*America as a nation has become a tale of two cities: one for young black men and one essentially for everyone else.

While we can argue with this blanket statement, what cannot be refuted is that young black men are one of the most imprisoned groups in modern history. African-American men comprise a mere 6% of the American population, but according to the Department of Justice, they make up nearly half of the 2 million inmates in U.S. jails or prisons. These men are largely imprisoned for non-violent offenses.

According to the U.S. census, nearly half of America’s 19 million black men are under the age of 35 years old, and the ratio for young black male imprisonment is around 10 percent, or 10,000 prisoners per 100,000. (Note: This is not counting the additional numbers on parole, or on probation, which add significantly to these numbers.) Placing this ratio in context, as of today, India, a country of 1 billion people, only has about 300,000 prisoners, a ratio of 30 prisoners per 100,000 people.

During South African apartheid, one of the most horrific instances of racism the world has seen, the prison rate for black male South Africans, under immensely unfair laws, was 851 per 100,000. In America today, young black men face a rate of imprisonment effectively ten times that number.

The consequence of these statistics on African American social development reaches far beyond prisons into community, public perception and family. It is here, in the shadow of mass incarceration that Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin and the majority of young black males are forced to exist. In a nation built by our forefathers’ sweat and free labor, we are left to look like and feel like crimeless felons. While we can look closer at music, clothes and other additives that inflate the perception society may have of young black boys, if you don’t start at the heart you cannot even put a dent into the problem. To the families I say unequivocally, your sons were not murdered for what clothes they had on, nor what version of rap lyrics they were listening to, but rather this occurred because of a shadow that has been cast over our nation’s view of young black men. We are perceived as criminals because the nation, through privatization, has made our imprisonment a business, rather than a social service. Prison gerrymandering has made our votes not only disappear, but has effectively sold and divided them up into districts with interests adverse to our own in need of an economic boost. By incentivizing the criminalization of our actions, we have become more than just victims. We are, in effect, economic prey. Not too unlike the use of vagrancy laws to criminalize freed slaves, the use of child support laws, vehicle codes and drug laws have compacted young black men into a secondary existence.

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