Monday, March 26, 2012

Alexander, Abu-Jamal, and Brown

This week’s readings focused primarily on the ways in which the criminal justice system perpetuates its own flaws and weaknesses. Although the percentages of people of all races involved in drug crimes are relatively equivalent, African Americans and Latinos are targeted far more than white Americans. Alexander provides evidence of this: in a report done in 2000, white students use cocaine and heroin at a rate 7 times higher than black students and crack cocaine 8 times the rate of black students. This study also found that white youth between the ages of 12 and 17 are a third more likely to have sold illegal drugs than black youth (Alexander, 99). However, regardless of these statistics, prisons are undeniably populated by minorities. Black men have been admitted to state prisons on drug charges at a rate 13 times higher than white men (Alexander, 100). Of all people imprisoned for drug offenses, three-fourths have been either black or Latino (Alexander, 98).

These disproportionate rates are made possible by the fact that law enforcement officers are given free rein in the War on Drugs. There are far too many cases of illegal drug use throughout the country; at least 10% of all Americans violate drug laws every year (Alexander, 123).  These levels of offenses force law enforcement officers to narrow down their search into specific areas and onto specific targets. They are given immense amounts of discretion regarding who to “stop, search, arrest, and charge for drug offenses, thus ensuring that conscious and unconscious racial beliefs and stereotypes will be given free rein” (Alexander, 103). Many departments turn their attention, therefore, to the inner cities, arguing that these are the most compacted region for drug offenses; more people in a smaller area allow officers to spot drug offenses easier and more efficiently. What this results in, however, is the ability for law enforcement officers to use racial biases whether intentionally or not to determine who to target and stop.

The targeting of minorities within inner cities results in the disproportionate percentage of minorities incarcerated. Regardless of the evidence provided to the courts, the justice system itself makes it impossible to prove racial discrimination. Through a string of court decisions, the Supreme Court has consistently closed the door to challenges of racial discrimination within the judicial system.  With Whren vs. United States the Court was able to determine that police officers are able to use minor traffic violations as an excuse to stop motorists for drug investigations (Alexander, 108). This legalized the ability for police officers to use race as a reason to stop and search motorists as long as another explanation for the stop could be provided. In McCleskey vs. Kemp, the Supreme Court determined that racial bias in sentencing could not be challenged under the 14th Amendment without clear proof of conscious, discriminatory intent (Alexander, 109). As long as no one explicitly stated race as a reason for the sentencing chosen in a case, racial discrimination could not be argued. In Purkett vs. Elm the Court ruled in favor of an attorney’s ability to remove a juror from a case for any reason, regardless of how trivial it may seem (Alexander, 122). This drastically limited a defendant’s ability to be tried by his peers; a right granted to him in the Sixth Amendment. Black defendants no longer had access to a jury of people like himself, but in actuality would be tried by people who may very well seek the worst punishment regardless of the evidence of the case.

The McCleskey case made it possible for attorneys to choose punishment for a crime for whatever reason they may find. This results in uneven punishments between black, white, and Latino criminals committing the same crime. In 2000 a study found that among youth who had never been to a juvenile prison, black kids were more than 6 times as likely as whites to be sentenced to prison for the same crimes (Alexander, 118). In Georgia prosecutors sought the death penalty in 70% of cases involving a black defendant and white victims, but only 19% involving white defendants and black victims (Alexander, 110). These numbers indicate an obvious difference between the ways in which attorneys approach cases involving black or white defendants. They are far more likely to ask for a far more severe punishment of a black defendant than a white one.

What all of this creates is a cyclical process within the justice system. As the former New Jersey attorney general said, law enforcement officers point to the racial breakdown within our prisons as justification for targeting minorities, but the numbers of blacks and Latinos within the system are in fact the product of racial profiling, not a justification for the behavior (Alexander, 134). African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately in our prisons because of racial discrimination and bias. The numbers are not a reflection on the actual facts of crime rates; they are evidence that the justice system perpetuates its own misguided behaviors.


  1. I do agree with Alexander arguments regarding the imprisonment and crime rates among minorities. I do believe in the facts that there are many more minority people sentenced to imprisonment and convicted of crimes such as murder and drug related offenses. I also believe that there is forces out there who inevitably just trying to get the rich and high class in the same comfortable position that they are and keep the lower class, poverty stricken people in the same situations that they are in. Alexander and the other articles continue to lay out these arguments about how the government and high political officials are making efforts to imprison and convict marginalized people. They have given us countless facts such as Jen stated, White youth ages 12-17 are more likely to have sold drugs a third more than black teenagers. Also of all those who have been imprisoned because of drug related issues, three fourths of them are latino and African American. I guess these arguments can continue to throw facts at us hoping for awareness, but I guess my problem is what comes next. We can talk about how things have been bad for minorities and how they are continuing to be oppressed and we can talk about the facts that prove this. However how do we go from learning about these issues at Colgate to challenging them in the real world? I mean I know that there are good hearted people at this school and I know that when they take a class like this they realize some things that they haven’t been exposed to before but from experience most of the people who are presented with these arguments do anything to change it outside the classroom.

  2. I think that Jen makes some sound points in her post, especially when she talks about how racial discrimination cannot be proven even if its presence is painfully obvious. Rarely, will a police officer explicitly state race as a reason for an arrest, but through the stories we’ve read about, we know that this discrimination has been rampant and unrelenting in the US. Jen talks about racial discrimination in the War on Drugs, and I don’t want to diminish how unforgiveable and senseless these racist motivations are, but I’d like to apply some of Jen’s arguments to the American media’s culpability in supporting and perpetuating racism. Elaine Brown examines several cases of young black youth (some of them not even teenagers) accused of murders they did not commit, which they frequently are sentenced to death for. These convictions were not based on physical evidence, eyewitness accounts, or any information that should be accepted as valid by the court. Rather, the “reckless, racist presumption of guilt” led police officers to arrest black youth for these crimes (Brown 29). In her post, Jen states, “the numbers are not a reflection on the actual facts of crime rates; they are evidence that the justice system perpetuates its own misguided behaviors” and I think that her observation can also be applied to the media's culpability. The media condemned these boys without examining the facts of the cases and even portrayed the “murderers” as if “some sort of satanic genetic code had been embedded in their skin and soul, all unexorcisable” (Brown 29). Curiously, when black boys were charged for murder, the media blamed the hideous actions on an inherent and irrepressible violence and need to kill among black youth. What the media revealed in these charges was its inherent, irrepressible, and addictive racism. In fact, the media’s eagerness to publicly and figuratively hang these young boys in the media reminded me of the repulsive history of lynching in America when a mob of white people would round up a black man and hang him for a crime that he was almost always innocent of. While we view the members of a lynch mob as uneducated and unfeeling brutes, we would like to hold our media to a higher standard of humanity and trust it does not have racist inclinations, but we would be wrong. Moreover, by believing these sensationalized and racist news stories and taking part in the unthinking condemnation of the accused, the public becomes part of the racist mob. When white boys commit an unthinkable crime, it is seen as a tragedy and something which could have been prevented. Brown touches on the Columbine shootings and I remember when they happened I was in disbelief. “How could this happen?” was the question people asked, which never would have been a serious consideration of the public if this happened at a mostly black or Latino high school. I remember blame being put on the parents for neglecting their kids and the schoolyard bullies for making fun of and provoking the murderers. The media understood these killings to be a white problem and an American problem, which could not possibly be rooted in inherent violence or aggression of the white boy. The stark contrast between the media’s sympathy for and even victimization of white youth murderers and the media’s condemnation of black youth demonstrates an existing racism and also shows us who the media considers to be true Americans.

  3. I think Jen's post did a great job of summarizing the recent chapters in Alexander's book. I like Jen's use of the word "cyclical" when describing the current incarceration system; I believe that statement to be on par. The incarceration system in America has made small changes over time that have led it down a troubling path, one which aims to be fair and equal but does very little to accomplish that goal. The incarceration system in the United States is caught up in a perpetual cycle.
    In general, Alexander’s second and third chapters have done a much better job of arguing her intended point. She has offered many statistics, studies, and court cases to support the argument that minorities are unfairly targeted and imprisoned. The common perception among Americans is flawed and mislead. Alexander’s main argument is strong and very well-supported. One thing she has not yet discussed, and I am curious to see if she will, is her opinion as to whether or not the War on Drugs is even worth the time and effort it has received. When I think of the intention of a prison, I think about the need to keep violent people off of the streets. Do I consider someone with a bag of weed violent? Absolutely not. So why do we spend time, energy, and money incarcerating people in possession of drugs??? Based on our readings for Tuesday, the answer to this question could involve the fact that prisons make money and prisons are just another cog in the capitalist system. However, I think it is necessary to take a step back and begin to fight the system on its desire to lock-up people with drugs in pocket. The greater public does not feel threatened for their safety because someone sitting next to them on the bus may have a small bag of Cocaine. The greater public DOES feel threatened when someone sitting next to them on the bus has a gun hanging out of their waistband. As Alexander has shown, racial biases have been ignored in the Supreme Court system. Therefore, using race as an argument to change the system may (?) not be very productive. What if we began to argue that we should be handling punishment differently in general? There are better ways to “teach a lesson” than locking someone up, especially someone who is not at risk of harming themselves or others. At the end of the day, it would indirectly avoid some of the issues of racial profiling, as the number one case Michelle Alexander points to is one of drug incarceration across the United States.
    From here, I want to ask: is this an effective way of making a change in the system? How will we realistically fix this problem? How will we change the current perceptions? As Professor Stern said in class the other day, it is clear that we, as a class, still have a lot to learn as it pertains to these systems before we begin to look for solutions, but I am eagerly looking forward to the day we start to break some of these problems down.

  4. I think Brian brought up a critical point. This class clearly understands that we have created a racialized system of social control that operates, largely, "unconsciously and automatically" (Alexander 107). Alexander paints a vivid picture of the absurdity of the situation in suggesting that the drug war could have been waged in wealthy suburbs or on college campuses. She points out that "police could have seized televisions, furniture, and cash from fraternity houses based on an anonymous tip that a few joints or a stash of cocaine could be found in someone's dresser drawer" (124). This really drove the point home for me and exemplified the extent to which our racial schemas operate largely unconsciously. I grew up in a wealthy white suburb where I regularly witnessed drug use and I have seen plenty of hard-drug use at Colgate. Despite this, I am embarrassed to admit that these are not the images that come to mind when I hear the word "drug dealer."

    I believe most of the students at this school are good, well-intentioned people who are strongly affected and disturbed by what we're reading. What Brian elucidates, however, is that this frequently has little bearing on our behavior outside of class. Colgate is incredibly segregated, and many wealthy, predominantly white, students here will go on to make a lot of money and perpetuate a system defined by the stratification of races and socioeconomic classes. I think what Alexander suggests is that this can't be viewed as black people's problem. As she has repeatedly demonstrated, our system functions so as to effectively prevent any claims of racial discrimination by oppressed African Americans. Thus, it is the responsibility of the empowered, wealthy elite, whom are largely white, to challenge this system. While I'm not exactly sure how we go about doing that, I think a critical first step is being aware of how race continues to play a role in our daily lives. Colgate is full of well-educated, informed, caring students, and yet our campus exemplifies the division of people by race and class. Colgate students make up part of an elite class with the power to make a difference, and we do care. Despite this, we have failed to challenge this system even within our own community.

    1. Like Laura, Brian’s comment struck a critical chord for me. The readings for this class all do a great job laying out the statistics, proving through numbers that the racial prejudice perpetuated by our legal system is, as Jen put perfectly, cyclical. I think that educating ourselves and others on this fact is an inevitable and crucial first step; choosing to be in this class and to have the discussions we are having is in itself taking leaps and bounds towards that accumulation of knowledge. Since I got to Colgate I have been trying to seek out classes about discrimination and prejudice, like this one. I now feel very knowledgeable and even articulate on many issues with racism in this country. And yet the one thing I have not once been presented with, taught or come to terms with is what exactly is the best way to go about changing any of it.

      The overwhelming and perhaps unjustified sense of powerlessness when it comes to race and racial profiling in our justice system has really hit home this past week, as I have had an opportunity to inform myself at length on the Trayvon Martin case. Martin was a 17-year-old black kid from Florida who was shot and killed while unarmed in his own gated community while walking back from the convenience store (wearing a hoodie). His killer, Zimmerman, was a middle-aged man and self-appointed neighborhood watch chief who thought Martin looked “suspicious,” and started to follow him against the direct orders of the 911 dispatcher. Minutes later, neighbors heard a young voice scream, Martin was shot dead and Zimmerman was claiming he had acted in self-defense.

      I have become more and more frustrated with different aspects of this case the more I read, but I think the most angering public dialogue is the one on race. Although there is widespread support of the conviction—or at least the fair trial—of Zimmerman, who was initially let off with no arrest and no charges, there is a significant portion of this supportive body that refuses to allow that any discourse on race should be had surrounding this case. (Of course, as one astute white male blogger pointed out, “I would never look ‘suspicious’ to you in a hoodie.”) This infuriates me, because it brings to life the fact that there is resistance to racial discourse in individual cases like Martin’s EVEN BY people who understand and recognize the irrefutable statistical documentation present in books like The New Jim Crow. Well, to bring the conversation back to Brian’s point—if we’re willing to concede a “stereotype problem” but won’t admit the fact that it may be at work in individual cases, how can those numbers possibly begin to be changed? And how can justice for the victimized individuals possibly be brought about?

      Alexander writes, “the brutal stories described above are not isolated incidents, nor are the racial identities of Emma Faye Stewart and Clifford Runoalds random or accidental” (98). But although they are not isolated incidents, individuals continue to suffer from the perpetuated stereotypical cycle that allows for things like racial profiling. So how do we stop this? How do we make change? Stereotypes, derived informally from percentages and probabilities, are themselves a self-perpetuating cycle. At some point, on some level, we have to consciously break free from that cycle in order to make any reasonable gains—legally, individually, informationally. My trouble is I still have no good idea about how to do that.

      [One conversation about this topic: in his Ted talk, Stevenson addresses the "what to do" question...]