John Legend and Common took home an Oscar last night for best original song for “Glory” from Ava DuVernay’s film Selma. It was the only award the movie won last night, though the film was also nominated for best picture.
Legend, who is also an activist when it comes to social justice and education, gave a memorable speech in which he compared the number of 19th-century slaves with the number of Americans currently incarcerated in the United States.
“We live in the most incarcerated country in the world,” Legend said. “There are more black men under correctional control today than there were under slavery in 1850.”
Common also chimed in, stating that it’s important to use the Oscars as a platform to highlight present-day social issues.
“To whom much is given, much is required,” he said.
In reference to Legend’s slavery comparison, there are those who previously disputed the comparison. In 2011 Alfred A. Edmond Jr., Black Enterprise’s senior vice president/multimedia editor at large, stated that the comparison should be looked at in context, and he used data from the 1850 and 2010 censuses to refute the comparison.
“While the fact that today’s black incarcerated population is larger than the 1850 slavery population in sheer numbers (and alarmingly out of proportion to black Americans’ share of the U.S. population) is a shocking comparison, it doesn’t really say much,” Edmond wrote for Black Enterprise. “That’s because today’s total black population is far larger than America’s black population in 1850. So a more accurate and illustrative comparison would be the percentage of the black population who were slaves in 1850 versus the percentage of the black population incarcerated today.
“According to the 1850 census, there were 3.6 million African Americans (including roughly 3.2 million slaves) in the U.S. population. By comparison, in 2010, the census reported nearly 39 million African Americans (not counting those of mixed races), more than 10 times the black population in 1850,” he continued. “Based on those figures, it is not plausible, even at first glance, that today’s black incarceration rates are anywhere near the proportion of blacks in slavery in 1850. In fact, nearly 90 percent of blacks in America were slaves 160 years ago. According the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, non-Hispanic blacks (including women) are 39.4 percent of the total prison and jail population in 2009. Not even close.”
Even when looked at in that context, there is still the undeniable fact that the systematic mass incarceration of African Americans is something that needs to be addressed and remedied—which was what Legend was trying to make clear in his acceptance speech.