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).


  1. GDAWG

    You know, at some point are going to have to realized that the tribualtions African Americen experience in general, and the men particularly, is beyond sytemic racism, because that’s the obvious as monbntians of data PROVE. As such, what we have to realized is that it has become a Darwinian struggle for survival. And I’m of the opinion that because our political representation is so neutered that, we as a community, are at the mercy of others not of the community. And this is a problem, to put it mildly. That is, we havemany with in political power, whose no action in our behalf interms of our survival and sustainability, is worse than that of any Klan chapter could ever dream being in terms of neutralizing our efforts to be human and civilized with regards to our people. It is a kind of Faustian bargin with a guaranted admission to hell. You may get there later, while we get there sooner, but we both end up in hell. This is a kind of COWARDICE that is a presciption for extinction. And, moreover, and, more importantly, a kind of cowardice that these people must understand, does not infer immortalitiy, especially because we are all biologic beings on this earth andthis time.

  2. Joe Author

    Wisdom from those not from northern Europe can be helpful:

    “We are one of the leaves of the tree. The tree is all of humanity. We cannot live without the other leaves of the tree.” – Pablo Casals

    “Every second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that never was before and never will be again. And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two make four and that Paris is the capital of France. We should say to each of them, “Do you know who you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In the millions of years that have passed, there has never been another child like you.”” – Pablo Casals

  3. adia

    I was criticized on this blog earlier for a post I wrote which (among other things) was critical of the way in which capitalism as practiced in the US perpetuates racial and gender inequality. The increasing numbers of black and brown men ensnared in the prison system, however, highlight the importance of understanding how American capitalism is practiced in a way that facilitates racial/gender inequity. Prisons are privately owned, and prisoners earn well under mimimum wage for their labor. So as many states ( California, for instance) devote more money to building prisons than to building schools, we end up with a system where there is more money for prisons than for schools, while racial minorities are disproportionately tracked into the penal system, work for next to nothing, and corporations profit from their (virtually free) labor. Though it may be uncomfortable, it is absolutely essential to criticize the way American capitalism is used to promote racial/gender exploitation and inequality.

  4. Joe Author

    Adia says it well. The US prison system has become a new form of slavery for many Americans of color. Small infractions lead to incarceration, and as she points out, to low-wage and coerced labor. So this form of “chain gang” slavery still exists in the US.

  5. Kai

    The only way these laws will be changed is if there are more white people imprisoned for drug crimes. This is happening, but not at a rate which is drawing enough attention. In the mainstream media, and in most American minds, there is the association of black men with criminality, which trumps whatever statistical analysis you can put forth about unfair treatment or racial profiling. This mindset approves of racial profiling. These drug laws will not change until more white people are forced to live out these unfair sentences. Then dateline, and Time magazine and Newsweek will do a number of pieces on how tragic the situation is and how the drug laws are hurting so many undeserving people. White people can be in prison and undeserving, or can be punished too harshly, and black men cannot, look at many repsonses to the police beating of some Philly suspects. Its ok, their black. Worthy victims and unworthy victims. This drug policy has to begin to affect some worthy victims.

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