How the U.S. criminal justice system became wide-spread racial profiling

April 10, 2015
A still image taken from police dash cam video allegedly shows Walter Scott running from his vehicle during a traffic stop in North Charleston

A still image taken from police dash camera video allegedly shows Walter Scott running from his vehicle during a traffic stop before he was shot and killed by white police officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, South Carolina, April 7, 2015. REUTERS/South Carolina Law Enforcement Division/Handout

Walter Scott, a 50-year-old black man killed by a South Carolina police officer during a chase that millions of people have now viewed on video, is the latest victim of a criminal justice system whose tentacles have reshaped the very nature of American democracy.

This latest shooting illustrates how the relationship between law enforcement and poor and working-class communities of color requires a fundamental transformation. The necessary political and policy changes will need to be amplified by a cultural shift that can stop the criminalization of black and brown bodies in the United States.

The simple reason why police officers can often routinely brutalize and, in certain horrific instances such as Scott’s, even execute black citizens is the consent they essentially receive from the U.S. criminal justice system and other political and civic institutions.

Inmates walk around a gymnasium where they are housed due to overcrowding at the California Institution for Men state prison  in Chino

Inmates are housed in a gymnasium due to overcrowding at the California Institution for Men state prison in Chino, California, June 3, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Over the past 35 years, America’s criminal justice system, swept up by the hysteria over the rise of crack cocaine and the broader War on Drugs, has transformed into a system of racial control, oppression and containment that has often turned the idea of black citizenship into an Orwellian nightmare. Racial disparities in death sentences between whites and blacks became glaring enough to help change former pro-death penalty Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun into a notable dissenter by 1994.

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander’s bestselling The New Jim Crow revealed a stunning indictment of a criminal justice system that has allowed wide-scale racial profiling lead to mass arrests, incarceration for nonviolent offenses and, for those who leave prison, a segregated existence that in too many ways replicates the political disfranchisement of racial apartheid.

Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged as much in his 2013 speech granting federal prosecutors more discretion in handling drug-crime cases. The police are the tip of the spear in a system that includes prosecutors, judges, probation officers and politicians.

Democrats and Republicans have both contributed to this new status quo. President Ronald Reagan, the conservative icon, signed the 1980s antidrug bills that effectively racialized drug crimes; users and dealers of crack cocaine (many of whom are black) are punished far more harshly than users of powdered cocaine (many of whom are white). President Bill Clinton, who Toni Morrison once called the nation’s “first black president,” signed crime and welfare reform bills that blocked ex-offenders’ access to public housing, food stamps and other vital support. Many lost voting rights as well.

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Riot police clear demonstrators from a street in Ferguson, Missouri, August 13, 2014. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Even as national crime rates declined throughout the 1990s, the federal government, through its Byrne grants, distributed billions of dollars to state and local law enforcement authorities. The resulting militarization of many police forces appeared to offer police another incentive to detain and arrest some of the most vulnerable citizens.

The justice system’s punitive nature and rapacious appetite mean that blacks who are released from prison often have too little opportunity available. Former inmates suffer high rates of unemployment, lack resources to complete education, cannot vote and can be returned to jail for a litany of nonviolent offenses, among them failure to pay child support, the reason Scott is suspected of having run from the officer.

The elephant in the room is that America’s three-decade-long prison boom, which now accounts for about 2 million inmates from roughly 350,000 inmates in 1980, has been largely driven by drug arrests and what looks like a targeting of black and brown men and women.

Police shootings of unarmed black men are the most visible manifestations of a virtual normalization of black criminality. U.S. politicians and the public often appear to lack empathy and presume guilt in connection with many people of color.

Inmate firefighters line up for dinner at the Rim Fire camp near Buck Meadows, California

Inmate firefighters line up for dinner at the Rim Fire camp near Buck Meadows, California, August 26, 2013. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

The recommendations from the Obama administration’s interim taskforce on policing in the 21st century do not fully acknowledge the scale of this crisis. Law enforcement’s tentacles have invaded U.S. public schools, welfare offices, voting booths and popular culture.

The presumption of guilt and innocence is important here. Studies have shown that whites are often given second chances. One recent study revealed stunning results about the degree of white privilege allowed. African-Americans face a starker reality: One youthful indiscretion can mean a lifetime of living on the margins — or worse.

Can such as system be transformed? Yes, but not if we refuse to diagnose the problem. America’s prison-industrial complex is a booming business that has successfully monetized the criminalization of African-Americans through private prisons, federal grants and an entertainment industry that pushes images of black criminality to young people like a drug dealer pushes designer narcotics. 

The U.S. justice system needs to be reimagined so radically that police officers can see that black people, however flawed and imperfect, are not only citizens worthy of respect but also human beings deserving of dignity whose lives matter greatly.

12 comments

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The numbers presented in the article only prove that the white population by educating itself and keeping jobs was less crime prone than the other brown party.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

I disagree with the conventional wisdom that police brutality is a matter of “black versus white.” It’s really a matter of “blue versus not-blue.” In other words, the police are a criminal gang who are loyal only to other cops. There have been a great many incidents in which cops have brutally beaten or murdered white people — these just don’t get as much media attention. The Web is full with such videos, including the cases of Kelly Thomas, Robert Leone, and others.

We are basically living under a military occupation, and the government’s enforcement thugs do not believe citizens are entitled to ANY rights.

Posted by Heretic50 | Report as abusive

The “War On Drugs” intent is meant to control and disenfranchise blacks an latinos.

As a middle class white I dealt drugs paying my college tuition, provided funding for the IRA, and smoked while walking past police.

I am blessed and fortunate that my life was not ruined, particularly disappointing my parents.

It makes me mad that my being white middle class covered my activities, and those that did less than myself were targeted.

Being older and Catholic I now devote much time to social justice issues.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

Police departments across the country fund themselves through “civil forfeiture” proceedings, which allow them to steal much of their funding from ordinary citizens. By funding themselves in this way, they escape the normal processes that civilian government uses to control police agencies. In essence, they become self-funded quasi-military cartels, like crime cartels in that they possess armed force and answer to no one. Until civil forfeiture is abolished, we have no hope of bringing our lawless law enforcement agencies under control.

Posted by Rugeirn | Report as abusive

Police = under-educated government thugs. If you like police, you love government.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Macedonian,

Apparently the article’s points flew right over your head as the article pretty distinctly points out ‘second chances’ to certain demographics, punitive legislation that ultimately targets certain racial demographics above others (for similar crimes).

At that point, the police are simply operating on confirmation bias. They set up a system that unfairly targets certain demographics which only serves to feed the statistical bias even more. The stats and the police reacting to the stats ultimately become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive

We now have heavy-set local bankers paying to play cop, mistaking their revolvers for tasers and shooting people in the back of the neck. And what was the crime? The dead person was guilty of trying to sell a gun on craigslist.

Anybody else think the cop world has gotten into the steroid cabinet?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

While I object to Professor Joseph’s generalizations about the police in the U.S., believing myself that less than one percent warrant his accusation of malfeasance (far better than most professions, except maybe brain surgeons), I join him in his ultimate goal, which I believe is that we wish more black men would join the un-incarcerated U.S. society willingly and gainfully. I think the police play a small role in that goal. I would focus on encouraging parents and other mentors to make their children comfortable with public safety people (police & fire & ambulance) and their procedures–usually through school or private tours of their facilities. Certainly, parents and other mentors (e.g. day care teachers using role play techniques) need to set an example of how to interact respectfully and safely with law enforcement & other public safety personnel. Also, Texas has shown great success recently in reducing prison numbers & repeat offenders by using professional mentors and support groups for paroled offenders, helping them gain confidence and a good resume in the job market. I wouldn’t lay this problem on the police–although I would never say that city councils shouldn’t improve their oversight of police, a job which we hired city councils and pay them to do. We can make progress faster on this issue by using the whole community, instead.

Posted by hometown | Report as abusive

How many people of any color are in jail who have a net worth of a million or more? We hear about race-based shooting, but Black people are simply easier to spot within the broader group of those who don’t have the money to defend themselves.

Posted by Boguseconomist | Report as abusive

How many people of any color are in jail who have a net worth of a million or more? We hear about race-based shooting, but Black people are simply easier to spot within the broader group of those who don’t have the money to defend themselves.

Posted by Boguseconomist | Report as abusive

As a preferred Reuters commenter with well over a thousand posts, what did I say yesterday that my topical comment gets ignored? I get the feeling that Reuters authors are now the ones who approves/disapproves comments, according to their individual preferences and prejudices.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

A major unaddressed problem here is that the theory behind criminal justice falls apart on some of these communities. By locking people away, as rehabilitation, punishment, or for safety of others, there is an assumption that whatever that person can do will be done by others. In communities with high incarceration rates, this falls apart. There simply aren’t even enough people to fill all of the required societal roles, which then leads to greater disenfranchisement of the next generation. Clearly, our current approach isn’t working.

Posted by TheToast | Report as abusive