There has not been a moment since the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789 that systemic racism has not influenced either the quality or quantity of justice in America.
In April 2019, The Sentencing Project submitted a report to the United Nations that revealed the following stark conclusions:
- African-Americans are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated than white Americans;
- African-Americans comprised 27 percent of all people arrested in the U.S. in 2016, double their share of the nation’s total population while Black juveniles comprised 35 percent of the U.S. juvenile arrests that year;
- Black Americans are 5.9 times as likely as white Americans to be incarcerated;
- Latinos are 3.1 times as likely as white Americans to be incarcerated;
- One in three African-American boys born in the second year of this century would end up in prison;
- 56 percent of the nearly 300,000 drug offenders in the nation’s prison systems are African-American;
- 48 percent of the more than 200,000 offenders serving life or “virtual life” sentence are African-American;
- Prosecutors are more likely to charge African-Americans with offenses that carry heavier sentences than whites;
- Federal prosecutors are twice as likely to charge Black Americans with offenses that carry a mandatory minimum than whites;
- Racism overwhelming affects parole release decisions to the disadvantage of African-American offenders; and
- Racism among corrections officials infects the prison disciplinary system to the disadvantage of African-American inmates.
This 2019 report’s conclusions, based primarily on 2016 data, reflect the “state of justice” in this Country for people of color. These same conclusions, and much worse ones, have existed every moment through every year in America since before 1789. People of color in the U.S. have always received the chaff of justice while white people, who have ruled the American justice system, received the wheat.
These conclusions remain the reality for people of color to this very day.
Blacks and Latinos More Likely to be Sent to Prison
On September 9, 2020, the Harvard Law School released the results of a year-long study documenting disparities in the criminal justice system through sentencing. The study found that Black and Latino defendants in Massachusetts (the ninth state to ratify the Constitution) are more likely to be sent to prison for drug and weapons offenses than white defendants charged with similar offenses.
The report’s researchers from the law school’s Criminal Justice Policy Program found that drug and weapons offenses have long carried “racialized stigmas.” One of the reasons Black defendants are more likely to go to prison is that prosecutors—most of whom are white—charge them with more serious offenses at the outset. As the study concluded:
“The penalty in incarceration length is largest for drug and weapons charges, offenses that carry longstanding racialized stigmas. We believe that this is consistent with racially disparate initial charging practices leading to weaker initial positions in the plea bargaining process for Black defendants, which then translate into longer incarceration sentences for similar offenses.”
Blacks Incarcerated 8X Than Whites
This latest Harvard study is identical to the results found by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission in 2014. That study found that Black offenders are incarcerated at a rate of 8 times higher than white offenders. In contrast, Latino offenders are incarcerated at a rate of 5 times higher than white offenders.
The chief counsel for the Massachusetts’ public defender agency, Anthony Benedetti, said the Harvard research “shows more of what we have known for years – that Black and Latinx men and women unfairly experience significantly worse outcomes than do their white peers … They are pushed into the criminal legal system earlier, are sucked in deeper, and they are held within its clutches longer.”
The Harvard study, while laudable, is not extraordinary. Its results demonstrate what has been practiced in this Country since 1789—people of color are discriminated against at every stage of the nation’s legal system. This unequal and unfair process today is more commonly referred to as “systemic racism.”
Leadership Fails to Acknowledge Historical Facts
Still, the President of the United States does not believe in systemic racism. U.S. Attorney General William Barr does not believe in systemic racism. Many federal and state lawmakers—most of whom are white—do not believe in systemic racism. Some of these people also do not believe that slavery was an “institutional evil” or that segregation was necessarily bad.
In effect, they believe in white racial supremacy. This was the core belief system upon which this nation was founded and has influenced its governance throughout its nearly 250-year history. Fortunately, a growing number of officials now recognize that “systemic racism” is not only real but that it was has created far-reaching inequities both inside the criminal justice system and out, just as intended.
Waco Lynching of Jesse Washington
The Jesse Washington case should stand as a historical reminder.
In May 1916, Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old African-American, was snatched up by Waco, Texas law enforcement authorities—if they can properly be called that—for the brutal of Lucy Fryer, the white woman for whom Washington worked. Covered in blood at the time of his arrest, Washington quickly confessed under coercion and duress. Given racial abuses by police during this time, we cannot know whether his confession was accurate.
Texas justice had Washington in a courtroom for trial on May 15, 1916—exactly one week after the Fryer murder occurred. The conviction was swift as 1500 people gathered inside and around the courthouse, and it took the jury just three minutes to convict and impose a sentence of death against Washington.
The Waco residents were not satisfied. They wanted immediate vengeance. Texans at the time believed in their historical “right to lynch” authority. In 1885 alone, nineteen lynch mobs took their so-called racial justice into their own hands, lynching 19 African-Americans. The year before the Fryer murder, lynch mobs in the Lone Star State brutally lynched 32 people, mostly Black men.
Before 17-year-old Washington could be taken to jail, the crowd snatched him from the courtroom, dragged him outside where he was brutally beaten, stabbed, mutilated, and chained. He was then dragged to a nearby tree in front of the city hall where he was burned alive. By then, the crowd had swelled to 15,000, prompting the local mayor to summon the town’s newspaper to capture photos of the horrible incident. Everyone laughed and patted each other on the back while the black teenager screamed in agony. People lined up to be photographed with the charred remains of the 17-year-old, while others cut off his pieces of his body as souvenirs. Some of the photos of the lynching were printed onto post-cards and sent out of state. In fact, people involved in the lynching posed for photos during the lynching, knowing they would never be questioned or charged. No one was ever prosecutor for this vigilante murder, despite photographic evidence of the lynching in progress.
History of Texas Justice
The Jesse Washington lynching became another symbol of Texas justice, a particular type of “justice” perpetrated against Blacks since before the founding of this Country.
From this symbol of justice, “systemic racism” continues and is why justice will never prevail in this Country until the legal system is truly reformed and these historical wrongs are acknowledged and addressed.