——————————

    When people don’t know how to behave, that’s what happens. No need to try to explain it with a lot of academic, intellectual gobbledygook by those who need to justify the necessity of their jobs. End of subject…NEXT!….

  • William

    “Why did so many Americans of all races come to see
    lawbreakers as irredeemable villains, rather than as fellow citizens who
    had made mistakes?”
    No doubt the author is willing to exposure his family to the social experiment of accepting poor lawbreakers who made mistakes into his community. It is the moral thing to do.

  • Beauceron

    “should we exhibit sympathy for disproportionately black criminal suspects, defendants, and convicts”

    You always hear pundits dropping things like that. But disproportionate to what?

    They mean by that the the black population in prison is disproportionate to their percentage of the population as a whole.

    But that’s a stupid argument. That it has gained so much traction it is now standard, the default from which most people operate, doesn’t make the argument any better.

    Black imprisonment rates are not particularly disproportionate to black crime.

    Take a look at the violent crime statistics from NYC from 2016.

    Keep in mind that 26% of the city is black. The overwhelming majority of violent crime is committed by men, and most crimes are committed by men between the ages of 16-40. Older men and children usually don’t commit crimes. So, really the crime stats at the link for blacks are committed by around 8% of the population.


    Roughly 8% of the population committed around 52% of the murders, 44% of the rapes, 52% of the felonious assaults, and close to 68% of the shooting incidents. I mean, my god, OF COURSE there are a lot more of that group in prison. As there very well should be. Blacks fill prisons because blacks commit a staggering amount of the crime.

    • Fat_Man


  • Proud Skeptic

    As hard as I might try, I cannot get on board with this stuff. Fine…I understand that inner city blacks live in an environment (let’s forget the argument about “of whose making?”). I also believe that just because a person happens to be black he should not be singled out for special police attention. But laws are to be enforced uniformly. If it is wrong to lock up black person A for a crime then it is wrong to lock up white person B, too. If it is right to lock people up for a certain crime then it should be done across the board.

    I feel bad for all those people in jail whose lives led them to breaking the law and the punishment that society has decided they deserve. I feel bad that a disproportionate percentage of black folks end up committing crimes and therefore are in prison. But I require that the law be applied equally and that all people be held responsible for their own actions.

  • FriendlyGoat

    I once heard a history professor describe the Americas (the whole hemisphere) as a collision of three peoples: The natives who were here originally, the colonial conquerors from Europe and European immigrants who followed, and the Africans who were brought here against their will. Two, three, four and five hundred years later we expect the collision to have “just sorted itself out” regardless of the sordid details of history by which the collision took place. Well, in some respects that has occurred and in some respects it has not. It’s my opinion that this history should be considered in every discussion about race relations in the USA.

  • Isaiah6020

    People who commit violent acts should be locked up. You bet the point is quarantine. It has always been quarantine.
    Most people I know regardless of race are into protecting their families and that means violent felons regardless of race get to stay locked up. We live in a violent country.

  • Jeff77450

    Good article but as usual with these types of parsing of causes it studiously avoids certain relevant facts. At the FBI website you can find crime-stats broken down by race. Blacks commit the most crime in proportion to their numbers followed by Latinos, then whites, then Asians. At the CDC website you can find out-of-wedlock birth-stats by race; same frequency, blacks at ~72% followed by Latinos, then whites, the Asians. Average IQ rankings are the exact opposite: blacks have the lowest average IQ at 85, then Latinos, then whites, then Asians.

    This is almost certainly not a coincidence. “Ceteris Paribus” the more intelligent someone is the more likely they are to realize that ultimately crime doesn’t pay and to act in their enlightened self-interest. There are, of course, the inevitable exceptions, e.g. Bernie Madoff and Jordan Belfort.

    Another inconvenient truth: A great many blacks are propagandized from birth that America was built with slave labor, that they are “owed,” and the whole white privilege, systemic racism narrative. What is commonly referred to as black culture is a “half glass empty” worldview. If a child is being propagandized from birth that his group has been robbed, oppressed, etc., and that education, hard work, thrift and deferred gratification are attributes of the oppressor-class, i.e. “acting white,” and are values to be avoided, then it isn’t much of a leap for some blacks to conclude that they’re justified in just taking whatever they want and harming whoever they have to get it—or just “because.”

    Poverty does not explain crime. Bernie Madoff and Jordan Belfort weren’t poor. So-called poor people in the developed world today don’t know what real poverty is. As I’ve written about a couple of times before in this forum my parents and their twelve siblings (between the two of them), RIP, were born & raised in truly horrific poverty in the 1920s & ’30s and none of them became criminals. (A few of them messed up their lives with alcohol & smoking). They had two married parents, a father and a mother, who absolutely would not tolerate any behavior that might bring shame on the family. My two grandfathers administered punishments, or were prepared to, that would probably get them imprisoned today. “A trip to the woodshed” wasn’t a euphemism back then.

    Interestingly, my mother said that they didn’t think of themselves as poor because everyone else that they knew was living the exact same way; wooden shacks with no electricity, plumbing or insulation; hauling water from a stream; hoping & praying that the next meal was going to be something better than oatmeal. When a free (to the end-user) school lunch program became available in the early 1940s my grandfather refused to allow his children to participate. By God, if I could I’d phase-out *all* of the dysfunctional wealth-redistribution schemes right here and now. I damn sure would.

    My mother also said that there were no out-of-wedlock pregnancies. As she put it, if any boy had gotten a girl pregnant he would’ve been literally horse-whipped out of town. In fact, she said, he might have been killed. This isn’t profound but if all women would commit to not having a child with a man that they aren’t married to a *huge* amount of poverty would be eliminated.

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