Legend and Common’s Oscar speech strikes a civil rights chord


Last night’s Oscars saw musicians John Legend and Common win the award for Best Original Song after they composed and performed on the soundtrack for Martin Luther King biopic ‘Selma,’ which documented the struggles of the civil rights movement. Lewis Shaw writes.

But whilst the song is a powerful one, it was their acceptance speech that rattled cages around the world.

I learnt a lot from their acceptance (their real names are John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn?!) but the main brunt can be summarised in a quote from Mr. Legend’s half:

“We wrote this song for a film based on events that happened 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now. […] We know that right now, the struggle for freedom and justice is real: we live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than under slavery in 1850.”

First of all, this statistic is true, but as pundits have pointed out, slightly misleading – the use of the term ‘correctional control’ includes not just prisoners but people on parole (i.e. not in prison just right now.) But despite this adjustment, Legend’s point stands: that there is a problem – and it’s not that the prosecution system has improved over the past 165 years.

When faced with this fact, many people flocked to Twitter to espouse something along the lines of this little nugget of wisdom:

“If so many black men are going to prison, maybe they should stop committing crimes! Duh! Problem solved.”

Now the reason this is such a popular opinion is because of how easily digestible it is. It makes perfect sense, right? Don’t want to go to prison? Don’t be a criminal! But despite sounding entirely sane (and I’ve no doubt that people who hold this opinion are reasonble people) it’s a dangerous response that negates the entire point of his speech: that there is a problem in America.

What Common & Legend cleverly did was indicate that there was a problem without saying expressly what is causing it; a difficult topic that they left everyone else to debate.

The most obvious is that the system is inherently racist, and there’s good evidence to suggest this: if you are black you are likely to get a 20% longer sentence for the same crimes than a white man, and 25% less likely to be given sentence below guidelines. Before we sip our tea and shake our heads condemingly, this isn’t just a problem in the U.S. either: black and Asian criminals in the UK are 20% more likely to receive jail time than white ones.

This doesn’t begin to answer why so many black men are convicted criminals in the first place, but that topic isn’t as hard to explore as it may sound.

Aristotle is quoted as saying that “poverty is the parent of crime,” and throughout history we have more statistical correlations to prove this than… well… black prisoners. Simply put? It’s tough being black in America.

So my response to that response: should black people stop committing crimes? Yes. Should we appraise the system to check for systematic oppression before we condemn them? Yes.

Arguably, certainly, irrefutably, definitely: yes.

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