clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Hillary Clinton: What would we be doing if so many white men were in prison?

At Sunday's Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton asked a powerful question about racial disparities in America's prisons: "One out of three African-American men may well end up going to prison. That's the statistic. I want people here to think what we would be doing if it was one out of three white men. And very often the black men are arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for offenses that do not lead to the same results for white men. So we have a very serious problem that we can no longer ignore."

The statistic is outdated, based on a 2003 report on incarceration, as Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post explained. The actual rate of incarceration is likely much lower than Clinton suggested.

But the general point is right: There are enormous racial disparities in the US's prison system: In 2014, black men were nearly six times as likely to go to prison than white men, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Clinton is also right that the criminal justice system disproportionately punishes black Americans. As one example, a 2012 report from the US Sentencing Commission found that drug trafficking sentences for black men were 13.1 percent longer than those for white men between 2007 and 2009 — black men were punished more harshly for the same type of crime.

But many Americans don't seem troubled by these disparities. In fact, some studies show that white people actually support the criminal justice system more when they learn of the racial disparities. So Clinton's framing — "I want people here to think what we would be doing if it was one out of three white men" — is a smart way to try to get people to think about the issue in a different way.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.