Race and the Legal System: A Perspective Check

As I have blogged occasionally about the [tag]Jena 6[/tag] I have been reminded of the very different perspectives that different people have on issues such as this. For white residents of Jena, a common theme has been the defense of their community, pointing out that they are not bad people, that they have a good community, and they have many positive values. Of course, they want to avoid the label “racist” which is so negative in our society. (For an interesting take on the radioactive nature of the words “racist” and “racism” see The Difficult Discussions People Don’t Want to Have by Pam Spaulding on Pandagon.)

For many of the African-American folks in that community, it is important to get the word out that they are not yet equal under the law, despite the desire of many of us to declare racism dead. They believe they are not being treated equally, and they want to be heard on the point.

For the large law and order constituency around the country the issue has largely been whether the young men who were charged did things that could be properly construed as fitting the charges. If they did, then of course punishment was appropriate. How can anyone question their treatment if they’re guilty?

For others, the primary focus is on annoying politicians. If one can catch Al Sharpton making an intemperate statement or glorifying these young men, then one has ammunition to attack any and all defenders. On the other hand, if one can find some white supremacists supporting the legal system, then one can use that to indict the system.

There are yet others who look for heroes or villains in black and white (pun intended), good young men who have been downtrodden by an evil system, or evil young men being supported by dupes. But the fact is that justice generally operates somewhere in the huge range of gray in between. We have no guarantee that only the guilty are punished. If you believe that the vote of 12 people really provides some kind of a guarantee, let me suggest you’re naive.

This whole situation connected with my own experience suddenly when I was reading a post on this issue from Michael L. Westmoreland-White, Racial Bias in the U.S. Courts: The Case of the Jena 6, when something clicked for me. I know conversations on this topic are difficult. We need to take a careful look at the problems involved from a different perspective.

This is no great revelation. It’s come to me before. I just hadn’t applied it in this particular case, and it’s something we need to do all the time. Reading the post above led me to this site, amongst many others, which provide some statistics. Please go to the site and see the more detailed information, but here’s something that gives a summary:

The official figures confirm what those who live in African-American communities know full well — too many blacks are behind bars, particularly black men. Indeed, nearly five percent of all black men, compared to 0.6 percent of white men, are incarcerated.5 In many states the rate is far worse. According to Human Rights Watch’s calculations based on the 2000 U.S. Census, in twelve states more than ten percent of black men ages 18 to 64 are incarcerated.6 The Justice Department reports that nationwide, a similar percentage of black men in the ages 20-29 are behind bars.

Now here’s the thing. What is my first reaction to reading these statistics? Well, I want to “put them in perspective.” I want to ask just how many crimes are being committed by blacks as opposed to whites, I want to know what’s happening at their trials. I don’t want to be deceived by statistics. That’s one type of perspective. It has a great deal of value.

But there’s another one. If I hold a conversation on this topic with an African American, he or she is at least five times more likely than I am to have someone close who has had a negative encounter with police. Whether this is right or wrong, whether the police were absolutely pure in their motives and methods or not, this is bound to create a different perspective on the problem. I’m talking about how some theoretical person should be treating some other theoretical person. My worst brushes with the law have involved a couple of traffic warnings. I haven’t even gotten a ticket.

In learning to discuss this issue and seek solutions, I think this other perspective is more important. Somewhere in there we need to talk about crime levels, but we need to start by understanding that our experiences in approaching the problems are vastly different. It’s easy for me to say, “Well, if he’s guilty, we need to get him.” My African-American neighbor justly wants to ask, “If he’s white and he’s equally guilty, is he equally likely to go to prison.”

In the middle of all this we ought to ask another question–not my topic, but I’m going to mention it. With such high levels of incarceration in the African-American community do we also see a comparable reduction in crime that can be attributed to all this punishment? One of our great assumptions in this country is that more draconian punishments will produce less crime. It’s worth asking whether this is, in fact, true.

Let me just give an experience that help me with a perspective check. This occurred when I was 17 years old and newly employed. I was driving my employer’s van in order to pick up supplies, and I was traveling on a six lane street (3 in each direction) in a southern city. I was driving about 35 mph in a 35 mph zone, and was in the far left lane. A dump track in the far right lane carrying bags of garbage lost one bag. He was moving slower than I was–I would estimate about 25 mph. As I was passing the driver, he chose to swing from the far right lane to the left lane, pinned me against the media, and hit the right rear of my van. It turned out in addition that he was planning a U-Turn directly in front of a “No U-Turn” sign.

Now I was 17 and naive. I had also just returned from living with my missionary parents in Georgetown, Guyana, South America, where I had been the sole white member of my youth group, another perspective-altering experience. What does this have to do with the story? Well, the driver of the dump truck was a black man in his 60s. He simply kept telling the investigating officer that he had his signal light on, something which did not impress that guy at all.

Now you would think that the man was in enough trouble as it was. But when the officer handed me the accident report to sign, he had reversed our speeds. Now my speed read 25 mph, while the dump truck’s speed read 35 mph. Since I was going 35 myself and I had been passing the dump truck, I knew this was not possible. I pointed it out to the officer. He gave me a condescending look and said, “It doesn’t matter. Just sign it.”

Between that and the experience of testifying in court, I discovered that this black man in his 60s simply didn’t mean as much to the officers or the court system. I even mentioned the speed discrepancy in my testimony, but it was ignored completely. The appearance was left that rather than turning into my vehicle during a lane change while I was passing him, he had sped forward and practically rammed my vehicle.

I really don’t know the motivations of the officer for certain, but the lack of respect with which he treated the other driver provides evidence for the obvious. I was a nice, respectful, apparently intelligent white teen, and he was ready to make it look as good for me and as bad for the other guy as possible, even when that wasn’t necessary. I don’t know enough about the penalties involved to determine whether the changes impacted the sentencing.

I try to put myself in that man’s place from time to time. What if he had discovered a body? Is it possible the report would have made him look guilty of murder? Could he feel certain he would be treated fairly in such a case? His experience is bound to tell him he could not. In order for us to conduct a serious conversation on these issues, that perspective must be recognized.

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