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Does Darker Skin Equal More Prison Time?

ED GORDON, host:

We heard, earlier in the program, how New Orleans is dealing with crime in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. A bankrupt public defenders office and overwhelmed law enforcement are just a few of the obstacles to keeping crime down in the Crescent City. But commentator Deborah Mathis sees no such problem in the rest of the country. Incarceration rates are on the rise nationwide, with black men making up the bulk of those imprisoned.

But she says it's not just the color of a defendant's skin that plays a part in his sentencing. It's also the shade.

Ms. DEBORAH MATHIS (Syndicated Columnist and Professor at the Medill School of Journalism, at Northwestern University): Imagine that every week the country adds 1,000 new millionaires to the tax rolls, or that every week brings 1,000 new scientific breakthroughs. If we kept that up, the country would be on a roll.

Now, know that every week, 1,000 new names are added to the prison roster. That's what happened between 2004 and 2005: the prison population increased by more than 56,000 inmates in that one year. If we keep that up, the country will be in a death spiral.

More than two million people are incarcerated as we speak. A disproportionate share are young men. Based on Justice Department figures, nearly 12 percent of black men ages 25 to 29 are in prison or jail - three times the rate for Latino males, six times the rate for white males.

You can write that off as the wages of sin, assured that the disparity reflects the difference in the crime rates between the races. But come now, you know there's more to it than that. There are volumes of studies that consistently show black suspects, especially black male suspects, are more aggressively charged, prosecuted, and sentenced, than are whites.

In fact, there are new findings to add to that dreadful stack, courtesy of Jennifer Eberhardt, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford. In the May issue of Psychological Science, Professor Eberhardt reports that convicted murderers who look more stereotypically black - broad noses, thick lips, dark skin, kinky hair - are more than twice as likely to get the death sentence than are fairer skinned black men. That is, as long as the victim is white.

Let either man kill a black person, and the likelihood of capital punishment fades away.

Does this say something about value? You'd better believe it. From the start of the interracial adventure in this country, a double standard has been enforced on shades of blackness. It is not just race, but color itself that carries assigned value - as to whether you're worth saving, as to whether your life is worth the ultimate revenge, as to whether you can go free, as to whether you will sit on death row.

One of these days, the country will have to come to grips with its lockup policy and our bi-polar disorder regarding African-Americans. We bemoan the absence of black men in black communities, but allow the schools that would educate them to crumble into dank, dripping, dangerous places that not only don't welcome learning but practically dare it. But there is no shortage of sparkly new jails and comfy orange jumpsuits for them.

We extol a colorblind society, but are racking up examples of where color counts not as a coincidence of accomplishment and celebration, but as a consequence, a determinate of how one's life goes.

One thousand new prisoners a week of any color: sounds like justice is on feeble legs.

GORDON: Deborah Mathis is a syndicated columnist and professor at the Medill School of Journalism, at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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