Racial Bias in the American Criminal Justice System: Controversy or U.S. History?
There has long been an issue of racial bias in the American criminal justice system. This is nothing new. When you think back to the time of slavery in America, it is no secret that African Americans have been treated differently on American soil from the very beginning. From slavery, to post slavery, the civil rights movement, the war on drugs, and to present day profiling issues, African Americans have always been deemed of lesser value in the eyes of the American government. Yet, many still argue that slavery ended a long time ago and that African Americans have the same rights as everyone else. I have also heard that the reasoning for the argument of racial bias is because African Americans actually commit more crime than any other race and that this is the reason for their part in mass incarceration. This article will discuss the background of African Americans treatment in the United States and the many ways this has effected the justice system, then and now, and how it is used to profile, sentence, and incarcerate African Americans at much higher rates than any other race.
It has been fifty years since the Civil Rights movement, yet we have made very little progress for civil rights since then, if any at all. Having camera phones and social media at our literal fingertip has caused more and more people to become informed about a controversy that African Americans have been well-aware of for centuries. In recent years, it has not been uncommon to wake up and peruse your newsfeed only to see an article reporting an African-American person slain at the hands of a police officer. At the rate that it has been happening lately, you would think this was some new phenomenon, but African-Americans have had targets on their backs by the United States of America from the very beginning.
In January of 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment passed a bill in the U.S. Senate formally abolishing slavery in the United States, but the loophole in this amendment has legally kept slavery alive. Since then, African Americans have been treated differently in the American Criminal Justice System. There is a significant racial bias in law enforcement, sentencing, and the “justice” system.
The Effects of the 13th Amendment’s Loophole
The Thirteenth Amendment states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The keyword here is “except.” You see, the slavery industry in the South brought in a lot of money, so once slavery was abolished, economically this hurt the pockets of the government, both state and local. So, in order to still be able to use the same free labor from African Americans as used in slavery, police began to arrest and charge them for petty crimes and sentence them to prison labor. While records of these arrests are scarce and a lot of times non-existent, Douglas A. Blackmon, the Atlanta bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal and author of Slavery by Another Name, recounts the story of a black man named Green Cottenham of Shelbey County, Alabama who was arrested and charged with vagrancy in 1908. After three days in jail, Cottenham was found guilty and sentenced to thirty days of hard labor. Unable to pay for the court and sheriff’s fees, Cottenham’s sentence was extended to almost a year of hard labor. The next day Green was sold to the U.S. Steel Corporation and the corporation paid the county $12 a month for Cottenham’s fines and fees. Blackmon states that in just Alabama, “hundreds of thousands of public documents attest to the subsequent sale, and delivery of thousands of African Americans into mines, lumber camps, quarries, farms, and factories.” Records from county jails indicate that African Americans were arrested and charged with violations of the law that were written specifically to intimidate them such as changing employers without permission, vagrancy, engaging in sexual activity, or loud talk — with white women (2008). It is not hard to conclude that African American lives were of no value to the government, yet African American’ s labor served to be the very foundation of this country, both in and out of slavery. This is where the criminalization of African Americans really began.
Racial Driven Misconduct in the Whitehouse
In a 1994 interview, John Ehrilchman, former Richard Nixon advisor was quoted explaining: “In the Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.” He openly and blatantly acknowledged and admitted that the War on Drugs was targeted at African Americans (Lobianco, 2016). In 1969, the United States FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, targeted black leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton, who was murdered in cold blood in his own apartment by the Chicago Police Department. Hoover also targeted the Black Panther Party during the Civil Rights movement in fear of black leadership. The War on Drugs, carried out by former President Ronald Reagan, really cemented the use of criminalizing the African American community because they could not just openly “make it illegal.”
In 1981 while working in the White House under the Ronald Reagan presidency, Lee Atwater, in a now infamous interview, describes the “Southern Strategy”: “You start out in 1954 by saying,“N*****, n*****, n*****.” By 1968 you can’t say, “n*****” — that hurts you, backfires. So, you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is: blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “we want to cut this” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*****, n*****.” I think that last quote is self-explanatory in the terms of dehumanizing African Americans (Perlstein, 2015).
For those who always claim African Americans are using the “race card,” I ask, after reading so far, do you think the racial bias claims are starting to make sense? If you are still on the fence or in disbelief, hang tight, there is more.
Law Enforcement and Abuse of Power
I have heard so many times that black men and women should “stop using the race card,” and that, “slavery ended a long time ago,” but it clearly hasn’t. The criminalization of black men and women has caused a higher percentage of traffic stops and imprisonment at the hands of law enforcement and the court system. I have listened to many a Caucasian person moan and groan about how African American’s aren’t just picked out by police, but that they are usually doing something wrong or else they wouldn’t be stopped in the first place. Yet, statistics show otherwise, and just like in 1908 with Green Cottenham, African Americans are being stopped because they are black. In June 2016, Stanford conducted research on racial profiling during police traffic stops. The study showed that out of 4.5 million traffic stops in 100 North Carolina cities, police in that state are more likely to search Black and Hispanic motorists, using a lower threshold of suspicion, than they stop white or Asian drivers. The study also found that in North Carolina, police searched 5.4 percent of African Americans but only 3.1 percent of whites. (Andrews, 2016) In another study conducted by Stanford, researchers showed that in New York’s Stop-And-Frisk policy, police were stopping African American’s and Hispanics at “disproportionate rates” and searching for weapons when researchers found that African Americans were significantly less likely to have a weapon than Caucasians who had been stopped (Goel, Rao, & Shroff, 2016). So, while police officers were less suspicious of African Americans than Caucasians, they stopped African Americans more. Racial bias, perhaps?
Racial Disparities in the Prison Systems
Some have argued that Caucasians are incarcerated at the same rate as African Americans and that there is no disparity, but this is what President Donald Trump would refer to as an “alternative fact.” In 2013, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) conducted a study of mass incarceration and life without parole for nonviolent offenses. Some of the nonviolent offenses include: attempting to cash a stolen check, possession of stolen wrenches, and shoplifting three belts from a department store. According to the ACLU, African Americans are already disproportionately represented in the nationwide prison system and jail population, but the disparities are even worse among the nonviolent life without parole population. According to their research, 65.4 percent of prisoners serving life without parole are black. For nonviolent offenses, 72.9 percent are black (ACLU, 2013). This means that more African Americans are being sentenced for these crimes that are nonviolent; most of these crimes could also be considered “petty.” When you think about these percentages, surely you can correlate the pattern that began with Green Cottenham back in 1908 where African Americans were targeted for petty and fabricated charges in order to incarcerate them.
When I delve into the dark world of comments on social media posts that reflect current racist events, usually pertaining to an African American slain at the hand of law enforcement, I almost always see the same argument: If he wasn’t breaking the law, then he wouldn’t have died. If she wasn’t doing anything wrong, then she wouldn’t have been stopped in the first place. There are more blacks in jail because they commit more crime. Perhaps you have even heard the term “thug” to describe just a black man in general. This argument always traces back to the criminalization of African Americans. There is no true basis for this argument other than just blatant racism that began with slavery. The American government built a system that is set up to fail African Americans. The loophole in the 13th Amendment is still being used to this day to incarcerate African Americans at higher rates than any other race.
With Donald Trump as our new president and with the changes that he and his team are making, like bringing back the war on drugs, there is no easy solution to this issue. I think that it must begin from the very beginning with children. We must not teach our children racism and that while we all come from different backgrounds, we are first human and should be treated as equals. These children will grow up to be law enforcement, judges, and future lawmakers who have the ability to make the right changes against racial profiling. We must also, when we can, educate those who are unaware of these disparities to change the current state of racism in general.
While racial bias in the American Criminal Justice System is ethically and morally wrong, it does exist; and after looking at the results and the studies research shows, it’s practically undeniable at this point. And to think; this very country was built by the same African Americans that are racially profiled and criminalized.
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