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Peniel E. Joseph: Fixing justice in America
April 14, 2015
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Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man killed by a South Carolina police officer during a chase that millions of people have now viewed on video, is the latest victim of a criminal justice system whose tentacles have reshaped the very nature of American democracy.

This latest shooting illustrates how the relationship between law enforcement and poor and working-class communities of colour requires a fundamental transformation. The necessary political and policy changes will need to be amplified by a cultural shift that can stop the criminalisation of black and brown bodies in the United States.

The simple reason why police officers can often routinely brutalise and, in certain horrific instances such as Scott’s, even execute black citizens is the consent they essentially receive from the US criminal justice system and other political and civic institutions.

Over the past 35 years, America’s criminal justice system, swept up by the hysteria over the rise of crack cocaine and the broader War on Drugs, has transformed into a system of racial control, oppression and containment that has often turned the idea of black citizenship into an Orwellian nightmare. Racial disparities in death sentences between whites and blacks became glaring enough to help change former pro-death penalty Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun into a notable dissenter by 1994.

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s bestselling The New Jim Crow revealed a stunning indictment of a criminal justice system that has allowed wide-scale racial profiling lead to mass arrests, incarceration for nonviolent offenses and, for those who leave prison, a segregated existence that in too many ways replicates the political disfranchisement of racial apartheid.

Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged as much in his 2013 speech granting federal prosecutors more discretion in handling drug-crime cases. The police are the tip of the spear in a system that includes prosecutors, judges, probation officers and politicians.

Democrats and Republicans have both contributed to this new status quo. President Ronald Reagan, the conservative icon, signed the 1980s antidrug bills that effectively racialised drug crimes; users and dealers of crack cocaine (many of whom are black) are punished far more harshly than users of powdered cocaine (many of whom are white). President Bill Clinton, who Toni Morrison once called the nation’s “first black president,” signed crime and welfare reform bills that blocked ex-offenders’ access to public housing, food stamps and other vital support. Many lost voting rights as well.

Even as national crime rates declined throughout the 1990s, the federal government, through its Byrne grants, distributed billions of dollars to state and local law enforcement authorities. The resulting militarisation of many police forces appeared to offer police another incentive to detain and arrest some of the most vulnerable citizens.

The justice system’s punitive nature and rapacious appetite mean that blacks who are released from prison often have too little opportunity available. Former inmates suffer high rates of unemployment, lack resources to complete education, cannot vote and can be returned to jail for a litany of nonviolent offenses, among them failure to pay child support, the reason Scott is suspected of having run from the officer.

The elephant in the room is that America’s three-decade-long prison boom, which now accounts for about 2 million inmates from roughly 350,000 inmates in 1980, has been largely driven by drug arrests and what looks like a targeting of black and brown men and women.

Police shootings of unarmed black men are the most visible manifestations of a virtual normalisation of black criminality. US politicians and the public often appear to lack empathy and presume guilt in connection with many people of colour.

The recommendations from the Obama administration’s interim taskforce on policing in the 21st century do not fully acknowledge the scale of this crisis. Law enforcement’s tentacles have invaded US public schools, welfare offices, voting booths and popular culture.

The presumption of guilt and innocence is important here. Studies have shown that whites are often given second chances. One recent study revealed stunning results about the degree of white privilege allowed. African-Americans face a starker reality: One youthful indiscretion can mean a lifetime of living on the margins – or worse.

Can such as system be transformed? Yes, but not if we refuse to diagnose the problem. America’s prison-industrial complex is a booming business that has successfully monetised the criminalisation of African-Americans through private prisons, federal grants and an entertainment industry that pushes images of black criminality to young people like a drug dealer pushes designer narcotics.

The US justice system needs to be reimagined so radically that police officers can see that black people, however flawed and imperfect, are not only citizens worthy of respect but also human beings deserving of dignity whose lives matter greatly.


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