Common and John Legend twist facts in Oscar speech

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Not sure if you watched the entire Academy Awards show on Sunday (I fell asleep somewhere after Lady Gaga sang), but you may have heard about rapper Common and John Legend’s impassioned comments about “justice” when they accepted their Oscar for Best Song.

While they mentioned gender, sexual orientation and the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong, the flavor of their comments was the terrible injustice being meted out to black Americans to this day.

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In their speech, Legend cited some facts, which were troubling on the face of it, but also troubling because they are twisted to promote a specific narrative.

“There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.” According to the 1850 Census, out of a total US population of 23 million, about 3 million were slaves. Of those, about 870,000 were black males above the age of 15.

Via Politicfact, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 526,000 black men serving time in state or federal correctional facilities in 2013, plus 877,000 on probation and 280,000 on parole. So if you add all those numbers up, you get to 1.68 million. Yes, that is more than the number of black slaves in 1850.

However, the numbers are really meaningless when you look at those numbers in terms of total population.

The 1850 census recorded about 3 million “colored people” (free and enslaved) in the U.S. The 870,000 figure represents 29 percent of the total colored population.

There are currently about 41 million black Americans. Even with 1.68 million under correctional control, that represents just four percent of the total black population. Just four percent compared to 29 percent in chains.

It was much worse to be black in America in 1850 than it is now.

“We are the most incarcerated nation in the world.” Yes, the United States may have the largest absolute number of people in prison – but first of all, they’re not all black, and secondly, you’d be surprised at the nations with larger per capita populations. I daresay most of those nations have much “browner” populations than the U.S. – aside from Russia.

Statistic: Countries with the largest number of prisoners per 100,000 of the national population, as of June 2014 | Statista

Numbers are bandied about to prove a point by both sides, left and right. However, as it has oft been repeated, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

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