Don’t Lose Focus on Justice Issues

[Note: This editorial was published in 2013 as part of a series marking the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. I chose to focus on the Justice System at a time when many mainstream Americans were not paying much attention to it. With the protests following several high-profile police killings, everybody from the President of the United States to John Q Citizen is speaking out on criminal justice issues.]

Dr. Elsie L. ScottDr. Scott

This year, we are celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. As African Americans, we are pleased that this country has progressed from the forced enslavement of a race of people to the removal of the Jim Crow laws.

We are also celebrating the reelection of a man of African descent to a second term as President of the United States. There is a lot to celebrate in 2013, but there is still have a lot of work ahead.

One of the areas that that is seriously flawed is the “justice system”. It is commonly known that the U.S. incarcerates more of its citizens than any other industrialized country. The fact that a disproportionate number of the persons convicted and imprisoned are African Americans is troubling.

According to statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), in 2010, 4,347 out of every 100,000 black males were incarcerated in a state, federal or local facility. This number is seven times higher than the number of white males incarcerated. In 2010, African Americans made up 38 percent of the total state prison population compared to 34 percent whites and 21 percent Hispanics.

When arrest data is compared to prison data, the percentage of blacks in the total arrest numbers (27.8 %) is found to be ten percent lower than the percentage incarcerated. This seems to indicate that blacks are more likely to be convicted and sentenced to incarceration than whites.

An examination of felony conviction data shows that black felony convictions are more likely to result in incarceration than white felony convictions. According to BJS data for 2006, 39 percent of persons convicted on felonies were black and 60 percent were white.

Conviction data show that whites who are convicted are less likely to be incarcerated (66% to 72% blacks). For drug offenses, 72 percent of blacks convicted were incarcerated in 2006 compared to 61 percent of whites. Only 59 percent of whites convicted of drug trafficking were incarcerated compared to 70 percent of blacks. The mean maximum sentence imposed by state courts on white felons was 37 months compared to 42 months for black felons. If violent offenses are isolated, the statistics show that mean maximum prison sentence given to whites was 99 months, but the mean for blacks was 108 months.

Why are such large numbers of blacks in prison? There is the need to drill down into the issue of race and the criminal justice system. One can start with drug offenses. A large percentage of blacks have been incarcerated for drug-related offenses, including drug usage, yet, studies have shown that five times more drug users are white than black.

As long as many see the image of crime as a black man, this country will struggle with addressing race in the criminal justice system. Young black boys will continue to be placed in the prison pipeline beginning with childish pranks or school misbehavior. School discipline must be dealt with by the school system and not the criminal justice system. More must be done to reduce school dropouts because two-thirds of school dropouts are ending up in the criminal justice system.

Some good strides have been made around addressing the drug sentencing problems, but more need to be done. Drug usage and addiction are not criminal justice issues.

As the country reduces incarceration numbers, the issue of returning ex-inmates to the community must be addressed. Barriers to housing and employment, are giving them few legal options as they try to becoming productive citizens. They must automatically receive a restoration of their civil rights or they must be given a clear pathway to restoration.

So as we celebrate the equality and justice anniversaries, let us not lose focus on the justice issues that still loom before us.

Can’t We Just All Get Along

Can’t We Just All Get Along
Dr. Elsie L. Scott
Director, Ronald W. Walters Leadership & Public Policy Center
Howard University

When Rodney King finally spoke after his beating by Los Angeles police officers, many were expecting him to say something about his beating, but he uttered the words, “Can’t we just all get along?”
These words came to me when I realized that today, April 29, was the 22nd anniversary of the verdict in the Rodney King case was issued, and rioting started in Los Angeles. There are no cities burning today, but the headlines and the blogs are full news and reflections on race in light of the leaked tape of Donald Sterling. It is not just the Sterling case that has us talking about race. It is also the Cliven Bundy case and the Supreme Court decision in Schuette v. Bamn. These are the topics of the day, but there will be other race-related topics in the future because we refuse to deal with the race issue in this country.
People of African descent were held in involuntary servitude for close to 250 years. Then a proclamation was issued stating that they are free, and later some Constitutional amendments were added to give them legal standing. The “freed” people were not given land or compensation for their labors. No schools or few schools were established to educate their children, but they were expected to catch up with the born free citizens. When they started businesses and found other ways to provide for their families, their businesses were destroyed, their rights were taken away, they were re-enslaved through the criminal justice system, and they were asked why they could not succeed like others.
Many blacks have tried to just get along and have found themselves falling further behind economically through unfair labor, banking and legal practices. They have tried to get along and found discrimination in housing. They have tried to get along and found they have been profiled, restricted, labeled and stereotyped.
Despite the dream of many Caucasian Americans that they would not have to deal with the issue of race, race issues are woven into the fabric of American society. The framework was established by the founding fathers when they allowed slavery to be legalized, and they allowed enslaved people to be defined as property. There was an opportunity to do something about it when slavery was abolished, but weak government “leaders” allowed the defeated South to continue a form of enslavement.
Notwithstanding all that African Americans have gone through, many have tried to find a way to just get along. Affirmative action was seen as one way to make the playing field even and to adjust for some of the past discrimination, but the term “reverse discrimination” was coined and this measure was stripped of its effectiveness.
What seems to be the final nail in the affirmative action coffin is the recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Schuette v. Bamn. Affirmative action was needed because we all cannot just get along. The University of Michigan, in arguing for keeping the policy, stated that universities must have race-sensitive admissions plans to ensure diversity.
We have seen the impact that the change in admissions policy has had on California universities. At UCLA, for example, only three percent of the law students are black (33 out of roughly 1,100 students).
It was sad to watch two black female law students on the Melissa Harris Perry Show talk about what it means to be part of the three percent. The experiences they talked about were similar to my experience as the only black in my graduate school program at Iowa years ago. (I was the only black in my program, and we had no black professors.)
Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his majority opinion in Schuette, essentially stated that the will of the people supersedes concerns about racial equality as long as it does not violate the Constitution. He seemed to question “race-based categories” (affirmative action) when he wrote: “Government action that classifies individuals on the basis of race is inherently suspect and carries the danger of perpetuating the very racial divisions the polity seeks to transcend.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a brilliant dissent in this case. She outlined three prominent areas in which race matters. “Race matters…because of the long history of racial minorities being denied access to the political process.” “Race also matters because of persistent racial inequality in society.” “And race matters for reasons that really are only skin deep, that cannot be discussed any other way, and that cannot be wished away.”
We did not magically enter into a post-racial society when an African American was elected president. Many people had hoped that they would not have to hear anything else about racial discrimination and inequality. They hoped that we could just all get along, but nothing had been done to weed out the Donald Sterlings and Cliven Bundys.

It is not just the white men over 60 who are preventing us from just getting along. There are numerous hate incidents of college campuses such as the white students at San Jose State University barricading their Black roommate his room, displaying a Confederate flag, writing the word “nigger” on a white board in a common area, attaching a metal bicycle lock around his neck and calling him “three-fifths”. Black faculty at majority institutions are being charged with discrimination for highlighting black history, and young white people moving into inner cities are not showing respect for the institutions and culture of original residents–black people.

No, we cannot just all get along because the majority refuses to admit that race matters and that racial discrimination and inequality are still prevalent in society. No, we cannot just all get along because to too many people, getting along means subservience for people of a darker hue. We cannot just all get along because we are not all starting from the same place. We cannot just all get along because there is no real communication between the races. No, we cannot just all get along because people in the U.S. want to be able to wish away racial problems, by closing their eyes and by some type of magic, we would all just get along.