If We Don’t Kick Racism Out of Criminal Justice Now, Then When?

With tens of thousands of Americans taking to the streets to demonstrate that “Black Lives Matter,” we have a rare chance to confront drug war violence, mass incarceration, and our own deepest misconceptions about black and white.
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Protest against police brutality in New York. (Photo: Vladimir/Flickr)

Protest against police brutality in New York. (Photo: Vladimir/Flickr)

The failure of the United States criminal justice system to protect non-white people is at an all-time high. The opportunity to correct course is now. The recent killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Renisha McBride, and other black men and women—most at the hands of the police—together with the ongoing nationwide protests under the banner “Black Lives Matter” can be a great awakening of the American conscience about our criminalization of nonwhite people.

We must reform the justice system so that every black boy and girl is free to walk unafraid in his or her own neighborhood without being stopped, questioned, frisked, and arrested at the will of the police. Otherwise, the murders of Garner, Brown, and others will have been in vain, and today’s protests and outrage at the non-indictment of the police who killed them will be recorded as mere political theater.

America’s war on drugs has played a major role in criminalizing our nation’s non-white people. Black people, especially young black men, experience discrimination at every stage of the judicial system. They are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced, and saddled with a lifelong criminal record. This is despite the fact that blacks comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population and use drugs at similar rates to people of other races.

America’s war on drugs has played a major role in criminalizing young black men. They are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced, and saddled with a lifelong criminal record.

There are 2.2 million Americans in prisons or jails. It was not changes in crime rates but misguided and biased laws and policies that led to this drastic increase. In 2012 alone, there were more than 1.5 million drug arrests in the U.S. The vast majority—more than 80 percent—were only for possession. About 500,000 Americans are behind bars on any given night for a drug law violation—a population that has grown tenfold since 1980.

My work for the Drug Policy Alliance to end America's war on drugs forces me to confront a criminal justice system based on laws and policies that only appear to be equal, just, and race-neutral, but that have an overtly racist impact on non-white communities. A defining moment was my realization that the people who enforce this system—a white ruling elite—seems to believe that the non-white “others” in this country do not deserve equal justice.

Policymakers have used drug war policies and criminal justice laws to undermine the values they were elected to protect. In the name of winning a war on drugs and “keeping communities safe,” 2.7 million children are growing up in U.S. households in which one or more parents are incarcerated for non-violent offenses, primarily drug offenses. One in nine black children has an incarcerated parent, compared to one in 28 Latino children and one in 57 white children. More than half (54 percent) of incarcerated people, including more than 120,000 mothers, and 1.1 million fathers are parents of children under age 18.

To begin any serious national discussion on radically transforming our criminal justice system, we must first confront our deepest beliefs about what truly makes each of us human and deserving. I have come to believe that the popularization of the image of a white God has had not only theological but political implications for how we treat non-white people in this country.

Last spring, I was invited to Chicago to participate in a two-day summit, “The Intersection of Criminalization and Race.” A highlight was a presentation titled “The Color of Christ” by Edward J. Blum, a professor of race and religion at San Diego State University and co-author of The Color of Christ: Son of God and The Saga of Race in America. His presentation forced me to question the origin of black dehumanization in America: Could the fabricated misconception of a white savior be the pillar on which white supremacy and black subjugation is built? Is the notion of whiteness as good, pure, and divine and blackness as bad, sinful, and undeserving the bedrock on which our criminal justice system is built? Can this help explain a 40-year war on drugs that has incarcerated tens of millions of predominantly black and brown men and women?

Poor and black communities are the battleground on which America’s war on drugs is fought. Each day, I grapple with the unsettling fact that thousands of mostly black men and women disappear from neighborhoods across this country and there is only a whisper.

We’ve used language and color association to give meaning to socioeconomic and public health problems: We created the “predator” to criminalize young black men, we embraced the term “crack babies” to demonize black mothers and pathologize black children. We see people living in black communities as dangerous and we allow our perception of blackness to justify their devaluation as undeserving of our care, advocacy, and compassion.

Why are we not outraged that millions of Americans are locked up? Why are we complacent about billions of our tax dollars being siphoned away from education and health care and into policing and prisons? Is it because the war on drugs is wreaking havoc on predominantly non-white communities?

Right now in America there is a rare opportunity to demand answers to these questions before protests against racism and outrage at the murder of young black men by police die down.

It may be that our policymakers don’t care about those they perceive to be inherently deviant, innately criminal, and historically licentious. But they have a responsibility to fix this system—and as voters, we must hold them accountable.

Our policymakers have an important role in changing public perception and in promoting policy changes rooted in evidence. It may be that they don’t care about those they perceive to be inherently deviant, innately criminal, and historically licentious. But they have a responsibility to fix this system and, as voters, we must hold them accountable. We must make a commitment that never again will we allow policies and laws to be made in our name that promote and placate racism and injustice.

It behooves us to be bold in our demands. We can no longer accept incarceration as good social policy. We must demand policies that strengthen communities. Police officers cannot be allowed to wage war on the communities they are paid to protect and serve, and police departments must be representative of the communities in which they are located.

Additionally, we must advocate for policies such as Racial Impact Statements. Policymakers should be required to demonstrate that the laws they are making will not unfairly burden any one racial group. We must end mandatory minimum drug sentences; sending any American to prison for decades for non-violent drug offenses is un-American.

Lastly, similar to the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, we must have a congressional investigation of our drug and sentencing laws and of police practice. We cannot afford to lose another generation of black Americans to drug war violence, over-criminalization and mass incarceration.

We can do this. Today, with tens of thousands of Americans taking to the streets nationwide to demonstrate that “Black Lives Matter,” we have the power to gently shove our elected officials to rebuild our justice system. But it’s equally about addressing the deep misconceptions we hold as a society.

In this way we can begin to redeem that deaths of Renisha, Rekia, Trayvon, Eric, and Mike and millions more who were wronged by a system that distributed justice based not on their offense but on the color of their skins.

This post originally appeared on Substance, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “If We Don’t Kick Racism Out of Criminal Justice Now, Then When?.”

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