Race and criminal justice

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There is a recurrent pattern that involves law enforcement agencies and the African American communities that is questioning the police conduct. The recent shootings in Ferguson and New York City, as well as many other incidents question the police conduct. One can't rationally discuss the issues of race within the criminal justice system without looking back at history and why the issue of race is not diminishing. The United States has an infamous history of slavery, the Jim Crow laws, and many other racially based inequalities that make it apparent that race does play an important factor in many parts of the criminal just system. The purpose of this paper is to recognize what role race and media play in the criminal justice system. This paper will discuss the history of African Americans within the criminal justice system and whether racial biases exist and if racial neutrality is even achievable.

A study of race and the criminal justice system is incomplete without acknowledging the way slavery and its abolition played into the relationship. Based on author Angela Davis’s book titled Are Prisons Obsolete (2003), she states that those intending to find new ways to control the black population once they had achieved “freedom” from slavery formed the relationship mainly in the South. Davis also states that the “Black Codes” effectively criminalized being black by enforcing certain behaviors to be illegal only for blacks (Davis, 2003). Some of these behaviors included; vagrancy, absence from work, breach of job contracts, the possession of firearms, and insulting gestures or acts” (Davis, 2003).

Such acts were common at the time making these laws unguarded to interpretation and easy manipulation, which meant that black people became easily targeted and punished. Even though there was no more legal slavery, the South created a criminal justice system on the basis of criminalizing black people to guarantee their continued oppression (Davis, 2003). The Thirteenth Amendment was passed to stop slavery, however, it made forced labor an acceptable form of punishment for those found guilty of criminal acts (Davis, 2003). Therefore, many black Southerners went from being slaves to “criminals” whose freedom was quickly and legally taken away by the same constitutional amendment that was supposed to have protected that freedom. The number of incarcerated blacks increased, and so did the common belief of black criminality (Davis, 2003). The racial separation of America’s criminal justice system had begun.

More attempts to criminalize blacks were enforced such as the Jim Crows law in the 1900’s. Jim Crow laws that began in the early 1900s legally sanctioned racial segregation according to Russell-Brown (1998). The Jim Crow laws effectively supported racial segregation that African Americans could, once again, be punished for the most simple of acts. Moreover in the 1950s and ‘60s were a time of great social outbreak and change. Millions gathered together to fight for racial equality and justice at a time when there were almost little of both. The times produced notable leaders of change like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. These two exceptional visionaries with the aid of millions of others motivated the charge in demanding American standards of racism, discrimination, and segregation to come under question and challenge.

Author Michelle Alexander (2011) argues in The New Jim Crow that racist white interests began a call for a disciplinary crackdown on crime that was easily linked to the Civil Rights Movement. Riots and the social distress following Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder intensified this effect, and “the racial imagery associated with, gave fuel to the argument that civil rights for African Americans led to widespread crime” (Alexander 2011) The riots and public disorder epidemic during the times were often the result of police brutality, a fact confirmed by the findings of the National Commission on Civil Disorders, but those wanting to dishonor the Civil Rights Movement gave slight credit to such accusations and dismissed them most of the time (Weaver, 2007). According to Weaver (2007), it is at this time that so-called “frontlash” enables the elitists to form new systems that whereas on the outside seem impertinent to supporting the status quo, work together to perpetuate it deceitfully. The fact that the in this era the U.S. would find its early foundation and strategy used in the criminal justice system as the basis to control African Americans, which is an undeniable proof that race does matter in the criminal justice system.

The1980’s and the war on drugs didn’t help the race disparity within the criminal justice system. Although both blacks and whites use cocaine, one form received a much harsher sentence of years. The harsher sentence was for crack cocaine, which was used mainly by blacks (Mauer, 2004). This was a huge discrepancy with the sentencing guidelines. Furthermore the role of the media surrounding race disparity didn’t help lesson but heightened it even more. According to author Mauer (2004) the newspapers and magazines all reported that this was an epidemic similar to a plaque on the society (Mauer, 2004). Additionally, author Alexander (2010) states that the articles played up the racial stereotypes and focused on racial cartoons such as the black crack whore and gangbanger. Although, President Obama did sign the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 that lessened the crack/powder sentencing disparity, some may point to crack as the assumed link to crime and violence as the reason for the sentencing disparities between the two(whitehouse.gov).

The media, gave a face to the drug war’s number one enemy: black crack users and sellers. However, it was and is law enforcement officers who seek out and arrest the persons who are prosecuted under disciplinary drug legislation. The racial profiling that became justified and generalized under the pretext of the drug war played a large role in the racial disparities that have defined the criminal justice system for years. Race and ethnicity became a legitimate cause for suspicion, which resulted in the social occurrence of “Driving While Black.” Not only are black people more likely to be stopped by a police officer, but also they are more liable to have their vehicles searched (Coker, 2003).

This idea of black criminality is reproduced and perpetuated by the mass media in order to get ratings. Studies of news coverage have highlighted the criminal tone of news reports featuring African Americans (Oliver, 2003). According to Oliver's article a 1990 study of a week’s worth of news coverage 41 percent of it was African-American focused stories that involved crime. Black suspects were also consistently characterized as “particularly threatening or dangerous” (Oliver, 2003). Therefore, when the media portrays blacks and especially black men as criminal or violent, it can further strengthen the already negative views that the public holds about them.

The criminality argument questions the data of crime statistics that is gathered and based on police experiences, whether they are biased (Robinson 2000). Therefore, Robinson argues that these types of reports are “a more valid measure of police experience rather than the crime because it measures the behavior of police rather than criminal offenders” (Robinson 2000). This implies that just because blacks are arrested more for a particular crime does not inevitably mean that they actually commit that crime regularly. Rather, it could be biased police methods that lead to more arrests of blacks than of whites, and actual criminality may have little to do with it.

In conclusion Americans like to uphold values of equality and justice for all, however until the criminal justice system is truly equal not based on race or ethnicity, equality, and justice will not be achieved. As long as young African men fear police officers and as long as incarceration is an ordinary life encounter for many young black men, equality and justice is not feasible. As long as racial profiling is accepted as a useful form of law enforcement, equality and justice is not possible. And as long as the life of a white victim is valued over the life of a black victim and “Driving While Black” is a social reality, equality, justice is not possible. Change may not come effortlessly, and may come slowly, but it is achievable. Until the whole society sees each other as an equal, there will be no justice in the criminal justice system.

Davis, A.Y. (2003). Are Prisons Obsolete? Canada: Turnaround Publisher Services Ltd.

Russell, K. K. (1998). The Color of Crime : Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment, and Other Macroaggressions. New York: New York University Press

Alexander, M. (2011). The New Jim Crow. American Prospect, 22(1), A19-A21.

Weaver, V. M. (2007). Frontlash: Race and the development of punitive crime policy. Studies in American Political Development, 21(2), 230-265. Retrieved March 24 2015, from http://www.ebonterr.com/site_editor/assets/EBONTERR_41.pdf

Mauer, M. (2004). Race, class, and the development of criminal justice policy. Review of Policy Research, 21(1), 79-92. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/journal/10.1111/(ISSN)1541-1338


Coker, D. (2003). Addressing the real world of racial injustice in the criminal justice system. The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 93(4), 827-880. Retrieved from the JSTOR database.

Oliver, M. B. (2003). African American men as “criminal and dangerous": Implications of media portrayals of crime on the "criminalization" of African American men. Journal of African American Studies, 7(2), 3-18. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/

Robinson, M. (2000). The construction and reinforcement of myths of race and crime. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 16(2), 133-156. Retrieved from http://ccj.sagepub.com/