With the highest incarceration rate the world has ever known, the U.S. has given hip hop artists a vast supply of material for their poetic protest, said Paul Butler, the Carville Dickinson Benson Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School.
A quarter of the world’s prisoners dwell in U.S. jails, while the nation’s population makes up just 5 percent of the global population, Butler said during a visit Feb. 3 that was part of the Hip Hop and the American Constitution lecture series.
One in three young black men are either locked up, on probation or awaiting trial, Butler said, adding that the statistic “says as much about the state as it does about those young men.”
If the Rev. Martin Luther King were still alive, Butler said, he’d inevitably be discussing the inequities in the nation’s criminal justice system.
“We don’t have Martin Luther King, but we do have hip hop artists, and we ought to be listening to what they have to say,” Butler said.
Hip hop performers who come from disadvantaged neighborhoods often have firsthand experience with both the criminal justice system and violence in the community, Butler said, adding that many would advocate incarceration for those who physically harm others.
They also know that mass incarceration harms communities as does crime itself, Butler added.
Formerly a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., Butler said he saw firsthand how the system puts defendants who are young black men at a disadvantage.
“One of the reasons I was hired was for jurors who were concerned about racial justice. They could see this beautiful chocolate skin and think, ‘everything’s cool,’” Butler said. “Everything is not so cool.”