There are certain topics referenced to in political discourse that seem, superficially, like hyperbole: concentration camps or political prisons, past political leaders such as Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler. The idea is that these events, institutions or politicians were so extreme, so dysfunctional or so evil that nothing in the modern world can be compared. This is a mistake. We do not need to reach the full heights of extremity to compare modern political events to those of the past. To avoid the obvious comparisons, to sidestep drawing the modern parallels, we do a dual disservice to ourselves and the memories of lives lost to authoritarian politics.
As things continue to get worse we even begin to see the comparisons line up more completely. An “outrageous statement” was made by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on The Daily Show. Kristof said, “The United States right now incarcerates more African-Americans as a percentage than apartheid South Africa did.”
At first glance this, too, appears to be hyperbole. Surely the United States isn’t imprisoning black Americans more frequently than apartheid South Africa? South Africa, during apartheid, even had resistance groups the state had to contend with. (Resistance groups that practiced acts of sabotage and assassination and were, at the time, widely condemned as terrorist groups. Now history has reached a different consensus: in retrospect, freedom fighters.) Even in the wildest dreams of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, hounding black civil rights leaders, nothing in the United States has ever reached the scale of South African resistance. So how are black Americans being imprisoned at higher rates than black South Africans during apartheid?
Anyone familiar with American criminal justice knows that the vast majority of the accused are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes. The vast remainder of crimes, those which are dubbed violent, have roots in poverty and property. Very few Americans, black or otherwise, are in prison for being purely pathological violent offenders. The prison-industrial complex would not survive if only the pathological, the violent for the sake of violence, were imprisoned. It would not be profitable. Crime, including violent crime, is manufactured for the benefits of the criminal justice industry, private and public.
Kristof cited an Aspen Institute report that said, “The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.”
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that, in 2010, the incarceration rate for black men in all of the country’s jails and prisons was 4,347 people per 100,000. For whites, the rate was 678 people per 100,000. America imprisons people far more in general than comparable countries. Among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development nations, the United States is the clear leader with an incarceration rate about two and half times higher than the second place country, Chile.
PolitiFact focused on the claim because, as per its mission, the claim seemed potentially dubious. Why would such a claim seem dubious? There is a disconnect between the reality of American criminal justice and the way that Americans perceive it. Most citizens might say, if asked on the street, that there is no possible way that the United States is as bad as South Africa during apartheid.
They would be surprised to learn, as PolitiFact confirmed, that the United States is worse.