Why were free African Americans treated harshly

Historical Injustice: Black Inmates in the United States

A demand that is becoming louder in the USA in the wake of the "Black Lives Matter" mass demonstrations after the death of George Floyd is directed against excessive police budgets. "Defund the police," less money for the police, can be read on protest signs in Washington, Minneapolis and Los Angeles. There was too much racist violence by police officers against Afro-Americans and other minorities, and the activists say that action must finally be taken against this. Some large cities have already reacted and announced that they will completely restructure their police force or cut budgets.

What is currently receiving less media attention, but is just as much a part of life in the USA as police violence against blacks: The judicial system in the country also disadvantages people with dark skin. In the early 2010s, the statistic became popular that one in three black men will spend some lifetime in prison, but only one in 17 white men. These numbers are controversial.

In May, however, the renowned Pew Research Center released statistics that speak for themselves. In 2018, blacks made up 12 percent of the U.S. adult population but 33 percent of those serving prison terms. Whites made up 63 percent of the adult US population and 30 percent of the people in prison. The figures are based on reports from the US Department of Justice statistics agency. Certain age groups are particularly affected. One in around 21 black men between 35 and 39 was in prison in 2018, according to the Pew Research Center.

"Black Lives Matter" protests against racism have been taking place all over the USA since George Floyd's death in late May

Still, inequality seems to be slowly decreasing. According to a report by the Council on Criminal Justice think tank, the gap between the number of blacks and whites imprisoned fell significantly between 2000 and 2016. In 2000, the ratio in state prisons was still more than 8-to-1, or eight black inmates for every white inmate. In 2016 it was a good 5-to-1.

History of injustice

Of course, that's still a big difference. Racism is historically anchored in the US prison system, the country where, with more than 2.2 million people in jail, more than 20 percent of the world's prison inmates are incarcerated.

The documentation "The 13th" by Ava DuVernay from 2016 shows how the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was exploited after the slaves were freed at the end of the civil war. It states that slavery and forced labor are prohibited in the US - "except as a punishment for a crime". Wealthy whites had suddenly lost their workforce, but knew what to do. In the years following the Civil War, African Americans were arrested in large numbers for trivial matters and toiled as part of their prison sentences.

In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon declared the "War on Drugs". The war on drug crime hit the black community hard - and it was by design. In "The 13th" hear former Nixon consultant John Ehrlichman. He said African Americans were "enemies" of the Nixon government. "We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be black," Ehrlichman said. But it has been ensured that the public associate African Americans with heroin. "So we could then arrest their leaders, search their homes and demonize them on the news night after night."

In addition, "mandatory minimums" were introduced: minimum sentences that stipulated long prison sentences for even minor drug possession. For drugs like crack, which were found more often in African Americans, these compulsory sentences were much longer, and were effective in smaller quantities, than for drugs like cocaine, which were more likely to catch whites. The "mandatory minimums" leave judges as good as no room for maneuver. Even if they want to give those affected a second chance, they are forced to impose decades of imprisonment.

Poverty is also punished. Those who cannot afford the bail have to sit in jail until the trial, often months or even years. Here too, particularly affected: Afro-Americans.

Start before criminalization

So the problems go back a long way. The "Defund the police" activists are not deterred by this. "Instead of spending so much money on tear gas and military-like equipment," cities should invest in schools, health systems and job training programs, for example, Cori Bush told DW.

Bush in Ferguson, where Michael Brown was shot in 2014

Bush, a Democrat, is running for a seat in the US House of Representatives. She wants to represent the constituency of Missouris, which also includes Ferguson - the city where the Black Lives Matter movement first achieved national fame in 2014 after the black teenager Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer.

The reallocation of police budgets to local aid "will have a direct effect" on the large number of African Americans in prison, Bush said. "I was once in a situation in which I didn't know where my next meal was going to come from. I made sure that my children had something to eat, but I didn't know what to eat," says the politician. "That does something mentally to a person." If there were less poverty, fewer young people with no prospects for the future, and fewer hungry children in black communities, Bush concludes, then fewer people would end up in prison.