This is the first of a five part series exploring the issues in the U.S. Justice system brought to light by the death of Michael Brown and the subsequent protests that rocked Ferguson, Missouri.
One of the most insidious and oft-repeated concepts in discussions of the evolution of the United States is the idea of a post-racial America. This phrase refers to the assertion that, after centuries of institutionalized prejudice and racial tension, we as a country have moved past racism. Having become part of national discourse following the election of Barack Obama, the notion of a “post-racial America” couldn’t be farther from the truth, and nowhere is the disparity between our country’s principle of equality and the reality faced by people of color more clearly displayed than in the United States Justice system.
To begin our series on the problems facing the justice system, there’s no better place to start than at the root of so many issues. Racism in law enforcement, courts and broader policy continues to place an undue burden on communities of color. With national attention drawn to Ferguson, Missouri, it has never been more clear how deeply impacted these populations are by practices that have become common place. As police become more militarized, black and Hispanic citizens stand to bear the brunt of increasingly reactionary police forces.
On U.S. streets every day, men and women are targeted by law enforcement for little reason beyond the color of their skin. For a young black man to be suspicious, he often needs to do nothing but exist in a place an officer does not think he belongs. Rather than approaching the situation assuming innocence, officers go in assuming wrong-doing. Street harassment, such as stop-and-frisk, is one possible outcome. But in many tragic cases, tension between the police and a person of color can quickly escalate, ending in the death of unarmed civilians.
What it takes to escalate to the point of lethal violence isn’t always clear, and the number of unarmed people killed by police each year is unknown. “Justifiable homicides” are reported in the 300s on average, but obstruction and cover-up make the definition of “justifiable” murky. The extent to which the Ferguson Police Department was willing to go in order to keep police records out of the public is one clear indication of law enforcement’s concerted efforts to keep information on fatal shootings as limited as possible. Unjustified homicides are not tracked by the FBI, or any other institution.
But many groups are trying to get a handle on how many unarmed civilians are killed by law enforcement each year. The North American Association of Independent Journalists reported that eight unarmed civilians were killed in August. Of those eight, four were black, while two were white and two were Hispanic. Although the story of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old who was shot to death by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguso, made headlines and drew national attention after protests broke out in the Saint Louis suburb, the other seven went largely unnoticed.
Racial disparity is a recurring theme in the justice system. According to the NAACP, blacks make up almost one half of the 2.3 million people currently behind bars in the U.S., and are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. When Hispanic and black prisoners are counted together, they make up 58 percent of the prison population. This is despite the fact that together these groups make up about a quarter of the total U.S. population. Non-whites make up less than 20 percent of the drug-using population, and yet are far more likely than whites to be arrested, charged and convicted for drug related abuses. Sentencing for drug related offenses for non-whites averages close to the same amount of time whites receive for violent offenses.
Many ask whether this disproportion is truly a result of racism. If one is to look at the numbers coming from a place of blind faith in the justice system, then perhaps it’s easy to assume no malfeasance at the hands of those in power. But that outlook betrays privilege, and in a way, racism. For white Americans who have never had to fear the local police, who have never had to educate their children about how to avoid being shot while unarmed, who do not deal with excessive use of force on a regular basis, it may be possible to draw the conclusion that more people of color are committing crimes. This willful ignorance and lack of empathy, however, shows why the United States is in no sense a post-racial country and will not be in the near future. As long as it’s easier to assume the black and hispanic populations are by nature more prone to criminality, racism in the justice system will continue to flourish.
There are many issues that feed into the problem at hand, including lack of economic opportunity and obstacles to education. Even when not being targeted by police, people of color in the United States struggle with issues white peers simply cannot understand. In the case of racism in law enforcement and the courts, we as a country have to face the fact that too many lives are being destroyed by a system riddled with flaws. It’s the responsibility of every American, white or black, to challenge lawmakers and those in power to do better, and to stand together against racism in powerful institutions. The only way to fix the problem of racism in the justice system is to first admit that it exists, and then take all necessary steps to eradicate it. Perhaps then—once young people of color don’t have to walk on eggshells in order to avoid death or imprisonment—we can begin to talk about a post-racial America.
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