Are There Really More Blacks In Prison Than Were In Slavery?

Well, yes—and no. It's another example of how facts about black people, without context, can be dangerously misleading

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The startling headline was more than enough to trigger a flurry of tweets, retweets, sharing and comments via both Twitter and Facebook over the past couple of weeks: “Study Says More Blacks In Jail Today Than Were in Slavery in 1850.”

The headline was for a post by Andreas Hale at the blog and news site TheWellVersed.com. Hale, who is identified as the editor of the site, cites as his source The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (The New Press, $27.95). Though I have yet to read The New Jim Crow for myself, all indications are that it is an important and credible book on the over-representation, exploitation and ongoing oppression of African Americans, and Black males in particular, by what is now commonly referred to as the prison industrial complex. The headline to Hale’s post points to a conclusion drawn from a study supporting the primary premise of the book–that American prisons have replaced the institution of American slavery as a profit-driven system for creating and maintaining a permanent second-class population with little or no rights as citizens, even for those who have paid their debt to society and ostensibly have a clean slate.

The problem is that the fact (and it is true) that there are more Blacks in prison today than were in slavery 160 years ago, without proper analysis and context (which I will assume that Alexander offers in her book), is misleading at best, and at worst, potentially damaging to the very population of Black males whose treatment and exploitation is being protested. That’s because statistics, without the benefit of context, analysis and critical thinking, are extremely dangerous, especially for Black people. For every person who believes that the over-representation of Blacks in the prison system is proof of the bias inherent in that system (as I do), there is at least one other who believes that such disproportionate representation is proof positive that Black men are more prone to crime and violence–and worse, that most Black men are guilty until proven innocent. Statistics and facts can be used to define and defend, or to demonize and destroy. For every tweet of this headline shared as proof of Black males being systematically hounded and oppressed, there were others shared as evidence of the criminal nature of Black men–which ultimately speaks for all Black men, including me. And this is the case even when the facts that the statistics reveal prove ultimately meaningless, even though true.

In the case of Hale’s post, the reporting and statistical analysis and context is vague or non-existent. While the fact that today’s Black incarcerated population is larger than the 1850 slavery population in sheer numbers (and alarmingly out of proportion to Black Americans’ share of the U.S. population) is a shocking comparison, it doesn’t really say much. That’s because today’s total Black population is far larger than America’s Black population in 1850. So a more accurate and illustrative comparison would be the percentage of the Black population who were slaves in 1850 versus the percentage of the Black population incarcerated today.

According to the 1850 Census, there were 3.6 million African Americans (including roughly 3.2 million slaves) in the U.S. population. By comparison, in 2010, the Census reported nearly 39 million African Americans (not counting those of mixed races), more than 10 times the Black population in 1850. Based on those figures, it is not plausible, even at first glance, that today’s  Black incarceration rates are anywhere near the proportion of Blacks in slavery in 1850. In fact, nearly 90 percent of Blacks in America were slaves 160 years ago. According the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, non-Hispanic Blacks (including women) are 39.4 percent of the total prison and jail population in 2009. Not even close.

So, is there a disproportionate number of African Americans in prison? Absolutely. Are most Black people in prison? Absolutely not. Are there strong parallels between the prison industrial complex and the American system of slavery and disenfranchisement of Black people? Again, absolutely. Is there a higher proportion of Black people in prison today than were in slavery in 1850? Again, absolutely not.

Should we sound the alarm to get people to adopt a greater sense of urgency and take action to change the criminal justice system and, more importantly, to keep African Americans out of it? Absolutely, positively, yes. But using statistics and citing facts and studies without providing critical analysis and context, for the sake of getting our attention, is the equivalent of pulling a false alarm. Both can result in the trampling of the very people we’re trying to save.

This blog is dedicated to my thoughts about money, entrepreneurship, leadership, mentorship and other things I need to get #OffMyChest. Follow me on Twitter at @AlfredEdmondJr.

  • Sean

    I think you, Alfred should read the book before you make conclusions like this. this stuff is part of the problem in “black” America today.

    • Davidson

      What kind of an IDIOTIC statement is this “Should we sound the alarm to get people to adopt a greater sense of urgency and take action to change the criminal justice system and, more importantly, to keep African Americans out of it? Absolutely, positively, yes.”

      How foolish to think that one should change the criminal Justice system to keep criminals out, rather than changing the criminal to abide by the justice system. This is like saying, ok, let them continue in the same criminal lifestyle, but lets call them saints instead.

      Wake up and smell the coffee. You reap what YOU sow. If you are in trouble with the criminal justice system, my friend.. examine your own ways carefully before expecting the system to change.

      • Alfred Edmond, Jr.


        As you correctly quoted, I stated that we should take steps to keep African Americans out of the criminal justice system, i.e., discourage and prevent their engagement in criminal activity. I did and do not say that we should try to keep criminals out of that system. The fact that you see African Americans and criminals as synonymous is straight-up, unadulterated racism.

        Happy MLK Day.


    • David

      This piece is riddled with assumptions and fallacies. Clearly the author has an agenda of portraying blacks as victims. At the end of the day, blacks make up 7-12% of the population and commit 40% of the crimes. The results of black culture. Get your house in order and assimilate into mainstream American culture. Not mother-africa culture or father-harlem culture.

      • Alfred Edmond, Jr.


        Blacks are 40 percent of those CONVICTED of crimes, which is not the same as being 40 percent of those committing the crimes. Study after study has shown that whites engaging in the same criminal activities as blacks are less likely to be arrested, less likely to be convicted, more likely to receive probation and more likely to receive shorter sentences. This is in part because whites are given a greater benefit of the doubt by the criminal justice system, while blacks are more often assumed to be guilty until proven innocent (as Davidson’s above comment equating African Americans with criminality reflects).

        As for your calls for assimilation: Wake up. There would be no mainstream American culture without Black culture.

        Happy MLK Day.


    • MWhite

      Maybe…just maybe…the black community should take a good long look in the mirror. Maybe if more black men took responsibility for the women they impregnate and their children there’d be fewer young black men in jail.

      Maybe if the black community encouraged education and spent as much money on books as it does on Air Jordans and bling, the situation would be different.

      Maybe if the black community stopped playing the race card at every opportunity and ghettoizing itself, things would be different.

      Maybe if the black community stopped demonizing young people who want to get an education and improve their lives as “oreos,” the overall life of the community would improve.

      Maybe if the black community did something to end the influence of the murdering, drug peddling street gangs that terrorize their own communities.

      Maybe if the black community did something substantial to clean up their neighborhoods and attract businesses that would generate jobs for young people, rather than scaring businesses away with crime and the threat of looting and destruction every time the Lakers win a championship.

      Maybe if the black community stopped cultivating the negative stereotypes that only give fodder to real racists

      Maybe…maybe the black community could stop taking the easy way by pointing the finger at everybody else for its own problems and clean its own house.

      Pride is a good thing, until you choke on it.

      • Alfred Edmond, Jr.


        Maybe you should spend more time in Black communities, talking to Black people, instead of regurgitating the same tired, old stereotypes and assumptions. You could start with reading Black Enterprise magazine, if the thought of actually getting to know real black communities and people intimidates you.

        Happy MLK Day,


    • Berna

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  • Alfred Edmond, Jr.


    I tried to be clear that this post is NOT a critique of Michelle Alexander’s book, which I have downloaded to my iPad and added to my reading list. It challenges the practice of taking a single fact/statistic and promoting it without providing critical analysis and context which, in my view, does both the book and its author a disservice.


  • tammy


    Thank you so much for putting the issue into context. I am extremely concerned about the incarceration rates of African American males, however, I totally agree with the idea of ensuring statistics are used in the proper context. Too often we go for shock value and sound-bites rather than being grounded in the actual facts. The 39% incarceration rate alone is critical and horrible, especially when coupled with the declining high school graduation rates of some of our urban schools. There is no need to make comparisons that can be deemed inaccurate or based on an improper statistical premise. With that said, while I clearly take issue with the comparisons used, I don’t want to take away from the courage of Hale in attempting to bring this important issue to the forefront. Thank you again for shining the light and providing the right context….

  • DJ

    Well written Alfred. Thank you.

    • Alfred Edmond, Jr.

      Tammy, DJ;

      Thank you!


      • Sentot

        If the screen is fuekcd up get a warrenty and if you don’t got that sell to someone who’ll fix it. Also Flat panel TVs have suck ass speakers. Thats why you get Speakers for them. Lol my shitty tube TV can use my HD speakers.

  • larry

    This tell’s me we can’t save everyone.But we are doing better job.

  • Tim

    I think it’s the black entitlement culture and inherent racism in blacks towards whites puts us at a disadvantage in the court system. This is nothing we haven’t created ourselves and perpetuate every time we ‘mug’ a photo or idolize the minimum wage black man down the block that would rather buy a gold chain than make his child support payment.

    • Alfred Edmond, Jr.


      Who’s “we”? Speak for yourself! Don’t assume that your experience (as sad as it sounds) is the universal experience of all black people.

      “Black entitlement culture?” “Inherent racism?” “Idolize the minimum wage black man?” Sheesh!


  • ed

    Several months ago, I saw somewhere on the internet (I can’t remember where I first saw it) that 55% of black men in Chicago, Illinois are FELONS. When I first saw this I didn’t believe it. Actually, I didn’t WANT to believe it but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I finally googled it days or several weeks later and found that it is true. I shared the information with several of my friends and one of them did some googling of his own and found that the percentage of black men who are felons are similar (to the Chicago figure) for MOST urban areas with large black populations. In other words at least half (or MORE) of black men in cities like Detroit, Baltimore, Cleveland, Ohio, etc., are felons. This is scary, but I don’t know what can be done about it.

  • Bill80205

    I am sick of journalists and others calling blacks “African-Americans” when blacks call themselves black. I know white men and women who were born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Kenya who are Americans. Are they “African-Americans”? I also have black friends who are American citizens who are from Uganda, DR Congo and Burundi. Like Irish Americans, they might be called Ugandan Americans; but not African-Americans.

    • Alfred Edmond, Jr.


      While it is true that I am a journalist, I am also Black (that’s my picture above this blog post). I call myself both Black and African American, as I can assure you that millions of other Black people do. (Three of my children also identify as Jamaican American, or “Jamerican”.)

      People have the right to define themselves by any cultural, ethnic or national reference they choose. Why would people exercising that right make you sick?

      Get well soon, and Happy MLK Day.


  • Bill80205

    The entitlement culture is as true for whites and Hispanics as it is for blacks. In Africa it is called the NGO mentality caused by the UN, World Vision and other NGOs coming in and making the indiginous people dependent on them. To make it worse, when these NGOs have finished what they have decided they wanted to do…part of which is get more grants, they pull out and leave a whole culture in many cases unable to take care of themselves.

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  • latonya shaw

    I’m black and horrified by your article. We are not victims of a conspiracy but rather easily willing participants in our own destruction. We have to take responsibility and accept our short comings as a race. The truth is in your article itself. No matter if you compare incarceration numbers to the population 160 years ago or not it’s ridiculous we are volunteering to risk our freedom. Don’t waste your time comparing. While your trying to hide what every other race can clearly see time is wasting.

    • Alfred Edmond, Jr.


      Who’s “we?” The vast majority of African Americans do NOT engage in criminal activity and are no more “willing participants in our own destruction” than other Americans. Stop believing that criminal behavior among our people is the norm and that you, I and other law-abiding, productive African Americans are the exceptions. The opposite is true.

      Happy MLK Day.




  • Pete Mitsis

    Just another case of “Logical Fallacies”. Take the time to look it up!

  • Steve

    Here is a thought. As a country we have come along way and of course we still have far to go, however, I would drop dead from actually hearing someone from the black community take responsibility for raising criminals to begin with. How about black men taking responsibility for their families and trying to be good fathers to their own children. All other raaces coming here seem to be able to succeed but Blacks just fall back on the RACE card for everything.

    • Alfred Edmond, Jr.


      Hmmmm… does anyone expect the white community to take responsibility for raising criminals (at least the white ones)?

      You need to get more black friends, and get to know a wider variety of real black people, so you don’t have to go by what you’ve heard or seen in the media. If you did, you wouldn’t risk dropping dead as of result of discovering the reality that most black men do take responsibility for their families and try to be good fathers of their children. Not all, certainly, but most.


  • Juan Figuroa

    Um, speaking of logical fallacies, your article fails to provide the only relevant statistic for comparison: How many Blacks are involved in the criminal justice system?

    For that matter, let the author obtain and analyze three numbers: How many Blacks currently in prison and jail? How many on probabation or otherwise using taxpayer-funded resources subsequent to conviction? And what percentage have in their lifetime been convicted of a crime? For me and my extended family, those numbers are zero, zero, and zero. Yours?

    • Alfred Edmond, Jr.


      I actually provide some of those figures, as well as links to additional data on blacks (and other groups) and the criminal justice system, in this post. Just click on the links and see where they lead. Also, I’m sure Michelle Alexander’s book also provides figures and sources on blacks in the criminal justice system.

      As for the percentage of people in my family and extended family (both are pretty large) who have been convicted of a crime in their lifetimes, the numbers are zero, zero and zero. Though I’m sure if I went back a few generations or extended to in-laws and second and third cousins, I could find one or two convicts. If you looked hard enough, I’ll bet you could, too.

      Happy MLK Day;


  • David

    Asians are a even smaller minority, but honor family ties and seek education…they excel. The same goes for Jews. Talk about a people who has overcome adversity. Why can’t negros take care of their family and take responsibility for their criminal culture?

    • Alfred Edmond, Jr.

      “Negros?” Really? Wow.

      Every culture has a criminal element, including Asian and Jewish communities. There are NO exceptions.

  • David

    12% of the population committing 40% of the crime.

    • Alfred Edmond, Jr.

      I repeat: Blacks are 40 percent of those CONVICTED of crimes, which is not the same as being 40 percent of those committing crimes.

  • charles consult

    The incarcerations rates are but a single indication in a spectrum of manifestations of racism in America. Simply put, the prison industrial system targets African Americans and Latinos and is driven by the “plea bargaining” mechanism.

    African Americans use of drugs is about the same as those for Whites, but police apprehend, and imprison many times more Blacks than Whites. If this isn’t common knowledge, it should be.

    When one is apprehended and charged, one is generally charged with several felonies, with high mandatory sentences. Rather than face the high sentences, a suspect will usually (98% of the time) “cop a plea” and get a reduced charge (still a felony). Now that convict is a product, produced by the prison industrial system. The conviction is important because, if you read the 13th Amendment in the Constitution carefully, it says that there shall be no slavery except for the duly convicted.

    America was built on slavery because, enslaved Africans built the country and its economy. Slavery was the “engine” that drove the entire triangular trade setup (African slaves, American raw materials, European finished goods). The King’s Court of England actually freed the slaves long before the Emancipation Proclamation, but since slavery drove these economies, it continued.

    The effect of 400 years slavery on our economy, culture, and consciousness is still tangibly felt, as seen by the now existing prison industrial system. We shape our culture to frantically search for another reason to maintain it, and another distraction (war, popular culture, etc) to ignore it. The institutions change name, but the product remains the same.

  • right-wing

    these so called blacks in prisons are their own doing by selling drugs, killings of each other,gun and knife crime on the rise again, (or has it not came down?!)and gang warfare in the inner cities, then they (the blacks!) claim innocence or think their granite because they’ve just landed a life term (yea what a hero!) mug more like!!!! No sympathy from me also if their foreign kick them out of our country as the tax payer is paying for their easy life’s in prison

  • Saddened

    The vast majority of these comments just show that racism is alive and well in the United States of America. It’s 2012… will it ever end?

  • IndyInAsia

    “While the fact that today’s Black incarcerated population is larger than the 1850 slavery population in sheer numbers (and alarmingly out of proportion to Black Americans’ share of the U.S. population) is a shocking comparison, it doesn’t really say much.”

    I think it says plenty, even though today’s total Black population is far larger than America’s Black population in 1850.

    Note that the most devastating institutionalized racist policy since slavery, the so-called “War on Drugs”, statistically provable as a “War on Blacks”, is supported by ALL candidates for President, including Mr. Obama.

    All EXCEPT one: Congressman Dr. Ron Paul, who has consistently voted against and actively opposed this racist policy since inception.

  • Female Emcees

    Whatever you are black or white if you commit a crime you will be in prison.

    Female Emcees – Tracy Bartram

    • JBishop

      except if ur a politician or a banker

      • JBishop

        or a cop

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  • Slavewomanpoland

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  • JBishop

    Just because u start on 3rd base doesn’t mean you hit a triple………some people start at the plate, have to judge the balls and strikes and make sure they don’t strikeout…..i was one of the lucky ones who started on third base but i can’t imagine how i would of gotten here without all the help i had growing up……..also, you didn’t really touch the major problem facing the black community: The Drug War, i don’t know the statistics but i’m pretty sure the majority of black crime is drug related, not violent crime

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