Although the focus of this unit is on how the political and legal systems influence majority and minority group relations, it is important to recognize that the political and legal systems are closely related to the economic considerations mentioned in the previous unit. There is a clear connection between economic wealth and political power. Those who are wealthy can either directly or indirectly advance their beliefs and positions to a much higher degree than those who are poor. On the other hand, when groups are poor, they tend to have low levels of political power, which reduces their economic position, and the cycle goes on and on.
Political decisions can directly or indirectly have either a positive or negative influence on minority groups. When the government passes laws to reduce discrimination in the banking or housing sectors, it can have a positive influence on minority communities. But government decisions can also have a negative influence on minority groups, even if they are not intended to do so. For example, the construction of the interstate highway system after World War II contributed to the suburbanization of America and the exodus of jobs and necessary tax revenues.
Has Government Been Used to Oppress Minorities or To Protect Minority Rights?
If we look at our nation’s early history there can be no denying that the government played an important role in maintaining the privileged position of the dominant group (Anglo-Americans) as well as subordinating minority groups. A quick look at government actions in our history is telling. The Constitution itself recognized each black slave as “three-fifths” of a person. Compromises were made by politicians to expand slavery to new states, as well as to return runaway slaves to their owners. Federal laws were passed to prohibit immigration from China in the 1880’s as well as to imprison Japanese Americans during World War II. The Army, being an extension of the government, was also used. Native American tribes were forcibly removed from their homelands and resettled on reservations. The army was also used to win territory in the Southwest from Mexico. State governments also participated as we saw in unit 4, where they passed slave codes forbidding slaves to learn how to read or write.
For a short time following the Civil War, the government was instrumental in improving conditions for minorities. During the period of Reconstruction, the government passed the 13th Amendment (ending slavery), the 14th Amendment (equal protection) and the 15th Amendment (the right to vote). When Reconstruction ended, the levers of government were once again used to suppress minority rights. It would take until the second half of the twentieth century to get the government to once again be an agent for improved minority relations.
As was discussed above, following Reconstruction the white community in the South set about finding ways to get around the 15th Amendment and take away the right to vote for blacks. As was mentioned in unit 5, a number of methods were used to take away the vote from blacks (literacy tests, “grandfather clause”, etc…). But these were not the only methods used. Another method used was the “white primary“. Primaries are where people vote for who they want to have represent a political party in an election. Whoever wins the primary represents their party in the general election. Since the Democratic Party dominated the Southern states, it could, through the primary system, control Southern politics. In many Southern states, voting in the primaries was restricted to whites. The white primary existed in many Southern states from 1923 to 1944 when the Supreme Court struck down all forms of the white primary. Poll taxes were used in federal elections until they were declared unconstitutional in 1964 with the passage of the 24th Amendment to the Constitution.
With the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the 24th Amendment, what is the current state of voting for minorities, and blacks in particular? The elections of 2000 and 2004 seem to provide evidence that there are still attempts to suppress the minority vote, especially for African Americans. Why would there be an attempt to prevent minority votes from counting? Because minority voters tend to vote democratic. Click on the link below to see how different ethnic groups voted for Presidential elections from 1976 – 2010. Notice how African Americans tend to vote democratic about 90% of the time. There is a growing discrepancy amongst Hispanic and Asian voters as well. The list below are some of the methods used to suppress minority votes in the last two federal elections.
Modern Methods Used to Suppress Votes
1. Have the Secretaries of State, within individual states, who have the last say in all things related to elections, be part of the state committee to elect Republican candidates. In Florida in the 2000 election, Kathleen Harris was the Republican Secretary of State who had final say on whether to conduct a recall vote or not. In the 2004 election, there were a number of Secretaries of state who served as campaign chairs to reelect Bush/Cheney in 2004. They were: Kansas; Secretary of State Rod Thornburgh: Bush-Cheney ‘04 State Campaign Associate Chair, Michigan: Secretary of State Terry Lynn Land: Co-Chair Bush-Cheney ’04 Campaign, Missouri: Secretary of State Matt Blunt: Bush-Cheney ’04 Campaign Chair, Florida: Secretary of State Glenda Hood, Ohio: Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell: Co-Chair Bush-Cheney ’04 Campaign.
2. Absentee Votes. Many voters, not trusting the voting machines in their district, have decided to turn in absentee votes. Absentee ballots are not protected by federal law. There is no guarantee that an absentee ballot will be counted. There are many methods used to nullify absentee ballots. One method is to simply throw them away. A second method is to turn voters away in minority districts because records showed they had turned in absentee ballots when in fact they had not. A third method is to send absentee ballots out too late to be sent back in to be counted. This happened in Broward County, Florida in 2004, a heavily democratic area. In the 2004 election, rejection of black absentee ballots ran 316% higher than rejections of white voters’ absentee ballots.
3. Provisional Ballots. In New Mexico, the number of “provisional ballots,” which are mandated under new federal voting rules, that went uncounted exceeded the margin of victory in the presidential race in 2004. In the 2004 election, more than one million provisional ballots were cast but not counted in the United States. Provisional ballots are alternatives to regular ballots that are provided to voters whose names do not appear on voter lists, who do not present required forms of voter identification, or who are otherwise deemed ineligible at the polls to vote normally. Meant to address widespread problems seen in the 2000 elections, they are a well-intentioned idea that has been exploited by those who would discourage certain communities from voting. The Help America Vote Act of 2002, or HAVA, set new nationwide standards intended to protect every American’s right to vote. The new rules included the provisional ballot, which voters would use if their eligibility was in doubt. The idea was that eligibility could be determined after the election, and eligible provisional ballots would be counted. Although HAVA requires a provisional ballot to be provided to anyone not given a regular ballot who asserts he or she is an eligible voter, HAVA does not require those provisional ballots to be counted. States have wide latitude to determine which, if any, provisional ballots to count, resulting in a vast number of them never being counted. Analysis of the areas where provisional ballots were least likely to be counted indicates a higher concentration in areas with large populations of African Americans and other racial minorities. Mark Salling, a Cleveland State University Professor who analyzed the discarded ballots, found they were “overwhelmingly” from African American precincts. According to the Election Assistance Commission, in the 2006 US Election 20.5 percent of all provisional ballots cast were discarded for various reasons. This meant a total of 170,872 votes which were cast provisionally were not counted. Differences occurred from state to state. In the 2006 general election, Maine counted 100% of its provisional ballots, Kentucky counted less than 7%.
4. Voting Machine Shortages and long lines. Sometimes there are not any working voting machines at a polling station and so voters are not able to vote. Sometimes a number of the machines malfunction and so voters have to wait in long lines. In the 2004 election, many voters waited in lines for well over an hour before casting their ballots. And in some places, the lines were much longer—for example, there were reports of five- and even ten-hour long lines at some precincts in Ohio. Most of the precincts with inadequate machines and long lines were located in minority districts.
5. Felon Purges. Because states control their own laws when it comes to voter eligibility, disenfranchisement varies widely. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia prohibit citizens from voting while incarcerated for a felony; Maine and Vermont are the only exceptions to the rule. The disenfranchisement of felons and ex-felons currently excludes 5.3 million Americans—disproportionately racial minorities and low-income Americans—from participating in the democratic process.1 Many blacks with no criminal records in Florida and other states were denied the right to vote because there name showed up on a list of felons. In Miami-Dade County, two-thirds of the people on the purge list were black, even though African Americans only made up 20% of the population. Nationwide, more than thirteen percent of adult African American males are denied the right to vote because of past felony convictions, and Black men make up over a third of the total disenfranchised population. 2 In six of the states that deny the right to vote to ex-offenders one in four Black men is permanently disenfranchised. The laws disproportionately affect Latino men as well: sixteen percent of Latino men will enter prison in their lifetime, compared to less than five percent of white men. 3 In 2000, Governor Jeb Bush’s administration in Florida, contracted with a private company to purge the names of convicted felons, past and present, from the voter rolls. In doing so, the company also purged the names of thousands of non-felons, mostly African Americans, who subsequently were denied the right to vote. In the 2000 presidential election, 12,000 eligible voters – a number twenty-two times larger than George W. Bush’s 537 vote triumph over Al Gore – were wrongly identified as convicted felons and purged from the voting rolls in Florida, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. African Americans, who favored Gore over Bush by 86 points, accounted for 11 percent of the state’s electorate but 41 percent of those purged. Four years later, Governor Bush came under fire when it was revealed that once again, eligible voters were wrongly listed. Bush was forced to abandon use of the list completely after news reports revealed that thousands of Hispanic voters (who tend to vote Republican in Florida) had been returned to the voter rolls, while the list continued to exclude African Americans (who tend to vote Democratic). 4
According to research from The Sentencing Project, 1 of every 13 African-American voters is disenfranchised, a rate that is more than four times the rate of non- African Americans.
6. Voter ID Requirements. A new tactic to suppress votes is the requirement that voters show specific forms of identification in order to vote. The ID most often required is a drivers license. This poses a problem for the approximately 12% of voting-age Americans – mainly the poor, racial minorities, senior citizens and students – who do not have a driver’s license.5 Those who favor ID requirements say they are necessary to reduce voter fraud. Yet, there does not seem to be any evidence that voter fraud is a problem. The Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform acknowledged that “there is no evidence of extensive fraud in U.S. elections or of multiple voting”. 6 According to a 2005 study by the Ohio League of Women Voters, out of more than nine million ballots cast in Ohio in 2002 and 2004, just four were found to be fraudulent.7 The Carter-Baker Commission proposed requiring the use of a new national photo identification card, known as a “REAL ID” card, for all voting. REAL ID cards would be highly expensive and, if they are required for voting, would appear to constitute a modern-day poll tax.
As of April 10, 2013 legislation has been introduced in a total of 30 states; this includes new voter ID proposals in 12 states, proposals to strengthen existing photo ID laws in seven states and other changes to existing photo ID laws in 11 states. You can view a summary of the voter id bills here. In August of 2016 a Federal Appeals Court struck down North Carolina’s Voter ID law. Republican leaders have insisted the law was not racist. In an interview, longtime Republican consultant Carter Wrenn, a fixture in North Carolina politics, said “Of course it’s political. Why else would you do it?” he said, explaining that Republicans, like any political party, want to protect their majority. “Look, if African Americans voted overwhelmingly Republican, they would have kept early voting right where it was.”
In January 2017, a study published in the Journal of Politics found that during a general election, the turnout gaps between white and ethnic minority voters are far higher in states where people must show ID during or after voting. The report’s authors found that in states that don’t have this criteria, there is a 4.9 percent gap between Latino and white voter turnout. In states that do require ID, this leaps to 13.2 percent. Among black voters, the gap in turnout rises from 2.9 percent to 5.1 percent; among Asians, the gap increases from 6.5 percent to 11.5 percent.
7. Racial gerrymandering originally referred to manipulating legislative district lines to under-represent racial minorities. This sort of gerrymandering was first used in the South after the Civil War to dilute the black vote. However, in 1982, the Voting Rights Act was amended to require many political jurisdictions to create “majority-minority” districts in order to allow more racial minorities to elect candidates of their choice. After the 1990 census, the Supreme Court invalidated several such redistricting plans as unconstitutionally race-conscious. Many social scientists believe racial gerrymandering is still practiced. Recent attempts by state legislatures throughout the South is clear: race is being used as a deciding factor in recreating districts for partisan advantage.
8. Other Requirements. In 2012 the state of Florida introduced controversial House Bill 1355 that has restricted early voting and voter registration campaigns. The law reduced the number of early voting days from 14 to eight in Florida and threatened independent organizations that register voters — such as the League of Women Voters — with large fines if they did not meet tight schedules for filing registration applications they collect. That latter part of the law was overturned by federal courts in August of 2012.
The law also eliminated the ability of people who have moved from one county to another, and have not officially recorded their new address, to cast a regular ballot at the polls Nov. 6. They must now cast provisional ballots. Critics say that historically only about 50 percent of provisional ballots are accepted and counted. The new law required any person registering voters to sign a sworn statement acknowledging that, if they violated any of the registration regulations, they faced criminal penalties and fines as high as $5,000, an increase from the previous maximum aggregate fine of $1,000. Those fines would apply even if inaccuracies were inadvertent. Many voter registration organizations in Florida closed down their operations after 1355 became law, afraid of incurring fines they couldn’t pay.
Effects of the Supreme Court Ruling on the Voting Rights Act of 1965
In June of 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated an integral part of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. In a 5-to-4 decision, justices ruled Congress has used obsolete information in continuing to require nine states with a history of racial discrimination to obtain federal approval for changes to voting rules. The Supreme Court ruled that sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. Section 5 required nine states and portions of seven others to get approval from the Department of Justice or the federal court in the District of Columbia before they can implement any voting changes, because of those jurisdictions’ past history and ongoing incidents of discrimination against racial minorities.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority that Section 4 is unconstitutional because the standards by which states are judged are “based on decades-old data and eradicated practices.” The decision blocks a tool the Justice Department has used to halt thousands of state and local voting changes. The Voting Rights Act was enacted to combat discrimination that kept black people away from Southern polling places for generations. A separate section of the law bars voting discrimination nationwide and isn’t affected by the high court case.
Shortly after the Supreme Court decision, a number of states introduced or passed bills that seemed to restrict the right to vote, particularly for blacks who tend to vote primarily for democrats. One week after the Supreme Court ruling, North Carolina Republicans passed sweeping changes to election law. One of the main provisions was voter identification. Of the various forms of state-issued ID, only four are valid for voting: driver’s licenses, passports, veteran’s ids, and tribal cards. Everything else is unacceptable. This includes college IDs, public or municipal employee IDs, ID from public-assistance agencies, and out-of-state driver’s licenses. Other provisions of the ban include: bans on paid voter-registration drives, removes a week from the early voting period, eliminates straight-ticket voting, repeals out-of-precinct voting, repeals a mandate for high-school voter registration drives, eliminates flexibility in early-voting hours, and makes it more difficult for precincts to designate additional voting sites for the elderly or voters with disabilities.
In late July of 2016, many of the voter suppression bills discussed above were found to be unconstitutional by federal courts. In the North Carolina case, the court found that: “the day after the Supreme Court issued Shelby County v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013), eliminating preclearance obligations, a leader of the party that newly dominated the legislature (and the party that rarely enjoyed African American support) announced an intention to enact what he characterized as an ‘omnibus’ election law. Before enacting that law, the legislature requested data on the use, by race, of a number of voting practices. Upon receipt of the race data, the General Assembly enacted legislation that restricted voting an registration in five different ways, all of which disproportionately affected African Americans. In response to claims that intentional racial discrimination animated its action, the State offered only meager justifications. Although the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision, they constitute inapt remedies for the problems assuredly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist.”
Concerning recent voting bills passed in Wisconsin, U.S. District Judge James Peterson issued a ruling that upheld the voter ID law, but struck down a number of GOP-written statutes and policies that restricted voting. Judge Peterson stated that a restriction on early voting hours “intentionally based on race”. The judge went on to further state that, “I reach this conclusion because I am persuaded that this law was specifically targeted to curtail voting in Milwaukee without any other legitimate purpose,” Peterson wrote. “The legislature’s immediate goal was to achieve a partisan objective, but the means of achieving that objective was to suppress the reliably Democratic vote of Milwaukee’s African Americans.”
Voting and Political Participation
Both majority and minority groups have long recognized that voting is a source of political power. Minority voters, especially black voters, have had an important role in national elections. Because minority voters, particularly black voters, tend to vote democratic, many democratic presidents owe their election to minority voters.
It is however, important not to overestimate the voting power of minorities. The combined total of minority voters compromises just 35% of the total voting age population. What this means is that the minority vote is more important in close elections. When the election is close (1972, 1984, 1988) and the nation is divided racially, then minorities end up on the losing side.
Although minorities make up only 35% of the voting age population, they do have some power in voting because of how many minority voters are concentrated in specific geographic areas. In large urban areas such as Washington D.C., Detroit, and New Orleans, minority voters are sufficient enough to control the political machinery. Although there are cases where black candidates have won in districts with a large white population, most of the minority mayors and congressional members have been elected from predominately minority constituencies. In the year 2000, 40% of black mayors and 70% of black congressional members were elected by mostly black constituencies. Across the country, nearly all statewide offices and all but a handful of congressional districts have electorates in which the majority of voters is white. These voters will often not elect a minority group member who speaks out in favor of major policy changes to improve the status of minorities.
Barriers to Greater Minority Political Power
Although minority groups have greater political power today than in the past, it is still fair to say that their power is limited. For any minority group to gain influence in society it is helpful to have the dominant group on board. When the issue is clear- such as segregated restaurants, it was possible to get large numbers of whites to protest against discrimination. However, if the issue is not so clear, or if a large number of whites believe that the problem has already been solved, then the influence from the majority (white) group decreases. Research indicates that today, many whites believe that there is no longer a need for the federal government to support programs to eliminate disadvantages of minority groups. One reason for this perception by whites is that they believe that for the most part, the American system offers equal opportunities to people of all races. This perception is based on the fact that in the past laws have been passed to address racial discrimination.
The Criminal Justice System and Minorities
In this section the focus will be on the day-to-day operations of our criminal justice system to see how the various minority groups are treated today. A serious examination of the American criminal justice system is necessary to understanding majority- minority relations. In the United States, African Americans are about seven times as likely as whites to be incarcerated, and about one of every four African American men in their twenties is somewhere in the criminal justice system, either in jail, on probation, on parole, or awaiting trial. 9 Imprisonment is an area where racial inequality has gotten worse since the 1980’s. The proportion of minorities among the prison population has been rising. This seems to be due in part to the fact that whites and minorities commit different types of crimes, and that these crimes are treated differently in the criminal justice system.
Crime, Public Fear, and Police Priorities
One reason for the disproportionate representation of minorities in the criminal justice system is that some crimes are easier to detect than others. For example, it is much easier for law enforcement agencies to detect street crime (rape, robbery, assault, murder) which is committed disproportionately by people of lower socioeconomic status and disproportionately minority, than it is to detect white collar or corporate crime (fraud, tax evasion, embezzlement ) which is conducted largely by those with higher socioeconomic status, who tend to be disproportionately white. Because conventional methods of crime detection, such as the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, focus on street crimes rather than white collar crimes, crimes committed by minorities will be emphasized over crimes committed by whites. Street crimes are easier to detect because:
1) The ruling elite in every country get to determine the values of a society. Being powerful, the ruling elite can influence the criminal justice system by focusing the public’s attention towards certain crimes, while ignoring others.
2) Street crimes such as murder or rape are easier to detect because there is little doubt that a crime has been committed and that there is a victim. White collar and corporate crimes are more difficult because there is not always certainty crime has been committed or who the victim is.
3) The media sensationalizes street crimes. Murders and rapes have more drama and the media gives more air time to them. With respect to local television news, the adage, “if it bleeds it leads” is often true. People then become fearful of being victims of street crime instead of being victims of white collar crime. Because people are afraid of the crimes committed most by minority group members, a racial dimension is added to detecting crimes. Because the public has a perception of crime being committed by minority group members, there is a reinforcement of prejudicial beliefs towards minority group members, particularly black males. One result of this sensationalism is that rather than seeing Africa Americans or Hispanics as groups that have been mistreated, the white public has been taught to view them as a threat.
Regardless of the perceptions of street crime, it remains a serious problem for minorities. Minorities remain concentrated in neighborhoods with high poverty rates, which increases the likelihood of being a victim of a street crime. In the majority of street crimes, the victim is the same race as the offender. This is important point to focus on. Many whites are fearful of being the victim of a street crime at the hands of a minority- especially a black person. Yet the statistics demonstrate that the majority of street crime victims suffered at the hands of someone who looked just like them. In other words, most crime that occurs is white-on-white crime, black-on-black crime, hispanic-on-hispanic crime and so on. The link below shows the FBI research from 2014 for murders by race of victim and offender.
Since white fears about crime are focused primarily on street crime committed by minorities, these fears have a strong influence on what is expected from local police departments. Because police are rewarded for solving crimes, and because street crimes are committed disproportionately by minorities, more police effort is put into solving street crimes, and thus, more minorities are placed in our criminal justice system.
A question to consider: what role does access to private space play in determining how likely someone will be apprehended by police officers for public drunkenness or drug use?
“We were looking for a white van with white people, and we ended up with a blue car with black people.”
– Washington DC Police Chief Charles Ramsey on ending the search for the “Washington Area Snipers.”
Since police can not arrest everyone they suspect of committing a crime, they need to considerable discretion in making arrest decisions. This is a critical stage in the criminal justice process. The expectations and beliefs that a police officer has about who commits crimes will influence the decision about which groups of people will be investigated more closely or who to arrest. Evidence from personal interview and surveys indicate that police officers stop and investigate people of color more than they stop whites. The stopping and investigating of people based on their race or ethnicity by law enforcement officials is called racial profiling. Research indicates that many minorities, particularly blacks and Latinos are signaled out for racial profiling. One of the most common examples of police racial profiling is “DWB”, otherwise known as “driving while black”. This refers to the practice of police targeting African Americans for traffic stops because they believe that African Americans are more likely to be engaged in criminal activity.
What are some reasons why racial profiling exists? The following are thought to contribute to racial profiling:
1. The behavior and demeanor citizens show toward the police. Citizens who have a negative perception of the police and don’t trust them will behave negatively towards them and vise versa.
2. Police often have stereotypical beliefs about minority group members. These attitudes are often shaped by the fact that street crimes , which are committed disproportionately by minorities, are easier to detect.
3. Many police departments in the United States are underrepresented by minority officers.
4. Police are viewed as “agents of control” during minority protests which makes them the protectors of the status quo. During race riots police tend to arrest more minorities than whites. This leads many blacks to express much higher dissatisfaction with police departments than whites. Many minorities see police officers as the problem, being dangerous and more of an “occupying army” than a group that is there to “protect and serve”.
The process just described helps to explain the disproportionate arrest rates for minorities.
Ending Racial Profiling?
In August of 2013 a federal judge found the New York City Police Department (NYPD) liable for a pattern and practice of racial profiling and unconstitutional stop-and-frisks in Floyd v. the City of New York. Floyd is a federal class action lawsuit filed against the City of New York that challenges the NYPD’s stop and frisk policies and practices as violations of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.
In this historic ruling, the court confirmed that the NYPD has been engaging in systemic racial profiling, illegally stopping and frisking hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Black and Latino New Yorkers, not on the basis of reasonable suspicion but because of their race. Moreover, the judge has ordered a court-appointed monitor to help bring the NYPD into compliance with the Constitution and ensure that the Department is responsible and accountable to the communities it serves.
Floyd was brought on behalf of the millions of New Yorkers who have been detained and searched without reasonable suspicion and because of their race since 2005. The suit also seeks to protect people who may be illegally stopped in the future. Community members and groups packed the courtroom throughout the trial and held daily events testifying to the impact of discriminatory policing on their communities. The court’s ruling could have important implications for police practices across the country.
Also in August of 2013, the New York city Council passed a Community Safety Act bill which call for an end to racial profiling, with a right to take legal action and creates an independent inspector general to oversee the NYPD.
In August of 2016 the US Department of Justice released a report on the Baltimore Police Department in response to the killing of Freddie Gray in March of 2015. The report found that the BPD routinely made unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests, that there was a severe racial disparity in these stops, searches, and arrests, engaged in excessive force and retaliated against people engaged in constitutionally protected expression. The investigators found that “supervisors have issued explicitly discriminatory orders, such as directing a shift to arrest ‘all the black hoodies’ in a neighborhood.” African-Americans were more likely to be subject to multiple stops in a short period of time. In the five and one-half years the report covered, African-Aamericans accounted for 95% of the people stopped at least ten times. One person was stopped 30 times in four years, with the stops resulting in no citations or criminal charges. 44% of the stops occurred in two, small predominately African-American districts that contained only 11% of Baltimore’s population. Black pedestrians were 37 percent more likely to be searched by Baltimore police citywide and 23 percent more likely to be searched during vehicle stops. But officers found contraband twice as often when searching white residents during vehicle stops and 50 percent more often during pedestrian stops, the report notes. These types of reports suggest that despite court orders, racial profiling still exists.
The payment of bail for release is another step in the criminal justice system. Many people see bail as a form of economic discrimination. Because minority populations tend to have lower incomes than whites, these groups are probably overrepresented among those who cannot make bail. One of the problems with bail is its historical use. According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, bail was sometimes used to harass Mexican Americans by keeping them in jail over the weekend. On Friday night an excessive bail would be set, but by Monday bail would be lowered to personal recognizance.10 Bail was also used to harass black civil rights workers in the South during the the 1960’s. Because bail discriminates on the basis of income, and because of how bail has been unequally applied to minorities, the bail system has generally better served the white accused than the minority accused. Estimates show that the rate of Black/African American people being detained in jail was nearly five times higher than white and three times higher than Hispanic people.16 African Americans ages 18 through 29 received significantly higher bail amounts than all other ethnic and racial groups.17
Prosecution and Conviction
The decision to bring a case to trial is also a step where the potential for discrimination exists. However, the research seems to be mixed. There are areas in the country where inequality in prosecution is a problem, but no discrimination exists in other areas. Sometimes judgments of guilt or innocence can create problems for minority suspects because of under representation of minorities on juries. The Rodney King beating case where there were no minorities on the jury is an example.
Sentencing is probably one of the most studied areas of the criminal justice system. over the past few decades many studies have been done throughout the country. The studies show that there is still discrimination in sentencing for minority defendants even after controls for such factors as the seriousness of the crime and past criminal record. One reason suggested for the disparity is that minority defendants lack the money for private attorneys, relying instead on court-appointed public defenders.
The national statistics on prison admissions and prison populations acquired data that revealed that the incarceration rates for African Americans and Hispanics are much higher than the rate for whites. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Prisoners in 2010 research, for example, 3,059 of every 100,000 African American men, 1,252 of every 100,000 Hispanic men, and 456 of every 100,000 white men were incarcerated in a state or federal prison or local jail. The incarceration rates for women, although much lower than the rates for men, revealed a similar pattern: 133 of 100,000 for African Americans, 77 of 100,000 for Hispanics, and 47 of 100,000 for whites. Between 6.6% and 7.5% of all black males ages 25 to 39 were imprisoned in 2011, which were the highest imprisonment rates among the measured sex, race, Hispanic origin, and age groups. 18 African American and Hispanic offenders who are sentenced to prison receive longer terms than whites do. “From 1988 to 1994, some 38 states and the District of Columbia reported an increase in the racial disparity in their rates of incarceration. Nationally, the black rate of incarceration in state prisons increased from 6.88 times that of whites to 7.66. One in 523 whites in the state will spend some time in prison, while for blacks the number grows to one in 53 ”11
Despite the disparity that exists in the incarceration rates for minority prisoners, there is some good news. Incarceration rates for black Americans dropped sharply from 2000 to 2009, especially for women. Incarceration rates for black women during the time frame dropped 30.7%, while for black men incarceration rates dropped 9.8% during the same time frame. Over all, blacks currently make up about 38 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons; whites account for about 34 percent.
Please visit the link below at The Sentencing Project to view the research on discrimination in sentencing.
The “War on Drugs”
Many social observers today have noticed how race and ethnicity play a role in the current War on Drugs. But this is nothing new. There has always been a connection between racial groups and the criminalization of drugs. During the 1870’s we see the first laws passed to prohibit the use of an opiate. The Chinese, who were imported to work as cheap labor building the railroads out West, brought opium with them. At first, their opium dens were tolerated. Then as anti-Chinese sentiment grew over competition for jobs, there was an effort to punish the Chinese for opium use. West Coast cities like San Francisco starting passing ordinances around 1875. These laws were aimed at the Chinese, not the drug. People’s attitudes toward a specific drug (opium) became inseparable from their feelings about that group of people (Chinese) with which the drug’s use was associated.
Around the turn of the century, more states moved to make cocaine illegal after people started associating its use with blacks. Southern whites became fearful that Negro cocaine users would become oblivious to their prescribed bonds and attack white society. A June 1900 editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association warned that “Negroes in some parts of the South are … addicted to a new form of vice, that of cocaine sniffing or the “coke habit” according to Paul Gahlinger’s history of illegal drugs. Dr. Hamilton Wright, M.D., a State Department official, referred to many as the father of American narcotics laws was before Congress in 1910 propounding the recurring theme of miscegenation with the following comments: “It has been authoritatively stated that cocaine is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes of the South and other sections of the country.” In a 1914 Literary Digest article the following statement was made: “Under its (cocaine) influence are most of the daring crimes committed . . . Most of the attacks upon white women of the South are the direct result of a cocaine crazed Negro brain.”
Marijuana, which was sold in pharmacies in the 19th century, only became illegal in the 1930s after an influx of Mexican-American immigrants popularized its recreational use and its association with black jazz musicians. Henry Anslinger stated in a newspaper letter in 1937, “I wish I could show you what a small marijuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate Spanish speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish speaking Persons, most of whom are low mentality because of social and racial conditions.” 20
Blacks constitute 13% of the country’s drug users, which indicates that they use at approximately the same rate as their makeup of the general population. However, blacks make up 37% of those arrested for drug charges, 55% of people convicted of such charges, and an astounding 74% of all people sentenced to prison as a result. According to the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2011, among persons aged 12 or older, the rate of current illicit drug use was lowest among Asians (3.8 percent). The rates were 8.4 percent among Hispanics, 8.7 percent among whites, 10.0 percent among blacks. This means that whites, blacks, and Hispanics are using drugs at approximately the same rate. According to another study, close to 80% of the country’s cocaine users are white, and the typical user is a middle-class white person. Many people believe that this alarming discrepancy is the result of mandatory minimum sentencing laws for crack cocaine which set penalties for its possession ten times higher than those for powder cocaine. Under California’s “three strikes” legislation, which mandates a twenty-five year sentence for a third felony offense, blacks were accused of a third strike at a rate seventeen times as high as whites in the Los Angeles area.12 Black cocaine users are much more likely to be arrested for crack cocaine than powder cocaine. Although surveys show that whites are more likely than blacks to have used every illegal drug except heroin, blacks are arrested and imprisoned for drugs at rates many times their share of the general population. One study shows that blacks are incarcerated for drug violations at a rate seventeen times that of whites, and Hispanics at a rate eight times that of whites. 13 The war on drugs took off during the 1980’s. The rate of drug arrests during this time remained steady for whites, but doubled for blacks. Because of this discrepancy, the war on drugs seems to have been a war on blacks who used or sold drugs. This probably also explains why the proportion of blacks in prison has risen relative to whites.
One example of the uneven treatment minorities receive in the War on Drugs is marijuana. According to the report, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” differences exist in the treatment of marijuana users. The report finds that between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million marijuana arrests in the United States, 88% of which were for possession. Marijuana arrests have increased between 2001 and 2010 and now account for over half (52%) of all drug arrests in the United States, and marijuana possession arrests account for nearly half (46%) of all drug arrests. In 2010, there was one marijuana arrest every 37 seconds, and states spent combined over $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws. In 2010, the Black arrest rate for marijuana possession was 716 per 100,000, while the white arrest rate was 192 per 100,000. Stated another way, a Black person was 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person—a disparity that increased 32.7% between 2001 and 2010.
At each stage of the criminal justice system, biases towards minorities appear to occur in some situations but not in others. If the criminal justice system were unbiased after arrest, one would expect that the percentage of minorities (particularly blacks) in prison would mirror the percentage of those arrested. But that is not the case. It could be argued that minorities commit more serious crimes. However, the research shows that the proportion of blacks among arrestees and prisoners is similar for most serious crimes. Where it differs dramatically, is for all other crimes (the majority of prisoners) where minorities are a much higher percentage of prisoners than they are of arrestees. This suggests that there is bias in the system after arrest. The effects of this bias go beyond the criminal justice system. Persons with a criminal record are labeled, which means that they experience rejection in the area of employment, credit, and social opportunities. This in turn often leads the person back to crime.
“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.
Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” – Nixon’s chief domestic advisor, John Ehrlichmann, in an interview with Dan Baum in 1994.
The Death Penalty
Other statistics also cast doubt on the equality of the nation’s justice system. Another study by the American Civil Liberties Union shows the racial bias of the application of the death penalty. Blacks constitute 13% of the general population but 35% of the death row population. In Kentucky, 1000 blacks have been murdered since 1975, but every current death row inmate is there for killing a white person. The odds of a black person receiving a death sentence for murder are 3.9 times greater than a white person accused of the same crime. Ninety-eight percent of the district attorneys in counties where the death penalty is used are white. Throughout our history race has played a role in the application of the death penalty. Research from around the country in states that have the death penalty show that the application of the death penalty is most likely when a black kills a white, next most likely when a white kills a black, somewhat less likely when a white killed a white, and least likely when a black killed a black. This sentiment was present before the Civil Rights Movement. In the early 1960’s a southern police officer told a writer, “ In this town there are three classes of homicide. If a nigger kills a white man, that’s murder. If a white man kills a nigger that’s justifiable homicide. If a nigger kills a nigger, that’s one less nigger”. 14 The evidence that the death penalty may be unfairly applied to poor and minorities was sufficient for Governor George Ryan of Illinois to commute all death sentences in 2002. In Harris County Texas,. which has a black population of 19%, African Americans represent almost 50% of the people detained in its jails, while 68% of the past 34 executions to emerge from the area involved black inmates.
Police and Minority Relations
Research over the years has shown that minorities are much less satisfied with police departments and less likely to see police as fair and friendly, than whites do.15 Several studies also show that police are more likely to investigate or make an arrest when the person making a complaint is white rather than a member of minority group. In part because of inadequate police protection and in part because of the link between poverty and street crime, minority Americans are significantly more likely than whites to be victims of a crime. According to a FBI study in 2011, 50% of murder victims were black, while blacks only constituted 13% of the population.
- Survey Shows Blacks and Whites View Police Violence Differently
- Recent Polling on Race Relations Between Police and the Black Community in America
Even though police brutality is hard to define, it is a major issue among minorities throughout the United States. Generally, police brutality is defined as the use of force by police officers beyond what is necessary to make an arrest, subdue a violent suspect, or protect the police officer from injury. Incidents between minority citizens and police officers have often been the catalyst for an outbreak of racial violence. Complaints about police brutality are much more widespread among minorities in America than among white Americans. When citizens challenge police authority or when the police hold citizens in low regard, then violent encounters between minority group members and police is more likely. The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also known as the Kerner Commission) in 1968 and the 1991 Christopher Commission report on Los Angeles, published in the aftermath of the notorious beating of Rodney King discuss the existence of police brutality towards minority groups. Many mass examples of police brutality occur after an event where a minority community believes justice was denied (Watts, 1965, Rodney King verdict 1991). Click on the links below to learn more about police brutality in the United States.
The U.S. government doesn’t track how many people are killed by the police. The FBI tracks “justifiable” police homicides, which it reports to be about 400 per year. Recently, some nongovernmental attempts to compile this data have been made. These include the Fatal Encounters database, the Gun Violence Archive, Deadspin, and Killed by Police. Data from these websites suggest the number of people killed each year may be closer to 1000.
For the last 20 years, since 1994, Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act obligates the Department of Justice to collect statistics on the extent of brutality and excessive force used by police officers, and to make those findings available to the public. 20 years down the road no such stats exist, because the Justice Departments of the Clinton, the Bush and the Obama administrations have all simply ignored the law and refuse even to try to gather the information.
2. Stolen Lives
LAPD Chief Darryl Gates responding to complaints about a string of choke-hold deaths blamed them on the physiology of blacks: “We may be finding that in some blacks, when [the choke-hold] is applied, the veins or arteries do not open as fast as they do on normal people.”
Black Lives Matter Movement
Because of the increased focus on police shootings of black people in the United States in recent years, a new social movement has emerged. The Black Lives Matter Movement saw its beginnings after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Since its beginning, the movement has been controversial. Many people have had a problem with the title of the movement and have emphasized that “all lives matter”. The killing of police officers in the summer of 2016 in Dallas and Baton Rouge have added to the negative perception of the movement. But what is the Black Lives Matter movement? The movement is an attempt to make the public aware, particularly the white community, to the discriminatory and unfair treatment the black community receives from the criminal justice system. The media tends to focus almost exclusively on relations with police officers. But the movement is also trying to draw attention to inequalities throughout the criminal justice system, from profiling to arrests to incarceration to sentencing to the War on Drugs. With respect to shootings between police and US citizens, in 2015 42 police officers were shot and killed. In the same year, according to a study done by the Guardian, 1134 American citizens were killed by police.
Despite making up only 2% of the total US population, African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths logged this year by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police. Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age. Paired with official government mortality data, this new finding indicates that about one in every 65 deaths of a young African American man in the US is a killing by police. Deaths of Americans, whether police officers or citizens, should be seen as a profound tragedy. But the discrepancy between black deaths at the hands of police and other groups, is what the Black Lives Matter movement is trying to call attention to. Most black people who shoot a police officer tend to either be shot by a police officer or sent to jail through a trial. However, the opposite is not true. Most police officers who kill a black person armed or unarmed, have confidence that they will never be charged, or if they are, that they will not be convicted. In 2015, of the 1134 people killed by police, not one resulted in a conviction. This two-tiered justice system is what the Black Lives Matter Movement is arguing should be put to an end.
Where Do We Go From Here?
It seems that U.S. citizens are exposed to almost daily reports of the difference in treatment that minorities, but in particular blacks, receive in our criminal justice system. So the question becomes, where does the U.S. criminal justice system- and American society, go from here? A report for the Economic Policy Institute titled, Mass Incarceration and the Struggle for Civil Rights has some ideas. The first idea is that there needs to be a mass campaign of education to make citizens aware of the history of how we got to where we are and the current policies in the present that maintain a dual system of justice. To summarize the major arguments in this essay, the root cause of the hyperincarceration of blacks (and in particular black men) is society’s collective choice to become more punitive. Society has chosen to fight racial economic equality using the criminal justice system (i.e., incarceration) instead of choosing to reduce racial disparities through consistent investments in social programs (such as education, job training, and employment). In addition, many communities (in particular rural areas) have benefited economically from mass incarceration by using prisons as a strategy for economic growth.
What American society has seen is more punitive crime policies and a national push for the drug war (for political gain), which led state and local law enforcement to shift their focus to policing and punishing less serious lawbreakers such as drug offenders and those committing simple assault, which in turn spurred a boom in the prison population causing state and local officials to lobby for prison construction as a tool for economic growth and leading private industry to seek opportunities for profit among the incarcerated.
The Civil Rights Movement threatened the political power of white privilege and, coupled with the flight of urban jobs created a reserve of young, idle, unemployed black youth, which paved the way for more punitive (versus rehabilitative) policies toward crime. With the help of politicians and the news media, criminal and black has become interchangeable.
The first step in genuinely constructing a real community is coming to terms with the fact that we are a racist nation. Society’s inherent beliefs about the inferiority and deviousness of African Americans have led to a dual system of justice: one for whites and another for blacks and other minorities.
The first step is to drastically reduce the prison population by seeking state and federal moratoriums on new prison constructions, amnesty for most prisoners convicted of nonviolent crimes, and repeal of excessive mandatory sentences for drug offenses. We should also look to Portugal’s example and investigate the option of decriminalizing drugs (especially since this seems to have been a successful strategy). Moreover, there needs to be a greater social push to increase the diversity of criminal justice actors with the most discretion: police officers, prosecutors, and judges. Finally, we need to redirect money used to expand incarceration towards social programs that improve the quality of education, and enhance the job skills and employment specifically of marginalized youth (e.g., poor black youth).
Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird A lawyer in the Depression-era South, defends a black man against an undeserved rape charge, and his kids against prejudice.
2. The House I Live In. From the dealer to the narcotics officer, the inmate to the federal judge, a penetrating look inside America’s criminal justice system, revealing the profound human rights implications of U.S. drug policy.
3. Kill the Messenger. A reporter becomes the target of a vicious smear campaign that drives him to the point of suicide after he exposes the CIA’s role in arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing cocaine into California. Based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb.
4. Chi-Raq. A modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, set against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago.
Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.
1. Police Brutality: An Anthology Edited by Jill Nelson
2. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
3. The Strength of the Pack by Douglas Valentine
4. Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair
Farley, John E. 2005 Majority-Minority Relations (5th Edition) Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education
Healey, Joseph F. 1998 Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class (2nd Edition) Thousand Oaks, California: Pine Forge Press
Palast, Greg 2006 Armed Madhouse United States, Penguin Publishers.
1 “Felony Disenfranchisement in the Laws in the United States.” Sentencing Project.org. 2006. Sentencing Project. 11 Aug. 2006.
2 “Felony Disenfranchisement in the Laws in the United States.” Sentencing Project.org. 2006. Sentencing Project. 11 Aug. 2006.
3 Restoring Voting Rights to Citizens with Felony Convictions. New York: Demos: A Network for Ideas and Action. 2006.2.
4 Waite, Matthew. “Florida scraps felon vote list.” St. Petersburg Times Online. 2004. St. Petersburg Times. 22 Aug. 2006.
5 Overton, Spencer. “The Carter-Baker ID Card Proposal: Worse Than Georgia.” Roll Call. 2005. Roll Call. 22 Aug. 2006.
6 Carter, Jimmy. James Baker. “Building Confidence in U.S. Elections Report of the Commission on Federal Election Reform.” CFER. 2005. CFER. 22 Aug. 2006.18.
7 Urbina, Ian. “New Registration Rules Stir Voter Debate in Ohio.” New York Times. 2006. New York Times. 22 Aug. 2006.
8 Grogger, Jeffrey “The Effects of Time Limits, the EITC, and Other Policy Changes on Welfare, Use, Work, and Income Among Female-Headed Families”. Review of Economics and Statistics, 2003, pages 394 – 408
9 Tonry, Michael 1995 “Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America” New York: Oxford University Press, p. 4.
10. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1970 pages 48 – 52
11 Brazaitis, T. (1997). Racial Disparity in Sentencing.
12 Schiraldi, Vincent (1995) “Blacks are Target of 57 percent of ‘Three Strikes’ Prosecutions in Los Angeles” Overcrowded Times 6, 2: 7
13 Brownsberger, William N. (2000) “Race Matters: Disproportionality of Incarceration for Drug Dealing in Massachusetts.” Journal of Drug Issues 30: 345 -74.
14 Banton, Michael. 1964 The Policeman in the Community. London: Tavistock. p. 173
15 Laville-Wilson, Debra, and Judi Ann Caron Sheppard 2001. “Explaining Concern About Police Brutality: How Important is Race?” Paper presented at annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Social Problems, Anaheim, Ca.
16 Estimates based on population statistics from Table 1 in Karen R. Humes, Nicholas A. Jones, and Roberto R.Ramirez, “Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010,” 2010 Census Briefs, March 2011, http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br‐02.pdf and jail population statistics from Table 6 in Todd Minton, 2012, p. 6. Estimates are lower than actual rates as they are based on total population statistics and not limited to adult population statistics.
18. Carson, E. Ann, and Sabol, William J., “Prisoners in 2011” (Washington, DC: US Dept. of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, Dec. 2012), NCJ239808, p. 8. http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p11.pdf
19 Illegal Drugs: A Complete Guide to Their History, Chemistry, Use and Abuse by Paul M. Gahlinger
20. Helmer, J. Drugs and Minority Oppression, New York: Seabury Press, 1975, p. 74 (Hereinafter “Helmer, 1975”)
Copyright ©2006, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved