Freedom Rider: How Mass Incarceration Affects Everything Else

by BAR editor and senior columnist Margaret Kimberley

Mass incarceration affects every aspect of Black life. “It is not mysterious that a group with large numbers of its members locked away would have higher rates of HIV or lower rates of marriage or a median net worth of only $4,955.” So great is the weight that imprisonment imposes on Black America, “every negative statistic that bedevils the black community” is tied to the phenomenon.


Freedom Rider: How Mass Incarceration Affects Everything Else

by BAR editor and senior columnist Margaret Kimberley

Statistics about black people cannot be trusted because incarcerated men aren’t included in them.”

The United States is the imprisonment capital of the world. Just one state, Louisiana, has an incarceration rate 5 times higher than Iran and 13 times higher than China, nations which Americans are supposed to feel superior to. More than 2 million Americans are behind bars in jails and prisons, which is the highest on earth in total number and by percentage of population.

The phenomenon we now know as mass incarceration began in the early 1970s and has steadily increased since. In this country minor infractions result in prison terms and an ever increasing number of offenses are added to the list. Black people are a minority of Americans but make up fully half of the imprisoned population, and most of those were convicted of non-violent crimes.

Imprisonment was and is seen as a tool to keep black people from fully realizing their gains made in the 1960s. It was no longer legal to keep black people from living where they wanted, getting jobs they were qualified to get or preventing them from going to the polls. It was possible to put people in jail for any and every offense, however. People can’t compete for good jobs or agitate for their rights if they are in jail. Problem solved.

The toll that mass incarceration has taken on black people is enormous. A newly published book entitled Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress gives the facts and figures behind the crime committed against black people. Prisoners are disappeared persons who are removed from census figures, who lose their voting rights, and who upon gaining their freedom are banned from entire categories of employment. According to author Becky Pettit, statistics about black people cannot be trusted because incarcerated men aren’t included in them.

Black people are a minority of Americans but make up fully half of the imprisoned population.”

Every negative statistic that bedevils the black community is tied to the awful effects of imprisonment. It is not mysterious that a group with large numbers of its members locked away would have higher rates of HIV or lower rates of marriage or a median net worth of only $4,955. As Invisible Men so clearly points out, the large numbers of black men who are behind bars and who therefore disappear from productive life means that these dismal statistics would be even worse if the incarcerated were not also disappeared from the numbers.

Invisible Men is just the latest in a series of books such as The New Jim Crow and A Plague of Prisons which reveal the terrible toll that incarceration is taking on the black community. These works are seriously needed, documenting with hard data the depth of the attack on black people. Unfortunately, this plethora of books doesn’t seem to be lowering rates of incarceration. The great recession and its resultant budget constraints around the country have been the only thing forcing some states and municipalities to open up some of the prison doors.

It all may have started slowly, but the code words and race baiting were evident from the beginning. Terms like “law and order,” “war on drugs,” “dead beat dads” all meant that more and more black people would end up behind bars for infractions big and small. Yet it must be pointed out that code words exist for a reason. They speak with a nudge and a wink to the intended audience in a language that others may not understand.

There is a nagging question about these statistics, an elephant in the room as it were. America could not have become the world’s prison capital if a majority of the population didn‘t want it to happen. A recent poll regarding New Yorkers’ attitudes toward the NYPD stop and frisk policies shows a clear racial divide. Most whites polled, 55%, think that stop and frisk is acceptable while only 35% of blacks are supportive.

America could not have become the world’s prison capital if a majority of the population didn‘t want it to happen.”

It isn’t surprising that the victims of police abuse are more likely to oppose it, but that shouldn’t stop the non-victims from opposing it too. Stop and frisk, like imprisonment, assures many white people that black people will be locked up far away from them, or at the very least will be sufficiently inconvenienced that they will not be able to compete for any benefits which society might offer. In the case of stop and frisk the victimized population may just decide to leave town for good and take themselves out of sight and out of mind.

This is the challenge of discussing not only mass incarceration but many other issues too. Black people suffer as a direct result of conscious and unconscious thinking on the part of white people. Some of those New Yorkers who will tell a pollster that stop and frisk is acceptable would not admit to harboring racist thoughts, but their reticence in owning up to those feelings doesn’t change the fact that their desires hold sway in public policy making. Stop and frisk would end immediately if enough white people wanted it to.

The wave of scholarship on incarceration is all to the good but it isn’t enough if it doesn’t address the why behind the numbers. Black people have a history of seeing political victories turn pyrrhic. The backlash against black progress is an old story that keeps repeating itself and mass incarceration is just the latest manifestation. The next steps must include ways of honestly addressing the fact that racism is at the root of almost every crisis facing black people. If this simple fact isn’t addressed, all of these excellent books and studies will in fact be irrelevant.

Margaret Kimberley's Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)


Excellent Comment!!

You eloquently hit every point I wanted to make on this particular subject. There are only a few groups that are actively discussing or attempting to address this issue. Its requires going through moneyed opposition at every turn along with media obfuscation on the issue.  Mass incarceration isnt even on the  platform for the DNC; and the black elite  give a wild side eye to anyone who mentions the subject as if mentioniung the issue would somehow "Shame"  this administration.  Its a fact that the majority of stats regarding blacks are skewed ,because incarcerated individuals are often removed to paint a less horrid picture of our circumstances.  I bring up the issue whenever whereever I am....





We Debated w an Author 2 Weeks Ago RE: Marxist-Leninism vs

Black Nationalism / Pan Africanism. In fact IMO the author on " 'Secularists' & the Black Movement" took a pot-shot [or cheap-shot] at Garvey. White Marxist-Leninists / communists have a track record of hyping class over race even for issues concerning Black & Brown oppression vs the racist system of white-supremacy [which capitalism is part of]. They often fail to even acknowledge that race is at-least as important [IMO more so] as class when analyzing this system's oppression of Black & Brown folk. So if these white Marxist-Leninists can't even acknowledge that simple fact, of-course they're going to have a problem w the concept of Black Nationalism / Pan-Africanism [= Black Self-determination].

Quoting from the WSWS article 'Michelle Alexander's New Jim Crow- A Brief for Racial Politics' - At Length: } Ms Alexander has been lionized in some liberal and “left” circles, including pseudo-socialists [So according to WSWS {& contrary to the author of that article on WEB Dubois} the folks here @ BAR IE: Bro Glen Ford & Bruce Dixon are pseudo-socialists / pseudo-leftists]. These elements of the middle class, prominent in academia, play a major role in propping up the Democrats.

Identity politics is their calling card, counter-posing the issues of race, gender and sexual orientation to the interests of the working class as a whole [IMO in the post civil rights era the LGBT & feminist movements seem to have more clout w the Dims than Blacks- even though we've been the Dims most loyal constituency]. The pseudo-lefts respond with enthusiasm to Alexander’s call for a new civil rights movement, conceived as a vehicle of middle-class protest against what they regard as congenital American racism. Alexander herself is quite clear on this. The driving force of American history is race, in her view, and certainly not the class struggle. “Since the nation’s founding,” she writes, “African Americans repeatedly have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow, which appear to die, but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs of constraints of the time. 'It may be impossible to overstate the significance of race in defining the basic structure of American society,” she states categorically.

From the fact that the US Constitution was based on a compromise with slavery, enshrined in the notorious rule defining the slave as 3/5ths of a man, she concludes that “upon this racist fiction rests the entire structure of American democracy.”

So much for Washington, Jefferson, Franklin and the rest of the leading figures of the [so-called] American Revolution and its world-shaking impact which reverberated in France a decade after the Declaration of Independence.

For Alexander, it is not a matter of exploring the contradiction between the American Revolution’s proclamation of Enlightenment ideals and the continuation of slavery—a contradiction that did not erase the 'progressive' character of the Revolution—but rather a basis for dismissing the ideals themselves as a “racist fiction.”

The American Civil War, barely merits a mention. That hundreds of thousands gave their lives to end slavery and uphold the promise that “all men are created equal”is treated as a momentary interruption in the relentless reassertion of American racism.

The rise of Jim Crow is seen as the inevitable expression of an unceasing quest for white supremacy. In fact, Jim Crow was bound up not only with the need to divide the white and black poor in the South, but with the emergence of the working class in the North. The federal government called a halt to Reconstruction in 1877, withdrawing its troops from the South, largely in order to deal with a growing threat from the working class. The great railway strike of that same year saw US troops battling masses of industrial workers and poor in the streets of Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis and many other cities [My Note: No mention of the deal that was cut between white GOPers & Dixie-crats that effectively sold post civil-war Blacks out to Jim-Crow Southerners & the KKK- even though IMO undoubtedly the crack down against workers’ up-risings in the North was part of the equation].

Alexander repeatedly places the blame for racism on the “lower class whites,” who are portrayed as a popular base for discriminatory policies devised by the ruling establishment. Her aim is to convince sections of the ruling class, along with the upper-middle class layers with whom she clearly identifies, to take remedial action on the issue of mass imprisonment before it leads to a social explosion.

She discusses the prison system in some detail, dealing with racial profiling, the financial incentives for a burgeoning prison-industrial complex to increase the inmate population, the use of prisons to provide jobs in mainly rural areas with high unemployment, mandatory minimum sentencing laws, denial of adequate legal counsel, and legally authorized discrimination against ex-prisoners on such matters as voting rights, jobs and most other aspects of life. There is more that could be added on the increasing privatization of the prison system and the use of prison labor to generate profit.

From these FACTS Ms Alexander makes the leap—an unscientific and politically reactionary one—to characterize many/most African Americans today as a “racial caste…”   {


Now there are some that say the Sis Michelle Alexander actually didn't go hard-enough, because she talked in terms of reform rather than revolution [or at-least totally abolishing the Prison Industrial Complex]. Yet according to this WSWS article 'The New Jim Crow' plays the 'race-card' [They didn't actually use that term but they definitely implied it. So maybe WSWS believes the hype of the 'post-racial' USA in the era of Obama?]. The authors see 1776 - USA as an important ?'progressive'? event in World [?socialist?] 'revolution'???- Apparently ignoring the fact that the US has been / is the bastion of the white-supremacist / imperialist / capitalist system- to which chattel slavery was a key component of [as the Prison Industrial Complex is now]. Thus this WSWS article seems to suggest that we [Blacks] should just over-look the fact that key 'Founding Fathers of 1776- USA' [IE: Washington, Madison, Jefferson, etc] were slave-owners- who encoded chattel-slavery in their founding document! Thus the Marxist-Leninist @ WSWS have perfectly aligned themselves w {white} patriotic Americans on both the US' political 'left' [IE: Dave Swanson, Dennis Kucinich, etc] & 'right' [Ron Paul, Alex Jones, Paul Craig Roberts, etc] on this issue.

YET- Even White progressive historical analysts IE: Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti, etc- have said that what WSWS calls the 'progressive' 1776 US so-called 'revolution' was NOT a very good progressively revolutionary deal for Black slaves nor Native Americans [nor even for many/most working-class whites]. Of course the elitist Founding Fathers talked a good game about 'All Men Created Equal w Unalienable Rights'- but that was mainly propaganda for white indentured servants- because the elitist Founding Fathers needed bodies as foot-soldiers [pawns] in their quarrel w their royal British kit & kin [left unspoken yet clearly understood was that when they said ‘All Men were Created Equal’ they meant ‘All white {WASP} Men’]. 1776 did mark the end to white indentured servitude in the US- but those white ex-servants apparently didn't see the need to insist that those slave-owning elitist founding fathers end chattel slavery, in 'solidarity' w their Black enslaved working-poor brothers.

Then this WSWS article goes on to say that the Civil War was all about [whites] shedding blood to free Black slaves. Not a word about Lincoln's declaration that his objective was to 'Save the Union' NOT to End Slavery! And as Sis Kimberley said in her recent article 'Emancipation' [Proclamation]: 'The Emancipation Proclamation left Blacks in the slave states that had not seceded from the Union still in chains, and might better have been called “the emancipation {but not for everyone} proclamation...” And if the Civil War was mainly about ending slavery why did it take Lincoln 2.5 yrs into a 4 yr war to even come up w the so-called Emancipation Proclamation that did NOT even free all US slaves??? So of course this WSWS article wouldn't touch the key role that the US burgeoning empire's gangstering of the entire SW quadrant of the US from Mexico during the Mexican-American War(s)- played in setting the stage for the North & South's clash over the slavery issue in those newly 'acquired' SW-Territories. Thus this WSWS article essentially regurgitates verbatim the conventional lame-stream myths RE: what 1776 & the Civil War were really all about.

Then this WSWS article glosses over the fact that the US' prison population exploded in the post Civil Rights era- w the phony 'War on Drugs' which targeted mainly Black & Brown folks & communities [since 1970 the US' prison population has increased 4Xs - 5Xs]. In 1970 over 60% of the US' prison population was white - by 1990 2/3rds - 3/4ths of the prison population was Black & Brown [fully 1/2 is Black - Black & Browns together = just 25% - 29% of the US' population], w the fastest growing inmate population now being Black women- who also now have the highest rates of HIV infection due to so many Black men [& women] being infected in prison [as Sis Kimberley's article points out].

Then there's the 100 to 1 [recently changed to 20 to 1- BUT Definitely NOT 1 to 1] legalized discrimination of crack to powdered cocaine because crack was/is hyped as Black folks' coke while powered is generally perceived as a white folks' coke- even though you first must have powdered coke to even make crack. Plus there's the fact that most Blacks & Browns are in jail due to non-violent simple drug possession- usually marijuana even tough whites smoke weed as much or even more often than Blacks. - Furthermore there's legalized racial-profiling aka 'Stop & Frisk'- w 90% of those stopped by the NYPD being Black & Brown men- even though the stats show that the few whites who are stopped are far more likely to being carrying illegal guns. But according to the WSWS article its a reactionary -unscientific-illogical leap to conclude all of this amounts to a kind of racial-caste system against Blacks [aka Institutionalized Racism-  IMO Ms Alexander was actually being diplomatic to use the term racial-caste].

WSWS also glosses over the fact that most Black & Brown inmates are seemingly imprisoned in lily-white good-ole boy type working-class towns, & are key to those towns' economic 'interests'. The fact is too often too many 'working-class / working-poor' whites tend to see themselves as white above all else & thus too often have supported race-tinged policies of the poly-trickal & corp power elites that ultimately were/are against even their own best interests [IE: most Civil War Confederate soldiers were NOT even slave owners- so fighting for the Confederacy was NOT actually in their own interest]! Other-wise how can WSWS explain the success of racist-tinged media IE: FOX Noise, Hush Limpballs, etc- which is geared toward 'patriotic' working-class whites, as well as the Repugs race-tinged 'Southern Strategy' which got Nixon, Ford, Reagan &- Bush Sr & Jr elected as POTUS??!

My Beloved Black Women suffer most

Watched a documentary the other day regarding AIDS and the Black community.

Fact:  40% of incarcerated males engage in homosexual conduct.

Fact:  The greatest medical killer/threat to Black women between the ages of 20+ and 45 is AIDS.

Fact:  Dangerous, psycopathic M***F***ers who should be incarcerarated spend less time in prison that targets of the shitty War on Drugs.  You can gut a M***F***er and spend less than in jail than a poor Black man or women selling dope, or even a f****king pedophile or rapist or murderer.  This is indeed White America's genocidal attack on Blacks.

No logic at all, sick bastards.

I watched ESPN "Outside the Lines" last week or so.  An NFL player's mom and grandmother serving 20 to 40 years for selling crack and weed.  Should they suffer incarceration?  Sure, but not longer prison terms than goddamn anti-social monsters?  No.

Thanks to the Black Misleadershp class, clueless, spineless bitches they are, my precious, beautiful, God-breathed Black women, my daughter is at risk of AIDS.

Dirty, rotten bastards,  get a clue.  Pathetic, mindless Black churches and so-called Black Leaders get a clue.  Trifling M***F**ers.  You are killing my Queens and putting  my daughter and nieces at risk!!!!!!! 


Race specific weapon. And where does he/she grap the 40% number from? Got damn! That's half the jail/prison. I don't think that's true either.

C.N. you know by now I don't pull facts outta my ass. 

C.N. we have our differences of opinion, but I've always respected your "conservatism."  I bet you agree with me that White Liberal Paternalism is about as bad as White Racist Conservatism.  It's Coke vs. New Coca Cola.

When the culture promote hyper Black male sexuality, wtf do you expect?  The masculine prison culture (which is an iteration of the hyper-sexual Black male non-prison culture) thinks nothings wrong with putting their penises in effeminate prisoners and then lie to our women and themselves that they are not "gay."

Nothing to cheer about, but I'm half-assed pleased that 60% of Black male prisoners ain't f***king other men.

The failure to acknowledge this reality is part and parcel of what's killing my Queens.

Watch the entire program and then email it to everyone you love and care for, especially your nieces and daughters.


no doubt, will do.. But I just can't believe that figure lol...

I guess the main gist of what I'm saying is that these white women are getting a loooooooooooot of dick! Big black ones too. Where's their epidemic?

Look at Lilly white Sarah Palin "nailin" ex-NBA star Glen Rice back in the day. Who would've ever thunk that?

CNN reports: Rev. Jeremiah Wright on AIDS

Full Jeremiah Wright Press Club statement:

Church! Lol...