Last year, an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot dead by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The incident sparked widespread and violent protests and, when the police officer was later not indicted for the shooting, many commentators accused the American justice system of being racist. It’s an accusation that even the President, Barack Obama, has leveled in the past, but how true is it?
Young Black Men Go To Jail, Not College
The first statistic that is often brought up to support this argument is the percentage of African-Americans currently incarcerated in US jails. Although only 13% of the American population are African-American, almost 60% of the US prison population is made up of this particular demographic. Indeed, in 2008, Obama suggested that ‘more young black men languish in prison than attend colleges and universities across America’. However, this is actually not true.
Figures for 2009, the latest available, indicated that the black male college and university population outnumbered the black jail population by over 600,000. Despite disproving this oft-propagated myth, this statistic does nothing to dispel the accusation being discussed in this article.
Are African-Americans Being Wrongly Arrested?
The disparity between the black population as a whole and the black prison population seems to suggest that African-Americans are either being excessively sentenced or, even worse, wrongly jailed, by the American justice system. Several commentators vehemently oppose this, suggesting that the over-representation of African-Americans in US jails is a social, rather than a judicial problem.
Larry Elder highlights that, although African-Americans only make up just over one-tenth of the population, they contributed to more than a quarter of US arrests in 2010 and 38.1% of the nationwide total arrests for incidents of violent crime. Suspect identification cannot be that inaccurate in cases of serious crime, so these numbers suggest that black crime is to blame for the disproportionate prison population, rather than a racist justice system. The problem, in this case, would lie with Obama and the politicians, rather than those employed in criminal justice jobs.
Does The Media Exacerbate Things?
It could be argued that cases such as Ferguson and the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody are picked up upon by national and international media, skewing public perception of the issues of race and justice. Yes, occasionally people have been wronged, but there are also white people who have been wrongly accused of committing a crime and who currently sit on Death Row. Should the justice system be accused of being wholly incompetent because a small percentage of cases like this slip through the net?
There are a number of arguments that could be presented to accuse the American justice system of being racist. Are black people being overtly discriminated against purely on the basis of the color of their skin? Are black people more likely to commit crimes than white people? If so, why? The American justice system currently imprisons more people than ever and, if it is going to implement reform, needs to answer these questions.
Readers, I would love to have an open conversation about this. What are your thoughts? If we agree there is a problem with the justice system, how do we fix it?
[Photo Credit: Free Digital Photos]