Selma was the most talked about film after the Oscar nominations were announced. But that wasn’t because it received the most nominations, it only received two Oscar nominations. Numerous think pieces emerged asking how did the Academy ignore it in so many categories?
The film—which chronicles the voting rights march led by Martin Luther King —was nominated for Best Picture and Best Original Song (by Common and John Legend), and in the end, it won one Oscar for the song, “Glory.” But it didn’t just win the award. Selma and Oscars will continue to be talked about, but perhaps a little less for snubs, and for David Oyelowo’s (and Chris Pine’s) tears that came after Common and Legend’s soon-to-be legendary Oscar performance of the song. And more importantly, for their composed, and stirring acceptance speech (above).
There were a lot of topical acceptance speeches tonight. Best Supporting Actress Patricia Arquette spoke for wage equality for women, and Best Adapted Screenplay winner Graham Moore talked about when he attempted suicide at 16, and asked for anyone who’s ever thought about suicide and gone on living, to talk to a younger person in need. But it was Common’s plea for acceptance, and unity in fight’s for change, and Legend’s comparison of voting rights being taken away from people of color again—via incarceration—that will hopefully make it the speech that everyone remembers and marinates on tomorrow.
Legend said that there are more black men under correctional control right now—in jail (which is not the same as prison, jail is where one is held prior to being found guilty and sent to prison) on parole, or on probation—then ever had to endure slavery in 1850. Here are the stats:
In 1850, there were 872,924 black men (16 or older) who were enslaved in the US, according to the Census.
As of December 31, 2013, there were about 526,000 black men in state and federal prisons in the US.
In 2013, there were about 877,000 black men on probation, and 280,000 black men on parole (according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics source cited by Politifact).
The Bureau of Justice Statistics doesn’t break down jail populations by both race and gender, but 86 percent of all 730,000 jail residents in 2013 were male, and 36 percent were black. So it seems plausible that at least a couple hundred thousand black men are in jail.
That totals: 1.68 million black men who are under correctional control in the US, not counting those who are in jails, which the NAACP estimates is another 1 million individuals of color. The total prison population in America is 2.3 million.
The 1.68 million of black men who are on parole, in jail, or on probation is over three times the amount of black men who were enslaved in 1850. Vox breaks down why those numbers are still very important, even though the population of black men is significantly higher now, than in 1850:
Here’s why this is a bit misleading: 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 US (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.
That doesn’t keep the statistic Legend offered from being true, or alarming. What’s even more alarming is the number of other statistics he could have offered to show the impact that mass incarceration has had on black men over the past few decades. One example: a black child whose father didn’t complete high school has a 50 percent chance of seeing him incarcerated by the time she’s 14.
Getting back to Legend’s statement—making sure access to the right to vote is kept—which is what the Selma march was for: 7% of the entire African American community is disenfranchised due to felon voting laws. In comparison, only 1.8% of all other races combined are disenfranchised in America due to felon voting laws.
That extra 5.2% discrepancy is what makes it harder to breathe. And why Legend and Common’s performance and speech were the most important use of airtime in the Oscar telecast.