Pubdate: Fri, 16 Jan 2004
Source: Gainesville Sun, The (FL)
Copyright: 2004 The Gainesville Sun
Author: Cynthia Tucker
Note: Cynthia Tucker writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Bookmark: (Racial Issues)
Bookmark: (Tulia, Texas)


Martin Luther King Jr. might be pleasantly surprised by many of the
changes in the nation's social fabric since his death. The civil
rights movement accomplished an astonishing transformation.

But King would no doubt be quite disappointed in one area of black
life that has only deteriorated since his assassination: the
percentage of black men in prison.

In 1954, black inmates accounted for 30 percent of the nation's prison
population, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based
group that advocates alternative sentencing. By the time King died, in
1968, the figure had edged up to between 35 percent and 40 percent.

Currently, black offenders account for almost half of all prison
admissions. An estimated 12 percent of black men between the ages of
20 and 34 are behind bars, according to Allen Beck, chief prison
demographer for the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Beck estimates that
30 percent of black men will be incarcerated at some point in their

And even that stunning figure does not capture the decimation of
entire communities as young black men are taken away from home and
family, away from children they might otherwise care for, mothers they
might otherwise marry.

The result is that black youths are terrified by the very idea of
incarceration, right? Sadly, popular culture reveals the startling
influence that prison -- seen as a rite of passage in some poor black
neighborhoods -- has already had on music and fashion.

The baggy pants that fall down from the waist, favored first by
rappers and later by many adolescent boys, are an adaptation from jail
culture: When a man is arrested, jailers confiscate his belt, so his
pants tend to slide down.

How is a group to enter the mainstream if so many of its young men
adopt prison mores as proper conduct?

Given that this is the most pressing issue facing black America, you'd
think that those who would take up King's mantle would devote all of
their time to reducing the incarceration rate for black men.

Yet, the Jesse Jacksons, Joseph Lowerys and Kweisi Mfumes flit from
theme to theme -- from corporate race relations to rebel flags --
preferring to dwell on incarceration when a glaring case of injustice
promises headlines and airtime.

Injustice does exist in the criminal justice system. Consider the
notorious 1999 drug sweep in Tulia, Texas, where more than 40 people
- -- most black -- were arrested and several sent to prison on the
uncorroborated testimony of a single lawman.

After complaints from civil rights organizations and media figures, a
state investigation belatedly revealed that the detective was
unreliable. Most of the convictions were tossed out last year.

The so-called war on drugs helps explain the rising incarceration
rates for black men. Though research has shown that black people are
no more likely to use drugs than white people, blacks are much more
likely to be arrested and imprisoned for drug crimes.

But the problem is not simply one of bigotry. The worst-kept secret in
black America is the murder rate among black men.

In 2002, black men were likely perpetrators in more than 40 percent of
the homicides in which a suspect was identified. They also accounted
for nearly 40 percent of the nation's homicide victims (proving that
black men represent the greatest threat to one another).

That's a staggering statistic for a group that represents less than 6
percent of the population.

What could be more important to continuing King's legacy than turning
black men away from fratricide and steering black youths away from
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake