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1.6: A Racist System?

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     The United States today can be described as both multiracial and multiethnic. This has led to racism. Racism is the belief that members of one race are inferior to members of another race. Because white Americans of European heritage are the majority, racism in America usually takes on the character of whites against racial and ethnic minorities. Historically, these ethnic minorities have not been given equal footing on such important aspects of life as employment, housing, education, healthcare, and criminal justice. When this unequal treatment is willful, it can be referred to as racial discrimination. The law forbids racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, just as it does in the workplace.

    Bigotry is not present in every facet of the criminal and juvenile justice systems, but there are possible incidents of prejudice within both systems. Discrimination has taken place in such areas as criminal sentencing, use of force by police, and the imposition of the death penalty. One topic of recent discussion is a disparity in federal drug policy. While much has recently changed with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, federal drug law was a prime example of disproportion impacts on minority populations.

    Courts are not immune to cries of racism from individuals and politically active groups. The American Civil Liberties Union (2014), for example, states, "African-Americans are incarcerated for drug offenses at a rate that is 10 times greater than that of whites." The literature on disproportionate minority sentencing distinguishes between legal and extralegal factors. Legal factors are those things that we accept as legitimately, as a matter of law, mitigating or aggravating criminal sentences. Such things as the seriousness of the offense and the defendant's prior criminal record fall into this category. Extralegal factors include things like class, race, and gender. These are regarded as illegitimate factors in determining criminal sentences. They have nothing to do with the defendant's criminal behavior, and everything to do with the defendant's status as a member of a particular group.

    One way to measure racial disparity is to compare the proportion of people that are members of a particular group (their proportion in the general population) with the proportion or that group at a particular stage in the criminal justice system. In 2013, the Bureau of the Census (Bureau of the Census, 2014) estimated that African-Americans made up 13.2% of the population of the United States. According to the FBI, 28.4% of all arrestees were African-American. From this information we can see that the proportion of African-Americans arrested was just over double what one would expect. The population of African-Americans is 13.2%, however they are arrested at a percentage that is double (28%) of their population. This demonstrates they may be arrested more often than would be expected.

    The disparity is more pronounced when it comes to drug crime. According to the NAACP (2014), "African Americans represent 12% of the total population of drug users, but 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those in state prison for a drug offense." There are three basic explanations for these disparities in the criminal justice system. The first is individual racism. Individual racism refers to a particular person's beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors. This type of racism manifests itself when the individual police officer, defense attorney, prosecutor, judge, parole board member, or parole officer is bigoted. Another explanation of racial disparities in the criminal justice system is institutional racism. Institutional racism manifests itself when departmental policies (both formal and informal), regulations, and laws result in unfair treatment of a particular group. A third (and controversial) explanation is differential involvement in crime. The basic idea is that African-Americans and Hispanics are involved in more criminal activity. Often this is tied to social problems such as poor education, poverty, and unemployment.

    While it does not seem that bigotry is present in every facet of the criminal and juvenile justice systems, it does appear that there are pockets of prejudice within both systems. It is difficult to deny the data: Discrimination does take place in such areas as use of force by police and the imposition of the death penalty. Historically, nowhere was the disparity more discussed and debated than in federal drug policy. While much has recently changed with the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, federal drug law was a prime example of institutional racism at work.


    Think about it . . . Racism in Law Enforcement

    “Is racism an intractable problem for the police, or can other factors explain the disparate rate at which African-Americans are stopped and arrested?”

    This is the introduction to a New York Times opinion series called “Black, White, and Blue” which consist of several opinion articles written for the NYT on the subject of racism in American law enforcement. Read these articles. Do you agree with their conclusions and solutions? Disagree? Why?

    1.6: A Racist System? is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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