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There are many things that the United States of America does exceptionally well. This does not mean that it does not have its fair share of weaknesses to improve upon, however. To understate in this example, America’s history with race relations is a long and rather dark one. There has been notable progress, and the US has celebrated its improvements in this sense, but there is still much to be done – especially in regard to our criminal justice system. Unfortunately, despite the belief of some, our prominent issues with race relations did not end alongside the abolishment of slavery. Many still rightly share fear and concern that the country needs to make more of a concerted effort to move toward much needed, further amelioration. The perceived governmental tendency to drag feet in the efforts of bringing about change is a frustrating one to both those made vulnerable by it and to the allies fighting alongside them. The steps forward seem to overshadow the racial issues we are still enforcing as a country within our authoritative systems. America does in fact still require a great amendment to their criminal justice system in the name of racial equality due to those steps we as a country take backward – a consistently disproportionate number of people of color (particularly poor people of color) facing unjust arrests, incarceration, general police harassment, and police brutality, and an ultimate, historical reinforcement of cyclical, systematic racism. This essay intends to break down how we got to where we are now and what we can be doing to improve upon our criminal justice system henceforth.
The United States is currently the title holder of having the largest prison population in the world. Approximately 7 million American citizens live under the control of the criminal justice system – with 2 million in prison and about 5 million on parole or probation. Despite only making up about 5% of the world’s population, the US has about 22% of the world’s prisoners. While this is a dire situation on its own, one may begin to acquire a general sense of the racial details of the situation at hand by asking the question: Is there really a disproportionate number of minorities in American prisons? To help answer this inquiry, here are a handful of statistics from the NAACP criminal justice fact sheet as of 2015:
• African Americans constitute 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million correctional population. Though they and Hispanics make up 32% of the US population, they comprised 56% of all incarcerated people.
• African Americans in general are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
• The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.
• Nationwide, African American children represent 32% of children who are arrested, 42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially waved to criminal court.
• If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.
It is clear after reading these rather harrowing statistics that there is a large problem in regard to the rate at which people of color are incarcerated in this country compared to their white counterparts. Even more disheartening is that even children of color, some of our nation’s most vulnerable, are also falling victim to such a terrible trend. Though a harsh reality to bring to light, the fact that they are clearly just as vulnerable as adults of color in our criminal justice system gives insight into the certainty of this being a universal racial issue – no person of color is being spared, no matter how young.
However cacophonous they may be, now the present-day facts are established. Next, one must question what has caused this discriminatory trend. It is difficult to pinpoint the true beginning of racial injustice within America, as it has honestly existed since the earliest English colonizers in their relations with Native Americans. From there, racial injustice eventually took another form that was slavery and lynching, then outright segregation and discriminatory US policies like the Jim Crow laws, and so on. It is important, essential even, to recognize that this is all the beginnings of where we are now as a nation in regard to race relations. Fundamentally, race relations in the United States have progressed from the initial idea of white supremacy and the assumed right to act accordingly. This complicated past cannot be discounted when analyzing our current state within the criminal justice system – one must not forget that the US has set apart people of color since the very beginning.
Bryan Stevenson, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a public interest lawyer, agrees that it is essential to recognize this dark past in order to better equip ourselves as a nation to improve our future. As far as what he believes makes immense contributions to the intense racial criminal trends we see today, he points to a combination of Richard Nixon’s war on drugs and the narrative from congress during Reagan’s presidency. He claims that when the US decided to make drugs and drug addiction a crime policy/issue instead of a health issue, it automatically put people of color (particularly poor people of color) in a very difficult position. Here is a powerful statement he made that shines a light on the impact of not talking about our past combined with that of the war on drugs:
“We never really dealt with the narrative of racial difference that created slavery and lynching and segregation. We didn’t deal with that in the 1960s and so I think it would be kind of foolish to think that that’s going to go somewhere when we haven’t talked about it. And so it manifested itself in the criminal justice system. Police violence was an epidemic in the ’60s and the ’70s and the ’80s and the ’90s. It just never stopped, as it hasn’t today. And we tolerated abuse, I mean, you don’t have to say oh let me come up with a set of laws that will get all the black and brown people in jails or prisons for it to be baked in this kind of racial animus. You can just say let me exploit the people who don’t have power. Let me target the people that can’t push back when I begin to enforce drug laws. And I’ll be able to say I’ve done a lot to put people in jails and prisons and that will turn out all the people I’ve put in are black or brown.” (Stevenson)
He follows this by further describing why our history exposes the unjust methods of the criminal justice system today – in other words, exposing how systematic racism works in the US. Stevenson points out that there was never a time over the past 40 odd years where police have barricaded middle to upper-income neighborhoods to trap people and search their homes for drugs. There was never a time when they raided dorms on campuses like Yale. But when they do this in the projects, in poor communities, it is done with almost complete impunity as people would cheer due to the status of said communities. That has everything to do with race and everything to do with our history of not valuing the victimization of people of color the way we value the victimization of other people. Alice Goffman in a TED talk about how the US is priming some children for college and others for prison describes the time she spent conducting research whilst living in a low-income neighborhood of predominantly people of color. She made note of each and every time she saw any contact between the police and people of the community during her 18-month stay. Goffman watched the police stop pedestrians or people in cars, search people, run people’s names, chase people through the streets, pull people in for questioning, or make an arrest every single day, with five exceptions. Fifty-two times, she watched the police break down doors, chase people through houses or make arrest someone in their homes. Fourteen times in this first year and a half, she watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp on, or beat young men after they had caught them.
The clear lack of true justice for people of color was disappointingly exemplified in the supreme court case of McClesky vs Kemp in 1987. This was a death penalty case in Georgia in which the defendant requested the removal of the death penalty ruling in this particular case due to evidence of racial bias. The court held that the penalty was constitutional due to two listed reasons: The first being that they found a certain amount of bias (a certain amount of discrimination) in the administration of the death penalty to be inevitable. The second is that it was simply too much to overrule as that decision would require analyzing other cases with the same racial disparities which would simply be too big of a problem – the court actually used the words “fear of too much justice.”
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