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Topic / Fairness and Justice

Justice for…a Few: Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System of the United States

Trayvon Martin was shot to death at only 17 years old because he looked “suspicious.” To add up to this brutal crime, his shooter, George Zimmerman, was not convicted, based on the Stand Your Ground law, which provides people the right to use deadly force if they feel threatened.1 The homicide of Martin and its subsequent impunity in 2012 provide evidence that criminal justice in the US is heavily contaminated by systemic racism. It is the legacy of a political and legal system based on racial discrimination, which appears to be made to protect and condone whiteness and prosecute and punish blackness. The victim was black, while the aggressor was from mixed white and Hispanic heritage, which reflects the privilege that the peak of a racial and xenophobic system receive.

Stories like Martin’s are not uncommon. From Mike Brown to George Floyd, several cases and data prove how the injustice targeted towards black people is a systematic issue.2, 3 The justice system, which claims to have the task of “enforc[ing] the law, [protect] the public and […] prevent crime,” has been a tool to perpetuate discrimination and inequality.4 Black Americans represent 39% of the prison population, despite accounting for only 14% of the total population.5, 6 The highest rate of victims of police brutality is of people of color;7 resulting in just about 395 prosecutions after that led to about 38 convictions (just 3 for murdered, the rest qualified as “manslaughter”).8

This police brutality extends beyond African Americans to other minorities suffering long-standing discrimination, reinforcing a racial hierarchy. Today, systemic racism provokes young black males being disproportionally killed, along with high rates of victimization for Native Americans and immigrants. Additionally, 35% of Latino and Asian adults expressed feeling targeted because of their race (the proportion for Black adults is 65%).9

What evidence show is that black people have been systematically targeted not by coincidence, but as consequence of a nation that has treated them as second-class citizens. In that sense, we cannot understand the disparities that violently target people of color in the current criminal justice system without understanding the historical roots of racism in America.

Why is it important to look back? The biggest concern on the racism problem is that people with institutional power are reluctant to address the legacy of slavery in public policies. Many critics have called Project 1619, which seeks to revisit America’s history with a racism perspective, “unnecessary,” “corrosive,” and “divisive.”10 But, on the contrary, history needs to be revisited so we can identify its consequences and change the status quo; we need to acknowledge that slavery still lives disguised as practices deemed normal.

The uncomfortable truth is that the United States is built on injustice. Since the Constitution was signed, millions of people, as former slave Douglass denounced, were still property in laws and practice;11 the division of blacks and whites marked the composition of the new nation. Afterwards, even with the abolition of slavery, the condition of black people was cemented on a gap that, nowadays, is far from closed. From segregation to inequality, black people and other minorities have been denied the promises that gave birth to the so-called land of liberty.

Related to civic-police relations, Lepore recounts the evolution of police officers, which started as slave patrols, and how this contributed to shaping an antagonist relationship between race and police.12 These patrols were mainly in charge of being predators of black people, instead of protecting anyone. And their mandate was to use deadly force. As politics evolved, the police logic seems to have remained the same in terms of fighting against “potential threats,” armed to the teeth and with heavily rooted biases, preventing a healthy relationship between minorities and police, which represent their first contact with law enforcement.

The overcriminalization of black people has a long history in culture, science, laws, and practice. After the abolition of slavery, racism continued to penetrate into America’s culture: the film “Birth of a Nation” is just an example of how black men were depicted as a threat, especially to white women, while ignoring the thousands of mixed-race children product of the rape of white masters to their black slaves.13 So-called scientific studies, such as Hoffman’s “Race Traits” of 1896, were used to justify the biological inferiority of blackness.14 On the contrary, discoveries such as Wells’ revelation that 90% of lynching victims were African Americans, or the disparities in punishment for white rapists when the victim was black, as documented in 1909, were disregarded.

Minorities also faced a wall when they tried to denounce violations of their rights. Less than a century ago, mixed-race children were legally abducted from their mothers to use as tools the government had to control.15 When the 1960s movements for civil rights gained relevance, the leaders were criminalized, incarcerated or ultimately murdered. Their voices needed to be shut down to hide the shame of a country that intended to be the example of democracy but, in reality, embodied the slave system abolished almost three centuries ago. Still in the present, it is more likely to get justice if you are white because black people are not supposed to defend themselves. As evidence, besides the racial disparities in police stops, prosecution, incarceration and sentencing, black minorities are hyper-vulnerable to abuse and rarely seen as victims when they seek for justice.16

Media positions itself by revealing an unbalance perception of racial equality: in a survey conducted by Pew Research Center, 38% of white Americans think that “Our country has made the changes needed to give blacks equal rights with whites” (in contrast with 8% of African Americas).17 These people are shaped by a narrative built so many years ago by the public discourse of “us” vs. “them” in which them complaining and protesting endangers the values, unity, development, and stability of the nation.

“The legacies of slavery and white supremacy run wide deep in American society and political lives.”18 The New Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander states, has been the targeting of black people in criminal justice to rip them of their rights. Is a new form of slavery, the answer the Southerners found since the Reconstruction, as the XIII Amendment provided freedom except for criminals, so the solution was easy: make them criminals. In that sense, slavery evolved into segregation, mass incarceration and, nowadays, victimization of African Americans by their own legal authorities. The ones that vowed to protect all but, instead, contribute to the survival of racial dynamics.

The country of freedom and equality, if you are white. If you are not, it is a system that will prosecute you, use extreme force against you, and very likely release your killer. There are thousands of victims each year of the criminal (in)justice system. Black people detained without reason; forced to be frisked by the police; forced to withhold their complaints about the treatment they receive out of fear of further repercussions. Incarcerated without trials, pushed to take unfair plea deals to avoid longer sentences; abused in prisons and, when released, they keep suffering the consequences of spending time behind bars. They face stigma, unemployment and the loss of the scarce welfare they had before, leading to vicious circle which they cannot escape because their hands are — metaphorically and literally — tied.

To sum up, the current justice system in America fails to deliver to minorities not by coincidence, but consequently. This issue is the result of the broken roots on which the country has grown. We need a real justice system that understands they are dealing not only with written laws but with real human lives. To succeed, it is necessary policies that consider the current flaws in the system. A specific policy measure that could tackle the problem is expanding alternatives to incarceration, that aim to imprison people as a last corrective measure and not as immediate response. This measure would truly achieve reparation of damage in case of misconduct, rehabilitation of the offender and prevent minorities from falling disproportionately into the cycle of violence that starts after spending time behind bars.

We need a system that protects minorities from being victims of unpunished crime and from criminalization. We need a system that acknowledges that the disparities in welfare and the impediments to get justice are correlated with income, and, as a result, with race. Most important, we must become a society that no longer takes skin color as a reason to justify the unjustifiable.

  1. NCSL, “Self-Defense and ‘Stand Your Ground,'” March 1, 2023, ↩︎
  2. US Department of Justice, “Annual Performance Report and Annual Performance Plan”, March 12, 2014, ↩︎
  3. Keon L. Gilbert and Rashawn Ray, “Why Police Kill Black Males with Impunity: Applying Public Health Critical Race Praxis (PHCRP) to Address the Determinants of Policing Behaviors and “Justifiable” Homicides in the USA”, Journal of Urban Health, 93 (2016):122-140. ↩︎
  4. Evan Hill et. al., “How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody,” The New York Times, May 31, 2020, ↩︎
  5. Federal Bureau of Prisons, “Inmate Race,” Statistics, October 14, 2023, ↩︎
  6. US Census Bureau, “Quick Facts,” accessed October 19, 2023, ↩︎
  7. “Fatal Force,” The Washington Post, October 17, 2023, ↩︎
  8. NAACP, “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet,” Toolkit, accessed October 20, 2023, ↩︎
  9. NAACP, “Criminal Justice Fact Sheet.” ↩︎
  10. Conor Friedersdorf, “The Inclusive Case for 1776, Not 1619,” The Atlantic, January 6, 2020, ↩︎
  11. Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Graphic Arts Books, 2021. ↩︎
  12. Jill Lepore, “The Invention of the Police,” The New Yorker, July 13, 2020, ↩︎
  13. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, “When Will Hollywood Confront Its Blackface Legacy?” Los Angeles Times, February 24, 2019, ↩︎
  14. Khalil Gibran, Muhammad, “Writing Crime into Race.” In The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America. Cambridge: Harvard, 2010. ↩︎
  15. Christina Firpo and Margaret Jacobs, “Taking Children, Ruling Colonies,” Journal of World History 29, no. 4 (2018): 529-562. ↩︎
  16. Maya Finoh and Jasmine Sankofa, “The Legal System has Failed Black girls, Women and Non-binary Survivors of Violence,” ACLU, January 28, 2019, ↩︎
  17. “Race and Ethnicity,” Pew Research Center, accessed October 17, 2023, ↩︎
  18. Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York: The New Press, 2020. ↩︎