Obama, Race, and Justice

In the president's recent remarks on Trayvon Martin, a somber reminder of the systemic odds minorities face when it comes to criminal justice.
Obama july 19.jpg
Larry Downing/Reuters

"It is a real calamity, in this country, for any man, guilty or not guilty, to be accused of crime, but it is an incomparably greater calamity for any colored man to be so accused. Justice is often painted with bandaged eyes. She is described in forensic eloquence, as utterly blind to wealth or poverty, high or low, white or black, but a mask of iron, however thick, could never blind American justice, when a black man happens to be on trial."

-Frederick Douglass, Washington D.C., April 16, 1883, on the Twenty-first anniversary of the Emancipation in the District of Columbia.

The President's remarks on race Friday were remarkable for many reasons. Let me focus upon the one (and the only one) I feel qualified to discuss: Barack Obama was spot-on in his blunt and gloomy assessment of the racial disparities (still) inherent in the nation's criminal justice systems. He was even more insightful in reminding the rest of us about some of the ways in which those disparities contribute to the skepticism and frustration many minority citizens feel about the nation's unfulfilled dream of equal justice.

Here from his Friday remarks are the two relevant paragraphs:

The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

Now, this isn't to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It's not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.

One could write a million words and still not plumb the depths of those disparities or their disheartening impact upon those whose lives they shape. For all the talk about a post-racial America, an era the President himself wisely has not announced as here, the unalterably sad truth is that 226 years after the Constitution was born our justice systems still don't uniformly deliver justice equally among the races. What the President is saying here, and what is undeniably true no matter how hard we might try to deny it, is that if you are black or Hispanic in America you very often get a different kind of "justice" than you do if you are white.

"Everything from the death penalty..."

Let's start, as President Obama did, with capital punishment. From an April 2013 report by Amnesty International titled "Death by Discrimination, the Continuing Role of Race in Capital Cases":

The population of the USA is approximately 75 per cent white and 12 per cent black. Since 1976, blacks have been six to seven times more likely to be murdered than whites, with the result that blacks and whites are the victims of murder in about equal numbers. Yet, 80 per cent of the more than 840 people put to death in the USA since 1976 were convicted of crimes involving white victims, compared to the 13 per cent who were convicted of killing blacks.

Less than four per cent of the executions carried out since 1977 in the USA were for crimes involving Hispanic victims. Hispanics represent about 12 per cent of the US population. Between 1993 and 1999, the recorded murder rate for Hispanics was more than 40 per cent higher than the national homicide rate.

Study after study after study after study after study after study has chronicled the details behind these statistics on the state level. The federal death penalty, too, is driven by a clear racial divide and by what some scholars now see as the "racial geography" of capital cases. There also are legitimate concerns about racial disparities in capital cases brought by military prosecutors. In Texas, a condemned man named Duane Buck personifies much of this. He was the victim of racial bias at his trial and, after that racial bias was disclosed he has been the victim of more unequal protection by state and federal officials. Still he sits on death row. Still judges and legislators conjure up arguments to keep him there.

The folks at the Equal Justice Initiative, who have conducted extensive research about the continuing existence of racial disparities in jury selection in the South, offer some context in one jurisdiction about how these figures come to mean what they do to minority citizens:

Racial discrimination remains a dominant feature of criminal justice in the United States and Alabama. More than half of the 3125 people on death row nationwide are people of color; 42% are African American. Prominent researchers have demonstrated that a defendant is more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is black. The key decision makers in death penalty cases across the country are almost exclusively white. Despite decades of evidence showing that the administration of the death penalty is permeated with racial bias, courts and legislatures' refusal to address race in any comprehensive way reveals a fundamental flaw in America's justice system.

Each year in Alabama, nearly 65% of all murders involve black victims, yet 80% of the people currently awaiting execution in Alabama were convicted of crimes in which the victims were white. Only 6% of all murders in Alabama involve black defendants and white victims, but over 60% of black death row prisoners have been sentenced for killing someone white.

Although black people in Alabama constitute 27% of the total population, none of the 19 appellate court judges and only one of the 42 elected District Attorneys in Alabama is black. Nearly 63% of the Alabama prison population is black. The State of Alabama disenfranchises more of its citizens as a result of criminal convictions than any other state in the country.

"... to enforcement of the nation's drug laws..."

Presented by

Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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