Black and White: Racism in the Criminal “Justice” System

Few issues expose the  comprehensive racist oppression present at the systemic level in the United States better than understanding the criminal (in)justice system.  From street stops to arrests to charging and plea bargaining or jury selection to sentencing to treatment within the penal system to disenfranchisement post-release, racism infects every single level of the criminal (in)justice system.

No resource more comprehensively addresses this vast social problem than Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and as such, it ought to be required reading for every person in the United States.  But for those who shy away from the strong language of the “new Jim Crow” to describe mass incarceration in the United States, consider the following:

 

In considering this graphic, we should recognize that this is not just a Black vs White issue and that racist mass incarceration does disproportionately impact all people of Color, most particularly those people of Color without access to wealth.  While the graphic is useful, it should be understood to be limited.

Beyond that, though, perhaps the measures in the “There’s Hope Still” section at the end of the infographic bring hope to some, none of those indicate a widespread transformation of the systems of racist oppression that make the rest of these stats possible.

What does give me hope, though, are the people-powerful, organized activists both inside and outside of prisons who are fighting for justice and change.  Whether we’re talking about the organizers of the California Prisoner Hunger Strike or the people at the Sentencing Project or local activists (like Save the Kids here in Minneapolis) who are working daily to transform the (in)justice system that disproportionately impacts people of Color, knowing that there’s power in the people gives me hope that water will eventually drip through stone.

But if their work is ever going to do more than change the fates of individuals wrapped up in the racist system, there needs to be a critical mass of people calling for systemic transformation.

So start by knowing your facts. Then figure out how you will take action.

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Infographic courtesy of Ashleigh Bell and ArrestRecords.  Ashleigh Bell is an author, working with strong passion for the site ArrestRecords.com. Her interests relate primarily to crime & criminal justice issues.  Feel free to drop her a line at ashleighbell928(AT)gmail(DOT)com.

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Conflicting Feelings: On Steubenville, Rape Culture, and Incarceration of Black Men

When I opened up the news earlier this week, I couldn’t believe my eyes:

Steubenville High School Rapist Released

My immediate reaction was fury.

10 months!?  Convicted of rape, and he served 10 MONTHS!?

And then I saw the statement from his lawyer:

“The past sixteen months have been extremely challenging for Ma’lik [Richmond] and his extended family . . . At sixteen years old, Ma’lik and his family endured hardness beyond imagination for any adult yet alone child. He has persevered the hardness and made the most of yet another unfortunate set of circumstances in his life.”

Not once in the statement was the victim, her trauma, or her family mentioned.  The victim, clearly, was Ma’lik, and this was just an “unfortunate set of circumstances,” not a series of deliberate choices to hurt another human being.

And then I read some of the comments sections.  Don’t ask me why I chose to read the comments on a piece about sexual violence, but I did.

They ranged from blaming the survivor for her own rape to wishing prison rape (often in a “hilarious, joking,” sort of way) on Richmond.

Literally nothing about this story left me feeling hopeful or good or like justice had been served.  So I took some time away from this story.  I didn’t click any links relating to Steubenville or Richmond at all.

But I couldn’t turn off my brain, and over the last few days, some nuance has crept into my thoughts.

And now I find myself with two conflicting feelings:

  1. In a society where too few who commit sexual assault are held accountable for their actions, I want to see him serve his term.
  2. But in a society where far too many young, Black men are locked up (and are more likely to be locked up for committing the same crimes as White men), I have to admit that seeing one less in jail felt good.

Even as I write this, I am afraid to admit the second one.  After all, I don’t want to be labeled and lambasted for being a “rape apologist” or accused of saying that a Black rapist shouldn’t serve time simply because he’s Black.  After all, the internet is a place of over-simplification, and over-simplification doesn’t advance dialogue.

So as I think through those feelings, I have to ask myself why I want to see him serve his term and why it felt important to see a young Black man free of prison.

Punishment vs Rehabilitation

When I heard that Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays were convicted and sentenced to prison for rape, I cheered.  I cheered because far too often, men who commit this heinous crime walk free, and many in the town where they live did everything they could to make sure these young men were not held accountable for their actions.

But was I also cheering because I wanted to see them punished?  Most definitely.  And they deserved punishment.  But unfortunately, our criminal “justice” system rarely goes even a single step beyond punishment.  Rehabilitation is almost never considered, and worse, when people are released from prison (no matter their crime), they are unlikely to be able to access the resources they need to avoid going back to prison.

Hence my conflicted feelings.

I wonder whether Richmond could possibly have come to understand his crime considering his short jail term and the sentiment of his lawyer that established Richmond as the victim.  Yet I also wonder what kind of access to rehabilitation and counseling Richmond actually had in youth criminal detention.

As noted in this Slate piece by Irin Carmon (ignore the terrible title and focus on the point),

Rehabilitation, of course, is one of only three separate functions that intervening in sexual offenses serves, explains Mark Chaffin, professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine and director of research at the Center on Child Abuse and Neglect. There is “community protection,” identifying predators and keeping those who might re-offend away from potential victims. There is “accountability,” which sends a message as to what is and isn’t acceptable in a community. And then there is rehabilitation, on which researchers are quite optimistic — at least when it comes to juveniles.

“Twenty years ago people lumped juveniles and adults together, and had this idea that if a kid committed a sex offense, he was on this immovable trajectory that was going to head towards more and more sexual deviancy and a lifetime of predation,” says Letourneau. “But that just isn’t the case.”

More and more research indicates that rehabilitation of sex offenders, particular young sex offenders, is possible!  And as Katie McDonough puts it, “Consensus in the juvenile justice and medical communities holds that young people should be given counseling, not hard time, for crimes they commit.”

Perhaps by releasing Richmond early, the state has failed in the “community protection” and “accountability” aspects of “intervening in sexual offenses,” but what of the third aspect, rehabilitation? While his sentence mandated counseling, did Richmond receive competent rehabilitation services?  And was his progress in those services part of his release?

It’s unclear.

Locking Up Black Men

But the lack of rehabilitation in our “justice” system, highlighted well in The New Jim Crow, is one of the many reasons why I generally do not cheer when I see that someone’s going to be locked up in our society.  And the other reasons that I don’t cheer are the very root of my conflicted feelings.

Our prison system does little more than produce more crime while disproportionately destroying the lives of the poor and people of Color.

When 1 in 3 Black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives, a strong plurality for non-violent drug offenses, and considering the racial disproportionality of sentencing in the U.S., seeing a young Black man who could be reformed gave me pause.

I felt some hope for Ma’lik Richmond.  Maybe I’m not supposed to, as he is a rapist, and statistically, that tells us that he will rape again.  But I felt some hope.

After all, if there is a chance that one less Black man will be caught up for a lifetime in our racist criminal justice system, could that not be a good thing?

Nuanced Complexity

And so I wrestle.  I wrestle with the desire to see someone punished, even when I don’t believe our criminal justice system should focus on punishment.  I wrestle with my hope that Richmond received counseling to help him change for the better, though I know our system does a terrible job at that.  And I wrestle with wanting simultaneously to see one less young Black man locked up while wanting to ensure justice for a young woman who was assaulted.

I wrestle.

And I reflect.

Because I know there are no easy answers, but nuance and complexity in my feelings are far more conducive to my growth than than the certainty I know I don’t feel.

50 Years Later, A Dream Deferred

As I read through the text of his iconic speech given 50 years ago today, I can’t help but note the ways in which Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream remains deferred.  While many of the formal structures of segregation have been abolished, we have simply replaced them with the far more insidious shackles of colorblind ideology that masks inequality to those of us with racial and economic privilege.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

50 years ago, King described the reasons for marching 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

One hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.

Sadly today we know that people of Color still face the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.  Our communities are becoming ever more economically segregated, and so long as people of Color remain disproportionately poor, we ensure that King’s dream remains deferred.

It’s sad to see the ways in which the horrors king described are still alive and well in the United States today:

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. (Today, 1 in 3 Black men are wrapped up in the criminal injustice system of the New Jim Crow).

Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. (Today, a Black person is killed by police officers every 40 hours, and extra-judicial killings of Latinos by police are on the rise).

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. (Yet 50 years later, not much has changed for those living in these slums and ghettos, whether in the north, the south, or anywhere).

There is much work to do to realize King’s radical dream, yet we do his agency disservice with constant conjecture about what he would or would not support today, and his words, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” have been hijacked by those who wish to maintain the unjust status quo.

Sadly, the legacy of racial justice in the United States since the March on Washington has been precisely what King warned against:

This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

Gradualism is precisely the drug we’ve taken, and as such, little progress has been made.  We are still fighting to ensure that this republic makes good on its “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir . . . that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

But we must not lose hope.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” . . . We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one . . . No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” 

The legacy of King’s words in this speech of the March on Washington in general is to remind us of what work we still must do.

Let us not forsake the dream any longer, and let us no longer enforce the passive “peace” of injustice he spoke so powerfully against.

50 years later, let us not forget that King was a radical, a revolutionary, and the March on Washington was a cry for revolution.

No Justice, No Peace. Justice for Trayvon Martin.


From the first moment an African was first brought to this continent, one thing has been clear: Black lives are worth less. Worth less in the laws of the land. Worth less in the justice system. Worth less in the collective consciousness of White supremacy. Worth Less.

This verdict only makes clear how little has changed.

“Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition.

But when they get angry, they bring about a change.

You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.” – Malcolm X

Video Post: America’s Native Prisoners of War

I am in the middle of a very busy time with work, as I travel from state to state speaking at Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership seminars.  As such, I just don’t think I am going to find the time this week to write a new post (which is super disappointing since I know I have a bunch of new readers).  However, I wanted to make sure I still posted for the week, so I thought I’d post one of my favorite TED Talks.

In “America’s Native Prisoners of War,” Aaron Huey does a fantastic job of talking about the history and present realities of the oppression of Indigenous Americans at the hands of the White American system and government.  There’s definitely a tension (one I face in my work) of a White man speaking about (and on behalf of) Indigenous Americans and Indigenous issues, but I think Huey does a decent job of owning his place in this complex dilemma.  Please set aside 16 minutes to watch this video:

Justice for Trayvon Martin: 3 Things You Can Do

Do I look suspicious to you?

How about now?

Of course I don’t.  I’m white.  And that is one of the most powerful privileges that I have in this country.  I can generally rely on the adage “innocent until proven guilty.”

But this person couldn’t.  To one White vigilante, he looked “suspicious,” like he was “on drugs” and “up to no good.”

And it got him killed.

As I am sure you know by now, Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old young man who was found guilty by a White vigilante of the crime of walking at night while Black.  He was unarmed, carrying only an iced tea and a bag of skittles for his sibling.  Immediately after Trayvon was shot in the chest, George Zimmerman admitted to the killing.

He was not arrested.  He was not tested for drugs or alcohol, as in common in cases such as these.  He was not even detained.  Why?  He claimed self defense in a state that boasts one of the nations vaguest “stand your ground” laws, and the police on the scene decided that Zimmerman was telling the truth.  They didn’t follow up with witnesses (some of whom say they heard Trayvon screaming and begging for his life), and they didn’t follow up with Trayvon’s girlfriend, whom he was talking to at the moment he was attacked.

It has now been nearly a month, and Trayvon’s killer walks free.

I have been wanting to write about this case for a few weeks now, but I wasn’t sure what I could add to the conversation.  I couldn’t sum things up better than Mother Jones.  I couldn’t address the related issue of White Privilege as well as Michael Skolnik at the Global Grind:

I will never look suspicious to you. Even if I have a black hoodie, a pair of jeans and white sneakers on…in fact, that is what I wore yesterday…I still will never look suspicious. No matter how much the hoodie covers my face or how baggie my jeans are, I will never look out of place to you.  I will never watch a taxi cab pass me by to pick someone else up. I will never witness someone clutch their purse tightly against their body as they walk by me.  I won’t have to worry about a police car following me for two miles, so they can “run my plates.”  I will never have to pay before I eat. And I certainly will never get “stopped and frisked.”  I will never look suspicious to you, because of one thing and one thing only.  The color of my skin.  I am white.

Despite all of the evidence that Zimmerman killed Trayvon in cold blood, Trayvon was presumed guilty until proven innocent.  One of our good friends at Faux News even have the audacity to blame Trayvon (or his parents) because he was wearing a hoodie and he was looking “thuggish.”

It’s time for us to take action.  Here are three easy things you can do to pressure those in power to arrest and prosecute Zimmerman.

  1. Sign the Change.org petition started by Trayvon’s family.  With 1.5 million people having signed, the more voices that sign this petition, the harder it is to ignore.
  2. Pressure the state’s attorney responsible for the 18th district to do everything in their power to prosecute Zimmerman to the full extent of the law.  You must call between 9 am and 5 pm, Monday – Friday.  Get to an operator and ask to speak to the receptionist for Norm Wolfinger.
    Here’s a potential script: “Hello, my name is _________________.  I am calling regarding the Trayvon Martin case.  I just wanted to register my voice in support of Trayvon’s family as they seek justice in the murder of their son.  We ask that State Attorney Wolfinger publicly endorse the efforts to arrest and prosecute George Zimmerman, even before the Grand Jury has made its decision.  Thank you, and have a great day!
  3. Contact the original sponsor of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” legislation, Rep. Dennis K. Baxley, and encourage him to sponsor a process of revision of the law so that murderers like Zimmerman cannot hide behind such a vaguely-worded piece of legislation in the future.  Here’s an example that you could use (but try to make it personal):
    Hello, my name is ______________.  I am writing to encourage Rep. Baxley to consider formally revisiting Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law that he sponsored, the vaguest of it’s kind in the nation, on the floor of the House.  Please open an investigation into ways that this law can be used to shield murderers from prosecution, just like it has done for George Zimmerman after he murdered Trayvon Martin.  You told the CBS Evening News that you would be willing to revisit the law if changes were needed, and we hope that you will hold to your word and at least investigate this possibility.  Thank you for your time and consideration.  Sincerely, ____________

JUSTICE FOR TRAYVON MARTIN.  Please take action today.