What Would King Say About the Black Gulag?


Martin Luther King once said "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I often wonder what life would be like if Dr. King had not been snatched away from us 40 years ago. I know one thing, for sure, would be at the top of his agenda for justice today: stopping the incarceration binge that is warehousing a future generation of African Americans.

In response to a report released by the Pew Center, newspapers around the country recently carried the headline that 1 in 100 Americans is now in jail or prison. The New York Times story noted that we are now the world's leading jailer of it's own people The story rightfully raised the question of whether we're getting what we really want by jailing so many people.


Of course, the implication is that the American public should be concerned. As is so often the case, at the point when white America has noticed it may be catching a cold, black America has already caught pneumonia. Among the many statistics reported by the Times, for example, is that the black male incarceration rate is not 1 in 100, but rather 1 in 15 as compared to 1 in 36 for Hispanic men (in contrast to 1 in 106 for nonHispanic white men)! Black America should be outraged and demanding reform. I am confident Dr. King would be speaking, passionately, on this issue.

The magnitude of this "phenomenon" is so great that sociologists have coined a new term for it: mass incarceration. According to legal scholar David Garland mass incarceration occurs when imprisonment reaches such a scale and focuses so narrowly that it "ceases to be the incarceration of individual offenders and becomes the systematic imprisonment of whole groups of the population." In this case, it is black America being swept into the new carceral state, especially low-income, poorly educated black Americans. I call it "racialized mass incarceration," or the creation of the Black Gulag.

How severe is the problem? Between 1980 and 1999, the black incarceration rate nearly tripled. Blacks are more than 8 times as likely as whites to be incarcerated. In some jurisdictions 50 percent or more of black males in their twenties are under some form of supervision by the criminal justice system, (i.e., on parole, probation, or in jail or prison). It is estimated that a black male born in the 1990s has an almost 1 in 3 chance of spending some time in jail or prison as compared to less than a 1 in 10 chance for non-Hispanic whites. The most recent federal statistics show that nearly 1 million blacks currently in federal, state, or local jails.

The general rise in reliance upon formal jail or prison time is not a necessary response to crime or a focused reaction to violent crime. Non-violent drug-related arrests make up the bulk of the rise in incarceration that has taken place since the 1980s. More than this, the decline in crime that began to occur in the late 1990s is largely attributable to causes other than increased incapacitation. Economic growth, increasing numbers of police on the street and more emphasis on community policing, the stabilization of the crack cocaine markets and the drug's growing negative reputation, as well as demographic changes collectively played a far more important role than growing prison populations in reducing crime.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this change is that illegal drug consumption by African Americans occurs at about the same rate as it does among whites. However, African Americans end up in jail in greatly disproportionate numbers. As Harvard sociologist Bruce Western reports in his book "Punishment and Inequality in America," by "the height of the drug war in 1989, arrest rates for blacks had climbed to 1,460 per hundred thousand compared to 365 for whites." This occurred even though in surveys whites reported slightly higher rates of illegal drug consumption than blacks and even though "harder" data, such as, drug-related emergency room visits to hospitals show a clear disproportion favoring whites.

King's legacy is all the more important here. At the time that King was launching his "poor people's movement," the Republican Party was just honing it's "law and order" strategy and tough on crime rhetoric. Politically, it was the growing success of the latter over the ensuing years that set the policy-making tilt of the times, especially in the wake of Ronald Reagan's declaration of a "War on Drugs." As a society we could have addressed fundamental problems of urban poverty and the hard, ineluctable structural transformations in the economy that have reduced wages and increased unemployment and joblessness for low-skill workers. Instead, social policy in the U.S. did just the opposite: we took federal dollars out of the cities and steadily took a turn toward building an ever larger, more costly, and more punitive prison complex.


The end result is that the U.S. now leads the world in jailing its own citizens. We jail anywhere from 5 times as many (United Kingdom) to 12 times as many (Japan) of our own people as any other major industrial democracy. And shockingly overrepresented in that new Gulag are African Americans. Dr. King would weep at what these times have wrought.

This state of affairs weighs heavily on African American communities too. At a time when blacks should feel more fully enfranchised, much research shows that black cynicism about the police and the courts is acutely high. In particular, my own research has shown huge fractions of black America doubtful that they will receive even-handed treatment by the police and acutely critical of what is perceived as a racially biased conduct of the War on Drugs. For example, results from one national survey in 2002 showed 66 percent of blacks agreeing that "drug laws are enforced unfairly against black communities" as compared to only 20 percent of whites. It is patterns like these that fuel deep disrespect for police and our court system.


Because we failed to heed Dr. King back in 1968 and truly wage a war on poverty we now face a perverse and entrenched set of criminogenic circumstances. High black poverty and joblessness, coupled with a double-edged social policy failure—failure to address critical economic hurdles facing low-skill workers and an excessive emphasis on extremely punitive anti-drug/anti-crime strategies—have now combined to produce a radical new level of black incarceration. So much so, that it is only right to say that most black Americans think of our criminal justice system as unfair by design.

King sought full citizenship and the realization of complete human potential for African Americans. Today he would truly be shocked by the simultaneous failure to do more to address poverty and by the criminalization and incarceration of a huge swath of black America. If the arc of the moral universe is to be turned back toward justice, then we'll need a wholesale re-orientation of policy to address the corrosive economic inequalities and criminal justice bias still so evident today.


Lawrence Bobo is the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of Sociology and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.