Members of racial minorities experienced most strongly the paradox of growing islands of unfreedom in a nation that prided itself on liberty. In 1950, whites accounted for 70 percent of the nation’s prison population and non-whites 30 percent. By 2000, these figures had been reversed. One reason was that severe penalties faced those convicted of using or selling crack, a particularly potent form of cocaine concentrated among the urban poor, while the use of powder cocaine, the drug of choice in suburban America, led to far lighter sentences.

The percentage of the black population in prison stood eight times higher than the proportion for white Americans. More than one-quarter of all black men could expect to serve time in prison at some time during their lives. A criminal record made it very difficult for ex-prisoners to find jobs. Partly because so many young men were in prison, blacks had a significantly lower rate of marriage than other Americans. Their children became “prison orphans,” forced to live with relatives or in foster homes. With twenty-nine states denying the vote to those on probation and seven barring ex-felons from voting for their entire lives, an estimated 4 million black men (13 percent of the black male population) could not cast a ballot at the end of the twentieth century. In 2000, in the seven states that denied the vote to ex-offenders (Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, and Virginia), one black man in four was permanently disenfranchised. Since then, most of these states have taken steps to restore voting rights to those who have served their sentences.

A private, for-profit, maximum-security prison under construction in 1999 in California City, in the Mohave Desert, illustrates the expansion of the “prison-industrial complex.”

Blacks convicted of crimes were also more likely than whites to receive the death penalty. In 1972, the Supreme Court had temporarily suspended states’ use of this punishment. But the Court soon allowed it to resume, despite evidence of racial disparities in its application Even as western Europe and other countries abolished the death penalty, the United States executed 598 persons between 1977 and 1999. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville had described executions as common in Europe but rare in America. At the close of the twentieth century, with more than 3,000 prisoners on death row, the United States ranked with China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia as the nations that most often executed their citizens. The 2.3 million Americans in prison in 2008 represented one-quarter of the entire world’s inmates and far exceeded the number in any other country.

The continuing frustration of urban blacks exploded in 1992 when an all-white suburban jury found four Los Angeles police officers not guilty in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, even though an onlooker had captured their assault on videotape. The deadliest urban uprising since the New York draft riots of 1863 followed. Some fifty-two people died, and property damage approached $r billion. Many Latino youths, who shared blacks’ resentment over mistreatment by the police, joined in the violence. The uprising suggested that despite the civil rights revolution, the nation had failed to address the plight of the urban poor. Racial minorities benefited enormously from the dramatic decline in unemployment that accompanied the economic boom of the mid-and late 1990s. But when the boom ended in 2000, these gains once again began to disappear.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!