Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Seeing Green: Why the Penal System Isn't Colorblind. (Race Matters)

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Seeing Green: Why the Penal System Isn't Colorblind. (Race Matters)

Article excerpt

A recent University of Maryland study found that African Americans who kill whites are much more likely to get the death penalty than others convicted of the same crime. Nationwide, a black teenager convicted of a drug crime is 48 times more likely to be sentenced to prison than a white one.

It's not news that race matters in our criminal justice system. What doesn't get enough attention, and should, is that for the last two decades the "war on drugs" has helped make racial disparities in our penal system get much worse very quickly. In 1950, a black person was four times as likely as a white one to be in prison; today, that has worsened to more than seven times. Four out of five state drug prisoners are African American or Latino, although these groups comprise only 22 percent of drug users (and 25 percent of the U.S. population). And these disparities permeate every level of the criminal justice system, from policing to parole (see "Equal Justice?" p.24).

Systemic and individual racism are part of the story here, but they can't explain why prison race ratios have gotten so much worse since 1950, even as many parts of our society have shown improvement. In order to understand why our system is not colorblind, we're going to have to learn to see the color green.

Consider this thought experiment: Imagine if the United States allowed, and even encouraged, public servants to take bribes in exchange for preferential treatment in arrests, charges filed, and plea bargains. Since there is a big wealth gap between whites and minorities in this country--the typical African-American household owned about 8 percent of what a white one did at the end of the 1990s, and black unemployment is double the rate for whites--we wouldn't be surprised to see racial disparities show up in arrests, charges, and convictions.

Of course, we don't live in a system where bribery is common; we just live in an eerie simulation of one. Once a society commits to the numbers game of mass arrests and long incarcerations for petty drug crimes, money is going to play a key role in criminal justice disparities. This is true even when individual officials are acting with the best of intentions. Want to put away as many drug dealers as possible on a limited vice squad budget? …

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