Posted on July 27, 2022

The Unheard-of Decline in Black Incarceration

Keith Humphreys and Ekow Yankah, Chicago Tribune, July 25, 2022

The nation is dragging itself toward another round of midterm elections, sure that legislative reforms, whether about guns, the environment or economic inequality, are all but useless. Particularly in criminal justice reform.

Two years after George Floyd’s murder, protest-filled streets and countless invocations of a “racial reckoning,” public backlash and boredom have led many people to despair that the criminal justice system will never change.

But that dispiriting illusion is false, maybe even dangerous. After generations of soul-crushing mass incarceration, African Americans have cause for hope: The Black imprisonment rate is at a 33-year low, having fallen to about half its level of a generation ago. But an inadvertent collaboration of ideological adversaries makes the decline of Black incarceration unspeakable.

On the one hand, the good news is hidden by racism. The narrative of inherent Black violence and immorality has been used to terrify white people and justify the oppression of Black people for centuries. {snip}


To be sure, the disproportionate incarceration of Black Americans remains a national tragedy that cannot be consigned to history if white people become complacent. Reformers understandably fear that focusing on the decline in Black incarceration (or positive comparison with white people) will further slow the dismantling of a system that still destroys countless lives. Still, assuming American racism is intractable creates a narrative that also cannot account for the decline in Black imprisonment.


No matter our politics, we should care about what is true — the Black imprisonment rate has been dropping for a generation. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans who would have been behind bars are now free. Callous actors will claim this is too many, and anti-racists will argue it’s too few. But would anyone argue with a straight face that such a dramatic change in the fate of hundreds of thousands of people warrants no discussion at all?

There is a balance to be struck between letting young Black Americans — especially males — know about the disproportionate criminal justice risks they face and convincing them that prison is their certain and terrible American destiny.