Systemic Racism: The Criminal Injustice System, Again

Senators Obama and Clinton have brought up the huge racial disparities in U.S. arrests and incarceration, yet have not explained yet what they would do about this distinctive aspect of systemic racism. A New York Times reporter has recently summarized two reports on extreme racial inequality in arrests and incarceration. One report is by the Sentencing Project and the other by Human Rights Watch.

The article accents the all-too-well-known impact of systemic racism in our criminal “injustice system”:(Photo credit) More than two decades after President Ronald Reagan escalated the war on drugs, arrests for drug sales or, more often, drug possession are still rising. And despite public debate and limited efforts to reduce them, large disparities persist in the rate at which blacks and whites are arrested and imprisoned for drug offenses, even though the two races use illegal drugs at roughly equal rates. (Italics added.)

Same rates of drug use, yet huge racial differences in how those who use drugs are treated by the criminal injustice system. People who read good newspapers and magazines probably have some sense of this reality, but they likely do not know a central fact accented in these reports:

that the murderous crack-related urban violence of the 1980s, which spawned the war on drugs, has largely subsided, reducing the rationale for a strategy that has sowed mistrust in the justice system among many blacks.

That is, now racially inegalitarian policing has little rationale except for white-racist framing and racial profiling:

In 2006, according to federal data, drug-related arrests climbed to 1.89 million, up from 1.85 million in 2005 and 581,000 in 1980. More than four in five of the arrests were for possession of banned substances, rather than for their sale or manufacture. Four in 10 of all drug arrests were for marijuana possession, according to the latest F.B.I. data. Apart from crowding prisons, one result is a devastating impact on the lives of black men: they are nearly 12 times as likely to be imprisoned for drug convictions as adult white men, according to the Human Rights Watch report. Others are arrested for possession of small quantities of drugs and later released, but with a permanent blot on their records anyway.

The racial differentials are striking:

Two-thirds of those arrested for drug violations in 2006 were white and 33 percent were black, although blacks made up 12.8 percent of the population, F.B.I. data show. . . . [One] report cites federal data from 2003, the most recent available . . . , indicating that blacks constituted 53.5 percent of all who entered prison for a drug conviction.

The Human Rights Watch report adds this bit on the stats too:

Across the 34 states, a black man is 11.8 times more likely than a white man to be sent to prison on drug charges, and a black woman is 4.8 times more likely than a white woman. In 16 states, African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at rates between 10 and 42 times greater than the rate for whites. The 10 states with the greatest racial disparities in prison admissions for drug offenders are: Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, West Virginia, Colorado, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

Such extreme bias in the criminal injustice system has huge domino effects, negative impacts, within most African American communities, especially those mostly of working class and low-income families. The Times article cites Ryan King, analyst with the Sentencing Project, on the significance of his report:

“Arresting hundreds of thousands of young African-American men hasn’t ended street-corner drug sales.” A shift of resources toward drug treatment and social services rather than wholesale incarceration, he said, would do more to improve conditions in blighted neighborhoods.

Once again, a sensible approach to what is in effect a public health problem like alcohol abuse and addiction—and is treated that way in numerous more advanced countries—seems beyond the reach of a society whose social problems like crime, as much research shows, are still fundamentally grounded in racism and classism. Once again a recent (March 2008) United Nations report is more concerned with reducing this racial inequality in (photo credit) sentencing than the US government and legal system, which the UN calls on to take action. (See March 2008 Recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination).

“Stop and Frisk” Racism

In an item related in many fundamental ways to the protests yesterday, the New York Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the NYPD for its “stop and frisk” practice on behalf of a New York Post reporter, Leonardo Blair (pictured here, photo from NYPost). In an ironic twist, the New York Post, a conservative rag owned by Rupert Murdoch, the same day ran an editorial in favor of the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” policy, asserting that any decrease in this racially biased practice would result in “crime and chaos.” The reality of living in a police state – and make no mistake, New York City is a police state – is that you never leave home without ID. If you don’t have state-issued ID on you, then you’re subject to being detained by the police until they can “verify your identity.” And, once they stop you, even without probable cause, they collect your name, address and date of birth for their database. But of course, it’s a policy that doesn’t get applied equally. As a white woman that frequently passes for straight, I often skate past those sorts of searches. My fellow New Yorkers who are black and brown, like the reporter in the NYCLU’s lawsuit, are not so fortunate. Leo Blair, a Jamaican immigrant and graduate of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, tells his own story of what happened when he was stopped by the police (from the NY Post):

I was just trying to get home.

It was 8:20 p.m. Wednesday, and I had just finished parking my 1993 Toyota Camry along Arnow Avenue in the Allerton section of The Bronx, where I have been living with my family since graduating from Columbia University last May.

Less than a block from my door, I heard a car’s squeaking brakes. I would have ignored the sound if I hadn’t seen an NYPD squad car out of the corner of my eye. I was relieved for a moment – until I saw the officers’ faces.

“Can you tell us what you were doing coming from that car?” asked the driver, a Hispanic officer whose name I later learned was Castillo.

“What?” I asked.

The street was virtually empty. Officer Castillo jumped out of the car.

“Do you understand English!” he demanded. “Answer the question!”

No, no hablo ingles,” I quipped. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have said that to any cop, but I found his tone surprising and insulting.

Officer Castillo peppered me with questions in Spanish until I interrupted: “What do you mean by ‘What was I doing coming from that car?’ That’s my car!”

“So you speak English!” Officer Castillo exploded.

“Put your hands in the air!” he shouted. My arms shot up. He frisked me. His partner, Officer Reynolds, rifled through my rucksack.

The search ended quickly and, thinking they were done, I let my hands fall.

Bad idea.

“Did I tell you to put your hands down?” Castillo barked.

He pinned my left arm, cuffed my wrist while ordering me to put my hands behind my back. His partner then took away my cellphone, which had started ringing in my pocket.

“C’mon, man,” I said. “I live right there. Let me call my aunt and uncle inside the house.”

I felt like I was being kidnapped. Castillo told me I was guilty of “disobeying an order.”

Sitting in the back of the squad car, a million thoughts were exploding in my head: What if I told them I just graduated from Columbia with a master’s degree in journalism? That I was a reporter with The Post? Should it matter?

“What did I do?” I asked when we arrived at the 49th Precinct station house. “Why am I being arrested?”

“Keep walking. This is not an arrest. You’re getting a summons,” Officer Castillo said.

Inside, Officer Reynolds shoved me into a cell. Digging through my bag, Officer Castillo picked out my driver’s license and said, “Look at this. He is not even from the projects.”

I angrily shouted, “Because I am black that means I’m supposed to be from the projects? That’s profiling and you know it!”

“Tsk, tsk,” Castillo replied.

When Officer Reynolds returned, I again asked why I had been incarcerated. “This is not incarceration. Do you know what incarceration means?” he said.

I unloaded: “I have a master’s degree from Columbia University. I am a reporter for the New York Post. What do you mean this is not incarceration?”

The air froze. Officer Castillo kept writing, but I watched his face go flush.

“Now I understand what black people mean in this country when they talk about things like this,” I said to Officer Reynolds.

“What do you mean? I am black, too,” he said.

“That’s what makes it so shameful,” I said. “You stood there and watched him cuff me for no reason and you said nothing.” He walked away.

At 9:04 p.m., 10 minutes after I was put in the cell, Officer Castillo let me out.

“Mr. Blair,” he said. “You are free to go.”

“What did I do?” I asked again.

“You will see on the summons,” he said. The two pink slips I received showed complaints for making “unreasonable noise” and “disobeying a lawful order.”

Most black men, and many black women and Latino men and women, in New York have a story similar to Blair’s. Very few white people have similar stories. And, there is data that gives a fuller picture to the racial disparity of “stop and frisk” racism. According to data released earlier this week, New York City police officers stopped more people on the streets during the first three months of 2008 than during any quarter in the six years the Department has reported the data.

In 2007, the NYPD stopped about 469,000 New Yorkers – almost 1,300 people every day. Eighty-eight percent were completely innocent. Though they make up only a quarter of the City’s population, more than half of those stopped were black. Another 30 percent were Latino. Though whites make up more than 35 percent of New York City’s population, they were only 11 percent of those stopped. In 2006 and 2007, blacks and Latinos were the target of about 90 percent of the nearly one million stop-and-frisk encounters.

The NYCLU’s lawsuit also challenges the legality of a database the NYPD maintains with the names and addresses of every person stopped and frisked by the police, even though more than 90 percent of those people, like Blair, have done nothing wrong. That police database likely now has the names and home addresses of over one million law-abiding New Yorkers, as I said, this is what it’s like to live in a police state.

Yesterday, Joe wrote about the ‘foundations of racism.’ When I think about those foundations here in New York, I see them in lots of structures, such as these current policing practices. And, I see these foundations of racism in the graves of Africans who came here in chains to build lower Manhattan. I see these foundations of racism in contemporary exhibits like the one called “Bodies,” that trades on the bodies of Chinese prisoners who may have been executed. I see the foundations in the bodies of the black and brown people locked up who make up 95% of those incarcerated at Rikers, often as a result of racially biased “stop and frisk” racism. These foundations of racism, built quite literally on the bodies of non-white people, are at the heart of what Bauman and Giroux talk about when they write of the biopolitics of disposability.