Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What's Really Stupid: America's Racist Justice System


As the controversy over the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. continues to grab headlines, a debate rages over President Obama's description of the police acting "stupidly."

But as long as we're on the subject, it seems to me that we're ignoring a larger issue: the stupidity of America's racist justice system.

Don't believe the U.S. justice system is racist? Well, let's take a look at the numbers.

Since 2000, the U.S. prison population has risen from 1.7 million to 2.1 million. 40 percent of the inmates are African-Americans (who make up only 14 percent of the overall U.S. population).

So why are blacks more likely to be incarcerated in America? It's really no mystery.

As Britain's Financial Times noted on Tuesday, Department of Justice figures show that African-Americans and whites use and sell drugs at similar ratios to their share of the population. Yet an African-American offender is 10 times more likely to be sentenced to prison than a white offender, for the same offense.

The Financial Times (hardly a radical leftist publication) noted Tuesday that, Obama's presidential victory notwithstanding, "racial disparities in the U.S. are in some respects worse than they were 10 or 20 years ago."

Just as most white Americans never really came to terms to the horrible legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, many whites today have refused to confront the fact that America remains a racist nation in many ways, something that is confirmed by the astonishing Justice Department figures.

And the odds are remote that anything will be done about this for many years to come. After all, most white American remain blissfully unaware that our nation's justice system is blatantly racist.

And the vast majority of Republicans continue to maintain that there is no disparity at all. Indeed, an ongoing theme that is often repeated on right-wing talk radio is that the notion that our nation is in any way racist is a figment of Liberals' imagination.

Republicans deny that America's justice system is racist with the same fervor that they deny the existence of global warming.

Don't believe me? Next time you have a talk about politics with a right-wing friend, raise this issue. There's no better way to make a wingnut go ballistic than to dare suggest that America's justice system is racist.

In artistic depictions, Lady Justice is often shown carrying a set of scales and wearing a blindfold. The latter is meant to depict the idea that justice should be meted out objectively. But in today's America, the blindfold is worn by the millions of Americans who continue to believe that our nation's justice system isn't racist.


Anonymous said...

It's a sad commentary on today's America that the Prison Industrial Complex is increasingly a vital source of new jobs. Decades ago, new prisons were shunned by town officials, much the same way nuclear power plants are today. But these days, small towns fight tooth and claw to be the site of a new prison. Since America de-industrialized, in many places, prisons are a rare source of halfway-decent paying jobs. It's either that, or go to work for minimum wage at Wal-Mart.

Anonymous said...

Another horrible aspect of our current justice system is mandatory minimums which forces judges to impose harsh sentences and send people away for long terms. Three strikes and you're out, mandatory minimums should be abolished. Mandatory minimums have worsened racial and gender disparities and have contributed greatly toward prison overcrowding. We have a very imperfect justice system based on money or the ability of the indicted to afford good lawyers. If you can't make bail, you could end up in Arpaio-like internment camps. God knows how many innocent men/women are in jail.

Anonymous said...

What outcome would indicate racism has been expunged from the US system of justice?

Marc McDonald said...

Thanks for your comments, Anon #1 and 2. Another point that I'd like to make is that nothing like America's Prison Industrial Complex exists anywhere else in the world. No other nation, not even China, has as gigantic a prison population as the U.S. has.
So much for the "Land of the Free."

Marc McDonald said...

>>>What outcome would indicate
>>>racism has been expunged from
>>>the US system of justice?

When African-Americans stop getting sentenced to vastly harsher prison terms as whites, for doing the same crimes.
That would be a good start.

R Southern said...

I wouldn't want to "test" racism by being black in America. Be that as it may, you don't have to be black to incur the wrath or the discrimination of the police. The police are hired by the rest of society to take risks and deal with criminals and persons under stress. Sometimes the cops are wonderful guys, but sometimes they're just pushy impatient bastards that want you to shut up and comply. I wish they were never impatient, but if you find yourself in some suspicious circumstances in front of a cop and you don't act "right", you'll get what society thinks the bad guy deserves. Or maybe you'll get what THAT ONE COP thinks you deserve. The cop doesn't know you're an innocent party at a glance. Many men or women who've just killed their spouse and buried the corpse in the basement DON'T LOOK ALL THAT GUILTY! Most of us will only see TV movies about such things, but the police have to actually be in such circumstances and try to balance public safety and their own safety. That's a hard job.

I hate it when cops are pushy, but I plan to be polite and cooperative and not let him know that I hate it. THAT'S how you take care of yourself in a tight spot, not by insisting that you know your rights.

Anonymous said...

"When African-Americans stop getting sentenced to vastly harsher prison terms as whites, for doing the same crimes.
That would be a good start."

But what outcome would demonstrate that? Would you like to see more white people in prison to make it more fair for black criminals, or should more blacks be allowed to commit crimes with either reduced sentences or totally without punishment? Would you like racial parity in prisons? Quotas? That might work if blacks did not commit the majority of the crimes. We are not talking about a lot of innocent people in prison, but the fact that blacks are doing a disproportionate amount of crime is rarely discussed. Instead we lament the obvious racism of the just outcome: commit the crime, do the time. This is due to the breakdown of the black family and the acceptance of outrageous lawlessness in the greater black community. It has nothing to do with opportunity or income or we would see the prisons overrun with latinos instead. Black people can cure their own problem when they begin to live within the law instead of against a law abiding civilization.

LarryE said...

When you label our justice system racist, I have to object - because you left out "classist" and "elitist."

By "classist" I mean the poor - lacking both the money to get good legal representation and the political power to get good government representation - are at a gross disadvantage no matter their race, one only amplified by a general societal feeling of contempt for them as, often enough, somehow "deserving" their condition.

By "elitist" I mean that many police abuses and violations are explained away, justified, or even endorsed by officials and judges because they don't imagine such things ever happening to them, that they only happens to the less-valued "others," so such abuses don't seem important and may even seem useful.

Admittedly, "America's Racist, Classist, Elitist Justice System" is quite a mouthful, but hey, what are long posts for? :-)

As a footnote, if anyone is curious about my own take on the Gates incident, you can look here and here.

Marc McDonald said...

>>Would you like racial parity in
>>prisons? Quotas? That might work
>>if blacks did not commit the
>>majority of the crimes.

Well, what types of crimes are we talking about? For example, the sort of white collar crime that led to the Wall Street meltdown was overwhelmingly done by upper class white males. And it did vastly more damage to America than the typical street drug crime that nets small time crooks extremely harsh, long sentences in prison. And despite the horrible damage to America these Wall Street crooks did, few of them have been even prosecuted, much less having served any jail time. Indeed, we've rewarded these people, with trillions of our tax dollars in the "bailout" begun under Bush.

>>>Black people can cure their own
>>>problem when they begin to live
>>>within the law instead of
>>>against a law abiding

This is an awfully racist statement. The fact is, the vast majority of black people are hard-working, law-abiding people. And, as I pointed out in the article, hundreds of thousands of African-Americans get sentenced to much harsher prison terms than whites for doing identical crimes. Until this is fixed, it's safe to say that blacks are second-class citizens in America (of course, that's always been true).

Marc McDonald said...

>>>Admittedly, "America's Racist,
>>>Classist, Elitist Justice
>>>System" is quite a mouthful,
>>>but hey, what are long posts
>>> for? :-)

Yes, Larry, you are definitely right on target.

Marc McDonald said...

>>I hate it when cops are pushy,
>>but I plan to be polite and
>>cooperative and not let him know
>>that I hate it.

Hi Ron, thanks for your comment. Yes, I agree with you. But I also think that one shouldn't face arrest for mouthing off to a cop. This isn't Iran. (Well, actually, we're getting a lot closer to a Third World-like dictatorship these days than most Americans would like to admit).

R Southern said...

Of course not, about facing arrest for nothing much. I guess there are those in society who will end up changing it in the end because they are willing to raise a big stink. I just like to go home at night--I am very self-serving about that! There's probably no question about the Gates arrest being wrong and wrong-headed, but it's a drop in the bucket. I think we should execute a criminal CEO every week and see if anyone wakes up, but I'm not holding my breath.

dr sardonicus said...

Black people can cure their own problem when they begin to live within the law instead of against a law abiding civilization.

And there you go. As long as we continue to define "civilization" as being synonymous with "white", there will always be a problem.

Anonymous said...

Bill would give president emergency control of Internet
by Declan McCullagh Internet companies and civil liberties groups were alarmed this spring when a U.S. Senate bill proposed handing the White House the power to disconnect private-sector computers from the Internet.

CNET News has obtained a copy of the 55-page draft of S.773 (excerpt), which still appears to permit the president to seize temporary control of private-sector networks during a so-called cybersecurity emergency.

The new version would allow the president to "declare a cybersecurity emergency" relating to "non-governmental" computer networks and do what's necessary to respond to the threat. Other sections of the proposal include a federal certification program for "cybersecurity professionals," and a requirement that certain computer systems and networks in the private sector be managed by people who have been awarded that license.

"I think the redraft, while improved, remains troubling due to its vagueness," said Larry Clinton, president of the Internet Security Alliance, which counts representatives of Verizon, Verisign, Nortel, and Carnegie Mellon University on its board. "It is unclear what authority Sen. Rockefeller thinks is necessary over the private sector. Unless this is clarified, we cannot properly analyze, let alone support the bill."

Representatives of other large Internet and telecommunications companies expressed concerns about the bill in a teleconference with Rockefeller's aides this week, but were not immediately available for interviews on Thursday.

A spokesman for Rockefeller also declined to comment on the record Thursday, saying that many people were unavailable because of the summer recess.

Jack Jodell said...

Hope you're ok or are working on a novel or something---we haven't heard from you in a month! Miss ya, brother!

Rudy said...

Anon (of course your post was anonymous), your argument/rant lost any sense of credibility or merit once the following statement was used as a premise: "This is due to the breakdown of the black family and the acceptance of outrageous lawlessness in the greater black community." The world is filled with nuance, sir. I will agree that there are many black people in this country committing crime on a daily basis, the types of crime that should land them in prison. The same, however, could be said about whites, hispanics, asians, etc.

The article was merely pointing out the great disparity in treatment once an alleged offender is brought into court to be judged by either a judge or a jury of his/her "peers." I am hispanic, and were I to commit a crime, I would likely receive a harsher penalty than a caucasian male that committed THE EXACT SAME CRIME. I am painfully aware of the undercurrent of racism that still pervades our society as a whole, as I am, in every aspect of my public life, scrutinized more closely than any caucasian peer. The trump card that I have, however, is a great deal of education and decent financial comfort, both of which would more or less even the playing field were I to have trouble with the law. This alone, however, does not bring any sense of comfort, only a sense of sadness that a very large number of ignorant people such as yourself exist in this country and have such skewed lenses through which they view this complex world.

Also, contrary to your statement, there is also a highly disproportionate percentage of hispanic people in prison as well.