Is America’s Criminal Justice System Racist?
Police and Society
Since before the official establishment of the United States, discrimination and segregation among whites and other ethnicities had already been in practice among people all over the world, bringing us to a surging problem in today’s society of profiling in our criminal justice system. Many might question how a problem like racism and profiling can occur in a system of those who set and follow the standards of what is supposed to be right and what is wrong. Acts of racism might not seem possible in such a group especially after everything our nation has been through to prevent racism; a war, tiresome and sometimes violent pushes for civil liberties, and a number of different laws and policies that were to have created equal opportunities for everyone and strictly say that one cannot discriminate against another. Sadly however, in certain aspects racism between different ethnicities is still prevalent in our world today. These acts are even prevalent in our criminal justice system today, though not so much from the officials in the enforcement end, who generally take most of the criticism. More racist actions that take place in our criminal justice system occur within the courtroom, which will be discussed later in this analysis of discriminatory practices within our criminal justice field.
Starting back in the 17th century when the Jamestown colony in Virginia was first established, after failing to find gold to turn a profit, the settlers started dying at a rapid pace during their first winter in the colony. With the later help of the Powhatan Indians, the Jamestown settlers learned how to grow and cure tobacco which would later become one of the biggest fads to come through England and eventually the world generating the crown of Great Britain over £100,000 (pounds) annually and generating more as years went on.
With the tobacco industry in Virginia increasing dramatically, so did plantations and the need for labor in the fields. At around this time is when we can start to see the development of discrimination and a slave society that many are familiar with around the time of the Civil War. The first slaves to come to the Jamestown colony though, were not actually slaves, but indentured servants; people who had their voyage to the new world paid for by a master in return for their services for a fixed amount of years. Africans were a favorite choice for plantation owners in Jamestown because they were often willing to come to the New World in order to escape the cruel fighting and imprisonment of rival tribes in Africa. They were also cheaper and had greater physicality than the European Indentured servants to carry out the hard labor of working in the tobacco fields in the hot sun. When Africans first came to the Jamestown colony, there were no signs of racism and people of each race got along and befriend one another. After the African’s servitude time was up, they became citizens of Jamestown and were allowed to own a portion of land, and even paid a certain amount in shillings to help them get their feet on the ground. However, plantation owners started to become a bit disgruntled by having to buy indentured servants to work their fields every so many years, and wanted a way to keep their servants for a longer period of time and did just that by increasing the length of time indentured servants must work, and with no government established to keep order, what the white elites established as rules, became the rules. By the time Africans were granted their freedom and land, majority of the fertile river-bottom farmland had already been gathered up by the previous European newcomers and indentured servants, partially due to the deceitful changing of land boundaries by the colonial elite. Due to these discriminatory practices, some Africans started to rebel, leaving white landowners and elitists feeling threatened. So over the course of several years until about the end of the 17th century, the colonial government set forth numerous laws restricting and prohibiting the rights of Africans, and then in 1705, the Virginia Slave Code sealed the fate of every servant that was imported stating that if they were not Christians in their native country, then they shall become slaves and from thenceforth the United States participated in the practice of owning slaves until the Emancipation Proclamation Act set forth by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.
After the abolishment of slavery however, the United States still continued to face racism and discriminations towards minorities especially African Americans for a good many year. Different policies were still enacted by governments like the Jim Crow Laws which created a separate but equal environment for blacks that prohibited them from participating in the same educational, occupational and recreational activities as whites. Many other minorities faced similar discrepancies upon their arrival, and it was not until about the 1980’s that we saw discrimination start to go on a downward slope. Even today, though it may not be as prevalent, minorities are still discriminated upon when trying to obtain a job or at a face to face level leaving many to wonder if there will ever be a day when everyone treats each other the same.
Police officers are frequently the ones that we hear about taking the wrath of being racist and profiling minority groups. This is because they are the ones typically seen patrolling neighborhoods and slapping cuffs on a person to take them down to the station, and as bad as it may sound, a large percentage of the people the police pick up happen to be members of minority groups. However police have great justification for why minorities like African Americans and Hispanics at a much higher rate than they do white members of the society. African Americans and Hispanics are the largest minority groups in America today. Around 44.5 million African Americans and around 53 million Hispanics are living in the nation (Census Bureau, 2014) and crime statistics have shown that more crime tends to happen in communities of poorer class, with a number of different correlations that could lead to crime in these neighborhoods. Already with a large number of adult male minority members behind bars, it creates an environment in the home where a child is missing a father figure to look up to, driving many researchers to believe that this is a key factor in juvenile arrest rates ( McLaughlin, 2011). Another leading cause of crime is social disorganization and the strain that it puts on members of poorer communities. Often times people do not have a job so turning to some sort of other source of income, whether it be theft, prostitution or selling drugs on the street is potentially their only option as they see it, and the ‘War On Drugs’ is something that our police societies and government higher-ups do not take lightly (Goetz, 2003). Many of times this war has targeted these underdeveloped neighborhoods and if there was a biased side to our police forces, one could argue that point here because there is no real explanation for why we see more minorities behind bars for drug offenses than we do whites when statistics say that the number of whites, African Americans and Hispanics that use and sell drugs are of somewhat the same proportion. Meanwhile, when a person goes to apply for a job, many employers will check the individual’s background to see if they have ever been arrested or convicted for a certain crime, and when this is seen it only inhibits the chance of the person obtaining a job and causes them to go back through the cycle of crime and incarceration. Depending on the circumstances, one who argues that police are racist and only target minorities because they have an unpleasant image of them is a poor argument. Police majority of the time are just doing their jobs in abiding the laws of the land. The real racism that is levied upon minorities takes place in the courtroom in such ways like, unequal selection of biased jury members in certain cases and the high percentage of white male judges who have the ability to interpret and carry out the law how they see fit. After well over 100 years since the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which was supposed to guarantee equal treatment and opportunity for everybody, minorities still continue to be excluded from jury selection, even for major cases where a more diverse jury could possibly change the outcome ("Race and jury," 2012) . Prosecutors have been known to stricken minorities from a jury spot on account of them not being intelligent enough, walking a certain way, died their hair different colors, as well as a number of other reasons. There has even been evidence discovered about how some district attorney’s offices train prosecutors on how to mask being racially biased so that violating any antidiscrimination laws will not jump out at people in plain sight (Initiative, 2010). This has significantly undermined the credibility and reliability of the judicial system. Judges have a number of different jobs to perform in the courtroom, and two of the most significant that can really determine the fate of a defendant is their ability to interpret the law, and set the penalty of a fine or a prison sentence based on the severity of the crime, and in a nation where 80% of the judges are white males, the playing field is in the hands of the dominant ethnicity group which has led to the unfair imprisonment of many people from other ethnicities. Different studies of courts throughout the federal, state and local levels have shown clearly that minorities are incarcerated at a higher rate and receive harsher sentences then their white counterparts; evidence from a study back in 2004 showed that 4,919 of every 100,000 were African American men, 1,717 of every 100,000 were Hispanic men, and 717 of every 100,000 were white men. Incarceration rates for women, although being much lower, still displayed the same trend of what was happening; 359 of every 100,000 were African American, 143 of every 100,000 were Hispanic and 81 of every 100,000 were white (Kennedy, 2003). It is hard to classify just why the incarceration rate is so much higher for minorities than it is for whites. If a person were to walk up to a judge and ask if they were biased towards minorities, it would be a safe bet that majority if not all would say “I’m not unfair, racist, or prejudice, I’m doing the best I can.” Seeing how they honestly could be trying their hardest, judges, especially white judges tend to get wrapped up in the stereotypical images that society places on minorities. Judges are typically from a white elitist class who do not necessarily deal with the poorer income and minority individuals on the streets as much as other people do. As an example, a young black male confronts a judge in court wearing baggy pants, has a couple of tattoos and a bit of an attitude for having to show up in court. Almost instantly a judge can receive a stereotypical image in their head because these are the people that they deal with on a daily basis in the courtroom, people who are a negative image to society. Just how are we supposed to erase this negative image that discrimination creates and plays in our society? To start with, when selecting a jury for a certain case, each person should have to succumb to an Implicit Association Test (IAT) before the initial selection. The test measures the automatic associations that people get in their minds when people are confronted with race-based associations. It is compromised with a series of tasks asking an individual to categorize stimuli into two categories. An example of one task would be displaying a list of names and the person must choose the race that they first associated the name with in their mind (Black or White). The test will then give other stimuli and categories that the person must associate with, and in the end the test is supposed to determine just how racist a person actually is whether they realize it or not. Even though that under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, stating that there is equality for everyone, in order to achieve equality for all we need to steer clear of stereotypes that influence people’s attitudes towards minorities. These attitudes have led to numerous federal and state government programs and policies that favor certain races and disfavor others. In recent years the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been accused of denying loans, underfunding loans and delaying the loan application process to minority farmers which created unnecessary financial hardships for them, and there are other governmental departments that do the same (Cowan, 2013) . Many states deter felons from being able to vote, and just the overall perspective of judges needs to be more open to the people around them. These programs definitely do not spell out equality for all, and these policies often are huge influences on the poor socioeconomic statuses of minorities which justifies reasoning for why these groups tend to engage in various crimes.
Probably the most important solution to this entire problem is to stop people’s prejudice attitudes towards others and discriminating on individual and institutional levels. As simple as it may seem, many people fail to see the larger picture of what discrimination and prejudices cause. Discrimination against minorities in the workplace, even when they may have the same skills as a member of the dominant group, or in instances like the USDA obstructing minorities’ chances to receive a loan; this leads to unequal incomes or possibly no income at all between dominant and minority groups with the minority groups typically being the ones who are worse off. When people grow up in poor families and neighborhoods, these individuals tend to find some other means of income like selling drugs, prostitution or stealing, all of which could cause a person to end up in jail if caught doing one of the previously stated crimes. This in the end just sends people to continually go through the system; their arrested, convicted of a certain crime, they now have a criminal record which hinders their chances of finding a decent job in the workforce, and if they are convicted of a felony, their voting rights are taken away, and this is the reason that judges tend to have a negative image towards minorities, because this is what they deal with on a daily basis.
This is not just a courtroom dilemma. After a little over two hundred and some odd years, discrimination, prejudice and racism need to come to an end once and for all. These wrong-doings have caused a large amount of economic and social problems in the United States, the nation that is supposed to be known as the melting pot of ethnic cultures and a world of equal opportunities for all. If everyone in America can find it within themselves to treat everyone equally, we can very easily see the United States climb back to the top of the totem pole.
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