The rate of imprisonment for the black community in the United States has dropped significantly since 2006, according to a new report from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. The U.S. now incarcerates roughly 1,500 black people for every 100,000, compared to over 2,250 in 2006, marking a 34% decline. The same study showed an overall drop in incarceration rates in the United States as well, from 670 people incarcerated per 100,000 to 555. Incarceration rates among Hispanic/Latinx communities also dropped 26%, while that of whites dropped 17%.
Many factors contributed to the considerable drop in incarceration rates among the black community. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the nation’s violent crime and property crime rates both dropped by more than 50% between 1993 and 2018. Beyond that, at the federal level, the Obama Administration made some efforts to address the great disparity in arrest rates and sentence length across races, for example in the Fair Sentencing Act of 2020, while many states have done the same.
This new data demonstrates significant progress in reducing both overall incarceration across the country and the disproportionate effects of our justice system on communities of color. However, despite these clear gains, the black community is still incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of the white community, due both to racist targeting by police and the justice system, as well as the pervasive economic and cultural conditions that make unlawful lifestyles hard to escape.
I find reporting on good news and social progress around race is particularly difficult and problematic. Too often the white community has patted itself on the back for how far it has come on race. We applaud ourselves for desegregating our schools, passing equality laws, even electing a black President. We use these milestones to paint a narrative of progress around race. Too often this narrative works primarily to hide and obscure how much of the real work the white community has not done and how deeply racist our country remains to this day. Too often it becomes about white people feeling better, when black communities are still marginalized and in pain.
In some ways, our society has made considerable progress on race. All the milestones mentioned above are true. And that is certainly worth acknowledging and celebrating.
And yet, despite all this progress, racism still runs rampant across our society. It is as urgent a challenge as ever. The still wildly disproportionate incarceration rate among black is just one piece of evidence.
So my request is not to use this story to celebrate how far we’ve come, but rather to remind us all that progress is possible and still urgently needed.