What John Legend’s Oscars speech got right (and wrong) about black men in prison

Just because the numbers were off doesn't mean he doesn't have a point.


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Published Feb 24, 2015   Updated May 29, 2021, 11:26 am CDT

It’s not rare for the Academy Awards to be the source of some controversy. However, for that controversy not to be rooted in mispronounced names, fashion faux pas, or even who won, rather than socio-political nuances, is somewhat rarer.

In fact, Sunday night’s 87th annual Oscar ceremony actually proved to be rife for heated debate all around. Whether it was conservative outrage at the snubs for American Sniper, the reaction to Patricia Arquette’s particular brand of feminism, or speculation over the sexual orientation of The Imitation Game‘s screenwriter, the major issues of the day seemed to be at play in every facet of the evening. However, if there’s one detail that merits consideration more than any other, it may be John Legend’s acceptance speech for Best Original Song, following his show-stopping performance with Common of their winning number, “Glory.”

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In his acceptance speech, Legend claimed, “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than there were under slavery in 1850.” It’s a powerful figure, especially in the wake of everything that happened in 2014, and the lack of Academy Award nominations for Selmathe film “Glory” appeared in. Except that technically, it’s not entirely true. 

The statistic Legend brought up in his speech was popularized after the publication of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander in 2011. What’s important to note about this claim, however, is that “correctional control” covers more than just those who are incarcerated. If we accept Alexander’s assertion as the truth, we also have to count people who’ve been accused of committing a crime but are waiting to be convicted or acquitted, people who are serving truncated sentences at local jails, people who are on probation, and people who are on parole. And as a 2009 report from The Pew Center on the States points out, this includes one in every 31 Americans, black or otherwise.

Still, this Pew statistic alone presents a pretty horrifying view of America’s prison system, if one remembers that this country supposedly values freedom more than anywhere else in the world. And when you do bring matters of race into the equation, things get even scarier. As Dara Lind points out at Vox, there were 872,924 black men enslaved throughout the United States in 1850. As of December, 2013, there were approximately 526,000 black men incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the U.S., or roughly three-fifths as many black men as were enslaved in 1850; this number is hauntingly tragic given that there was a time we only considered a black person to be three-fifths of an actual human being in this country.

Furthermore, Lind notes that according to 2013 numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are 877,000 black men on probation and 280,000 black men on parole in the United States of America. And while the BJS doesn’t distinguish jail populations by race and gender, 86 percent of all 730,000 jail residents in 2013 were male and 36 percent were black, leaving an unfortunate amount of room for crossover. All in all, there 1.68 million black men under U.S. correctional control today, not including those who are in jails; this is three times as many black men as were enslaved in 1850.

And yet, something still doesn’t add up. “Here’s why [the statistics are] a bit misleading,“ writes Lind. “There are more black men (and more people, generally) in the US now than there were a century and a half ago. In 1850, there were 3.6 million African Americans in the U.S. (men and women), according to the Census; in 2010, there were 42 million. So a much larger share of the black male population was enslaved in 1850 than is under correctional control today.” The sad fact here is that the greater the population, the greater the amount of people in prison in this country, no matter what race.

However, if Legend’s words moved you (and if you’re a thinking, feeling person, then let’s hope they did), there’s no need to throw out his speech just yet. The incarceration rate in America today is off the charts, and the prison-industrial complex is legitimately terrifying, as the number of black men locked up in this country today is grotesquely disproportionate.

Let’s start with that last part. According to a report from The Sentencing Project published in 2013, one in three black men in this country will go to prison in their lifetime. Meanwhile, a report from The Hamilton Project finds that 70 percent of black men who didn’t finish high school between the years of 1975 and 1979 have been to prison. That’s 53 percent higher than the amount of white men that didn’t finish high school during the same period. In their research, The Hamilton Project also determined that right now, a black child whose father didn’t finish high school has a 50 percent chance of seeing him incarcerated by the time they turn 14.

Why is this the case? A lot of it has to do with United State’s truly inane sentencing laws. Consider that in America, sentences for burglary are three times longer than they are in England.

Our most outwardly racist sentencing laws, however, are related to drug crimes. In the excellent 2012 documentary The House I Live In (on which John Legend served as a producer), The Wire creator David Simon refers to the drug as “a holocaust in slow motion.” The Drug Policy Alliance further asserts, “Crack cocaine sentencing presents a particularly egregious case. Since the 1980s, federal penalties for crack were 100 times harsher than those for powder cocaine, with African Americans disproportionately sentenced to much lengthier terms.” 

To put it another way: A white cocaine user is minor concern in this country compared to a black crack user. Since crack has always been a bigger plight on the black community, U.S. drug laws are, therefore, designed to take advantage of African-Americans.

American corporations make millions off keeping people in prison, so reforming these laws is difficult. From a global standpoint, the effect has been to make the United States the world leader in incarceration rates, despite the fact that our crime rates are comparatively average. (On the flipside, it’s worth keeping in mind that the United States is only ranked 14th in education.)

“Adjusted for population, the United States’ prison population (707 prisoners per 100,000 population) exceeds countries around its size, including China,” wrote Katie Sanders at PolitiFact. “The United States far and away incarcerates more people than its peers, in terms of the portion of its population behind bars, despite having a comparable amount of crime. Only Seychelles technically has a higher incarceration rate than the United States. But experts said it’s an outlier because of its miniscule size and largely should be disregarded.”

This is why Legend’s words at this year’s Oscars ceremony can’t and shouldn’t be disregarded. Moreover, his comments about voter ID laws (which have also negatively affected minorities in this country) are a further reminder of how far our country has to go in making the dreams of the Civil Rights Movement a reality.

At the end of the day, John Legend is right: The prison-industrial complex is a blight on modern American life. The lesson here lies not in the amount of black men in prison today versus the amount of black men enslaved in 1850 but in the ways we’ve unfairly disregarded black Americans throughout the years in between. Part of what made Selma so powerful was that it reminded us that the struggles of the civil rights movement are not over but constantly changing. It reminded us that #BlackLivesMatter, and part of making that sentiment a reality means taking a good hard look at the ingrained racism in the American prison system.

In short, John Legend’s statistics aren’t the problem, we are. We are the ones who have failed black Americans and all Americans by neglecting to examine our obsession with putting people in prison and keeping them there. It may be hard to accept this ugly truth coming out of Hollywood’s most glamorous, star-studded night, but it is an essential truth nonetheless. 

Screengrab via ABC/YouTube

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*First Published: Feb 24, 2015, 12:00 pm CST