U.S. Imprisons More Black People Than South Africa During Apartheid

| by Michael Allen

Journalist Nicholas Kristof has been writing a series of articles entitled "When Whites Just Don't Get It" that have highlighted the societal inequalities between black and white people in the U.S.

In the fifth part of this series for The New York Times, Kristof cited an Aspen Institute report and wrote: "White Americans may protest that our racial problems are not like South Africa’s. No, but the United States incarcerates a higher proportion of blacks than apartheid South Africa did."

PunditFact recently fact-checked Kristof's claim that many folks disagreed with.

The latest numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics are from 2010. At that time, incarceration rate for black men in U.S. prisons was 4,347 per 100,000 people.

"Most of the arrests and imprisonment in South Africa were for pass laws offenses," William Worger, professor of history at UCLA, told PunditFact. "The incarceration rate in South Africa in 1984 -- the midst of apartheid -- was 440 persons imprisoned per 100,000 population. Blacks comprised around 94 percent of those incarcerated."

According to, 94 percent of 440 would be 413 for South Africa, which is not even close to the U.S. number of 4,347.

Another big difference is those South Africa apartheid jails (pictured above) are empty today, while many prisons in the U.S. are bursting from overcrowding. PBS noted in 2012 that the U.S. had the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Kristof also wrote in The New York Times, "In America, the black-white wealth gap today is greater than it was in South Africa in 1970 at the peak of apartheid."

Kristof cited Jon Jeter, a former Washington Post bureau chief for southern Africa, who wrote in his blog in 2013:

For every dollar in assets owned by whites in the United States, blacks own less than a nickel, a racial divide that is wider than South Africa’s at any point during the apartheid era. The median net worth for black households is $4,955, or about 4.5 percent of whites’ median household wealth, which was $110, 729 in 2010, according to Census data.

Racial inequality in apartheid South Africa reached its zenith in 1970 when black households’ median net worth represented 6.8 percent of whites’, according to an analysis of government data by Sampie Terreblanche, professor emeritus of economics at Stellenbosch University.

Sources: The New York Times, PunditFact, U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics,, Jon Jeter, PBS
Image Credit: ConstHill