Monday, March 26, 2012

The Color of Justice

Below is from Austin, who had some difficulties with, as he might say, the #$%&*@! blog. 

In this week’s chapter Alexander gives us the accounts of two individuals who were victims of our flawed judicial system (97-98). After reading the accounts of both Emma Faye Stewart and also Clifford Runoalds my heart was not only broken for these people but I was also enraged about these circumstances (97-98). A single mother of two loses the things that bring her the most joy, her children (97-98). Also, a father who is mourning the tragic death of his eighteen-month-old daughter has to testify to a crime and is unable to see attend the funeral of his precious child (97-98). These are only the accounts of two I can’t begin to imagine how many similar stories are out there. The sad thing is, until engaging in texts like Alexander’s I was completely uninformed of the prison industrial complex.
The media does a great job of brainwashing us as Americans into thinking that blacks and minorities are the ones committing the crimes in America. The sad thing is the media is correct, blacks and minorities are convicted of more crimes than their white counterparts but it is not because they are worse people it is simply because that is the way the system works. One study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that white students use cocaine at seven times the rate of black students, use crack cocaine at eight times the rate of black students, and use heroin at seven times the rate of black students (99). If the system were colorblind the lock up discrepancies would be tailored differently. Growing up I had a vast majority of friends that crossed numerous racial boundaries and from what I can recall these statistics seem to line up. The rich white kids at my school were the ones who were doing a majority of the hard drugs. I have actually never had a black friend who has done cocaine or crack cocaine. So from a personal stand point this part of the chapter was like shining a light on a issue that has always been there I have just been unaware of it.
We can see why whites want to oppress minorities (to keep the system of power in tact) but how do we do get away with it (103). First, we grant law enforcement officials extraordinary discretion on whom to stop (103). Also we close the courthouse doors to all claims of defendants and private litigants that the criminal justice system operates in racially discriminatory fashion (103). At this point in the chapter my heart is begging this not to be true, I want to believe that we have kind hearted people in America but I am really beginning to question the people in positions of authority.
The next intriguing part of the chapter had to do with the jury selection in trials. As I have heard growing up majority of people who have jury duty are white. Potential jurors are typically called for service based on the list of registered voters or Department of Motor Vehicles list (121). This list contains disproportionately fewer people of color, because people of color are significantly less likely to own cars or register to vote. My optimism for good-hearted white Americans continues to dwindle at this point. In order to   make sure that you receive a “fair” trial you are supposed to have a trial by jury, but what if the whole jury believes you are guilty until proven innocent then what? You are exactly that guilty until proven innocent because if you don’t have an amazing lawyer your odds of getting off seem slim to none.
To conclude I want to offer a possible solution. As we have learned this system depends primarily on the prison label, not prison time (139). Once you are out of prison you are labeled as a felon. When you are labeled as a felon you lose a good majority of your constitutional rights. You lose the right to vote, the right to live in public housing, and you also lose the right to land a decent paying job.  We first as a society need to work on these issues. I don’t know exactly what this would look like but giving people grace when they leave prison could be the very thing they need to turn their life around instead of putting them back into a society that promotes a track right back into prison. I believe people can change we just need to give them more of an opportunity once they get out. If we wont to be fair we also need to search everyone the same but this is a war that may never end, the war on racism in a “colorblind” society.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Sorry you had trouble with the blog, Austin. ^^ I had a typo and went to change my post just now, and it has this sketch thing up that the comment was deleted by the author (which it was, but still). You aren't alone.

    To be sure, there are flaws in the U.S. justice system beyond its institutionalized racism. I have had friends on both sides of the court system, and even in cases where race is not an issue, so to say, the proceedings still disrupt the lives of the people involved, like the father described in Alexander (97-98).

    I have some thoughts, which I post here instead of saying in class because I think in a very free form, free association manner.

    From what I see here in Alexander, Brown and Abu-Jamal is that prisons aren't for the rehabilitation of criminals; prisons are created for capitalist gains. So how should prisoners be rehabilitated? I'm seeing that people of all colors are committing crimes, but predominantly people of color are being convicted. My mind goes immediately to the Dave Chappelle skit. Then, in theory, if everyone who legitimately broke the law went to prison for it (and yes, I am aware that there are systems and cycles of violence and poverty in place that make it more likely for certain people to commit crimes, and I am taking that into account), we would have even more than our obscenely high number of people already in prison, in prison. Where do we go from there?

    I see it as something beyond a race thing, but a human instinct thing. What drives people to commit crimes? More specifically, what makes people want to do drugs, or sell drugs? Maybe this is a psychology thing, which I am in no way qualified to speak on, but I see it as either a financial gain, or a need to escape. I can address both of those desires in one fell swoop, and accuse our favorite ubiquitous scapegoat: society. Social norms state that more is better, so attaining financial success by whatever means possible takes the forefront. And the cutthroat society we've created to accomplish these goals is so unsavory that all people look to find ways to escape it. Our collective greed has borne a society that its occupants can't stand. We've made our bed and are having some difficulty lying in it.

    The systems are flawed. You can't look at the statistics bursting from Alexander or the Abu-Jamal article and maintain that a disproportionate number of people of color are in jail. They are. They have to be remedied, but how? We, as a society, need to break these cycles of poverty and violence. We need to find a way to quell these escapist desires. I would advocate for changing the drug laws, but I believe that to be a band-aid solution. We don't need to make drug possession or usage acceptable, we need to evaluate why people turn to drugs and change that stimulus. (Or maybe we should legalize it. How does it work in the Netherlands?)

    I realize I paint with broad strokes. The legal system does not work (or at least not very fairly). Prisons don't work (they're expensive to tax payers and they make a lot of money). To stop the continuation of failure, we should end poverty and make the world we live in a more caring and welcoming place that would not entice people to do drugs to escape it. It's laughable, really. I know. Anyone who's read this entire thing is making a face at me, right now. I don't know how to accomplish any of that other than on an individual intervention basis, which is slow and not flashy and I doubt the government would be willing to spend time on it, but that's where I stand as of now.

  3. It's hard not to take race into account when reading Alexander and articles like that of Brown and Abu-Jamal. Austin is absolutely right when he says we've been and are brainwashed by the media. Racism and racial profiling is sown into the very fabric of our nation, from the legislature to the stereotypes used when searching for 'criminals' to how blacks are portrayed in the media.

    But recognizing the inequality and the adaptive nature of racism is only half the problem. How does one go about rectifying this issues? How can the stain racism be removed from the rhetoric of our country? It's like trying to remove salt from water: virtually impossible. I have to commend Austin on his optimism in terms of re-approaching these people who have been stigmatized with the label of 'prisoner'. Forgive and forget or even try to understand is something that happens but only for some.

    I think this speaks to the idea of who or what image America is most able to relate to. The farther something is from being recognizable the easier it is to condemn and judge. In the opposite way, if an individual mirrors the face of the "typical" American, you have this urge to be less harsh and more forgiving.

    The label of "prisoner" is yet another effective way to dehumanize, or rather remove the citizenship of, human beings. Abu-Jamal speaks to this stating, "for those...who wear the label 'prisoner' around their necks, there is no law, there is no justice, there are no rights"(87). But I want to suggest this dehumanization begins even before incarceration, that is begins on the streets when these individuals (disproportionally people of color) are profiled and held to the standards of the stereotypes that smother their identity are assumed to act or be a certain way. They are not seen as fellow citizens, they are seen as potential criminals, "menaces to society". How do you fix a broken system for people who don't fit the system?

  4. I would like to focus my discussion on Austin’s conclusion where he talks about the prison label people receive the moment they are out of prison. He says, “When you are labeled as a felon you lose a good majority of your constitutional rights. You lose the right to vote, the right to live in public housing, and you also lose the right to land a decent paying job.” I think what Austin says in a few sentences explains our issue as an American public. The majority of the people who receive the “prisoner label” and lose the privileges mentioned above are blacks and yet we say we are no longer a radicalized country?? As it states in the book, “By the early 1980s, survey data indicated that 90 percent of whites thought black and white children should attend the same schools, 71 percent disagreed with the idea that whites have a right to keep blacks our of their neighborhoods, 80 percent indicated they would support a black candidate for president, and 66 percent opposed laws prohibiting intermarriage.” These are facts and if these questions were to be asked to a group of American’s anywhere around the country the percentages would remain the same but just because these are the statistics that people voice means we no longer have a racial issue in our country. In fact, I think we have more of a racial issue than people think and one that could be more dangerous than before, “the mere fact that large majorities of whites were, by the early 1980s, supporting the antidiscrimination principle reflected a profound shift in racial attitudes. The margin of support for colorblind norms has only increased since then. That is our problem now, this idea of colorblind racism. It is embedded all throughout society but because we know it is wrong to discriminate or judge someone according to his or her race we don’t discuss racism in a verbal sense, instead it shines through in our dominating and hierarchal institutions.

    The War on Drugs is the new slavery, whether we want to admit to it or not. As Alexander says, “African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison. In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men.” However, every race, color, ethnic background is doing and dealing drugs but blacks are the ones who most likely get convicted. Why is this the case? I honestly believe it is the new way of holding black people in the inferior position they have had for centuries. Of course whites say they aren’t racist and claim they do not discriminate yet they use prisons and law enforcements to keep them in the inferior. How different is a prisoner label and all the consequences they face after being in prison that different than slavery?? That is why I think the War on Drugs is the new slavery and until enough people (white and people in power) become educated about this issue and actually do something about it, it is going to remain this way. Because right now we look at the facts with the number of black people committed for drugs and imprisoned but we do not look past the data and ask questions. We need to start asking questions. As Alexander says, "Black men, they say have much higher rates of violent crime; that's why so many of them are locked up. Typically, this is where the discussion ends."But this is where discussion needs to begin!!

  5. Hi Austin!
    I want to push your idea on the role of media in brainwashing American a little bit further (by American, I meant “the majority of white and not a small percentage of people of color”). The media does not only portrayed African American as the main group of people should be responsible for crimes and all the illnesses of society but also feed American with the notion that white American is somehow the better group of people even when white people commit crime like mass murder. Alexander briefly touched that idea when she said “Black commit crimes because of internal personality flaws such as disrespect. White did so because of external conditions such as family conflicts” (118). This idea is emphasized in the Brown’s article, when Brown said that only black teenagers committing crime were described as evil in contrast to white teenagers were just “possessed, misunderstood, alienated, isolated, or lonely” (39). As a result, there is always a sense of sympathy given to a white teenage boy who killed his mother and schoolmates. This is not just a matter of statistic, actual crime committing rate, and reality, but it is a belief, a disturbing one, on the goodness and badness of people. Think about it, among “your rich white kids” at your school, what would people (like responsible adults, both acquaintances and strangers) tell them when they caught these kids using drug? I think that they more likely to say “Boys being boys, let they live a little bit,” right? What kinds of behaviors that white children/teenagers are allowed to do and are forgiven as a part of growing up but black children can’t get away with? I heard my African American friend could not run or make any loud noise in the supermarket. I don’t want to go in length how much stress that any person of color has to deal with, starting from a kid under the watchful eyes of his/her parents to an adult constantly under racial profiling of the justice system.
    From this point, I want to comment on Olivia’s comment. Hi, Olivia! I agree that the prisons are actually not correcting people’s behaviors, and it actually makes people worse. To answer your question, how do we go from there, well, I think that we both agree that throwing more people in prison, both for running and filling it, is not the solution. I am hesitate to go as far as suggesting we consider not having a prison, but I think this is where education comes in. I am not sure, this actually sounds really naïve right now! And now I come back to Austin’s solution, which is about the prisoner’s label. I am afraid that the label is just a small part of the problem of mass-incarceration. I’ve mentioned this before, it is not just the opportunity that was formally and legally taken away because of the label, but there is a lot a prisoner loses when he/she spends sometimes in prison (like valuable connection to find job or ability to communicate with people in a daily basis).

    1. Hi Hoa! I see you replying to my comment, and I will reply to your comment!

      I applaud your so-called naivete! I think education, especially public education can definitely be part of the solution. The public education system, however flawed, is an opportunity to shape a large percentage of children's lives, people who can't afford private schools and may be more susceptible to these sorts of cycles and prison systems in particular. I think things like the reversal of the prisoner stereotyping may be possible here, like in those civics classes where you learn about the structure of American society. If prisons continue to play such a huge role in our society, we should include them in the curriculum, removing the taboo, so to speak. I notice that this taboo has continued through to college, even to the high and mighty Colgate University. (Why can't we go on a field trip to a prison, Colgate lawyers? By imposing this silencing tactic, you are enforcing the fear and taboo. Shame on you.) This also may provide an opportunity to destigmatize youth of color, and maybe we, as a society, can stop being terrified of black boys, and also stop sentencing them to death for crimes they may not have even committed.

      Hoa, I see that you didn't want to go all the way to abolishing prisons, but I will go there. Let's abolish prisons. Maybe not right now, right now, but soon. As soon as we can come up with an actual prisoner rehabilitation system. Prisons aren't working. Why are we still paying for them? As soon as a positive, effective prison alternative is invented, I say get rid of the entire failing prison system.

  6. “The media does a great job of brainwashing us as Americans into thinking that blacks and minorities are the ones committing the crimes in America.” I think Austin makes a good point here. When we were talking about torture and warfare a few weeks ago, we brought up the idea of what is “right.” We want to say that torture is wrong; we want to say that it is never acceptable, but what are our real motivations behind saying this? Is that really what we think, in every situation? I was reminded of this while reading Elaine Brown’s chapter, Evil in the City. On page 36 Brown describes the story of Yummy, an eleven-year-old boy accused of murdering a fourteen-year-old girl, yet Yummy was also murdered. After the incident, people of the community paint ugly pictures of Yummy as a “sociopath” and complete troublemaker, disrupting the whole community. Instead of focusing on his tragic life and his death, the media focused on how he was viewed by random members of the community. I think that a lot of the time when people are interviewed in response to tragic instances such as these, they want to say the “right” thing, or something that will make them be seen in a positive light. Many people who are quoted in the media don’t have a close relationship to the victims or the accused, but from what they hear or see they have an opinion on the subject. In another one of Brown’s examples, a girl being accused of killing a baby was supported enough by family members and friends to get her conviction overturned. Yummy didn’t have anyone close enough to him to fight for his innocence- he was homeless and abandoned by his family. Because of the opinions of storeowners and anonymous neighbors, a disgusting picture of Yummy was painted in the media preventing anyone from wanting to find out the truth about the situation. As Brown states, “The press in America, as an extension of the powerful, has come to define the day,” (37). The historical role of the media and the historical dehumanization of black people in the media have trickled into modern society. The readings for today really made me think about how influenced our society and our institutions are by the media.