This piece is pulled directly from an assignment submitted in an argumentation class of mine during the fall 2016 semester.
For a major part of this last decade, the claim that institutional racism exists within the criminal justice system has been hotly contested. Black Lives Matter, the Political Left, and much of the news media are just a few of those who argue that this nation’s criminal justice system is racist. Their claim is that this American institution is one of many that are bias against certain groups solely due to the color of their skin. It is argued by them that black lives are, “systematically and intentionally targeted for demise” and that blacks all over the country are being “hunted” by police officers and the system they represent. Those on the opposing end claim that the above arguments are not representative of the facts and numbers. They argue that statistics showing differences in treatment between races are due to a multitude of other factors excluding racism by itself. This issue has polarized our nation on the the topic of race once again and only the actual truth, and the acceptance of that truth can allow us to move past this divide.
My claim is that Institutional racism does not exist in the criminal justice system and that the arguments supporting its existence can be explained by factors excluding racism. This claim will be supported by first reviewing some numbers and statistics pertinent to the argument, and then by analyzing several key areas where institutional racism is said to be most easily proven. I will start first with differential treatment of minority groups by police, then discuss incarceration rates, and finally sentencing disparities.
Before another word is written on this topic, it is important to address the fact that racism does indeed exist. Because of this, there are undoubtedly individuals representing the law who are racist, and who may or may not act upon that racism. When racism is demonstrated through physical actions by anyone, it should be identified by all as the evil garbage that it is, and swiftly responded to with legal action. That being said, it is equally important to understand that these isolated events of racism do not substantiate the argument that the criminal justice system in the United States is one that demonstrates institutional racism.
The first logical step in arguing against the existence of institutional racism in police departments would be to examine some raw numbers. These numbers will be referred to throughout the essay, and have been taken from the websites of the Census Bureau, the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the FBI. In 2015, black people accounted for 13.3% of the U.S. population. They also account for 26% of the crime, 36% of the violent crime, and over half of the murders. In 2014, there were over 516 thousand blacks in prison, accounting for 37% of the prison population. In 2008, police had an estimated 40 million encounters with the public, an estimated 10% of those with black people. Of those 40 million encounters an estimated 1.4% of them involved a threat of force or actual force. These numbers all hold great importance through our next several topics.
We will begin this argument at the base level of the criminal justice system, interactions with police. Police interactions do not reflect institutional racism in the criminal justice system. In July of this year Roland G. Fryer, a black Harvard graduate published a study; An empirical analysis of racial differences in police use of force (Fryer, 2016). He examined over 1000 instances of police using lethal force in 10 different major cities, he found no evidence of blacks being targeted by police. He found that when looking at the numbers alone, blacks were 23-27% less likely than whites to be shot by police in similar situations. When limiting factors were introduced there was no clear evidence of racial bias influencing shooting decisions. These findings are obviously in great contrast with the narrative that cops are “hunting” black people across the nation. Fryer’s study also examined New York’s controversial “Stop and Frisk” law which allowed officers to stop anyone they would like, interview them, and pat them down for weapons. In Fryer’s study, he found that blacks were 7% more likely to have non-lethal force used against them than whites. He concluded that this number was statistically significant and that some form of racial discrimination was apparent. This was not due to a racist justice system, but reality. Here are the numbers. In 2016, 98% of all gun crime in NYC was committed by Blacks and Hispanics (NYPD, 2016). Stop and frisk targeted these minority groups at a rate of 85%(Stop, 2016), statistically under targeting them per their percentage share of the gun crime. Stop and frisk is a very aggressive form of policing, and could arguably be over aggressive. The 7% rate at which force was used for blacks and in NYC vs. the 1.4% for the rest of the nation shows this. But, Heather Macdonald explained the differences in uses of force in her book, The War on Cops as follows, “Such a concentration of criminal violence in minority communities means that officers will be disproportionately confronting armed and often resisting suspects in those communities, raising officers’ own risk of using lethal force.” The police departments use non-lethal force more often due to the increased risk of policing in minority areas that are plagued with violent crime. They don’t do so because they are racist against blacks. And when situations escalate, police are just as likely to shoot a white person as they are a black person.
The second topic at hand is incarceration rates. A higher percentage of minorities in prison does not constitute institutional racism. Headlines and stories from all over the media point to stark differences in incarceration rates and shout institutional racism! Truthfully, it would be hard not to see blacks representing more than twice their percentage population inside prison than they do outside and not think racism was to blame. Interestingly enough, however, you never here about institutional sexim backed with the same logic. In 2014 women accounted for less than 10% of the country’s prison population (Bureau U.C., 2016). Is the criminal justice system institutionally sexist against men? No. More men commit crimes than women. It turns out, that when a population group commits a disproportionate share of crime, then a disproportionate share of that same population ends up in prison. But this argument could be deeper than this comparison makes it sound. The political left likes to cite Bill Clinton’s crime bill as the start to “mass incarceration” in this country. The bill was famous for it’s three strike policy that mandated life sentences for repeat offenders if they were already violent felons (Farley, 2016) . Since then, the argument that most black people are only in jail for first time drug possession has been mainstreamed. President Obama himself stated his belief for the high incarceration was because we have, “locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before.” This is a lie. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2014, nonviolent drug offenders only made up 6% of the overall prison population. Not coming anywhere close to the 54% for violent felonies. Also, less than one percent of those who were sentenced for drug crimes ended up in Federal prison. Another interesting fact is that without the crime bill, blacks would have been subjected to an additional 15 million violent crimes since the bill’s passing.(Macdonald, 2016) Which begs the question, what is more detrimental to black communities? Incarceration or intercommunal violent crime? The point is easily made here. Racism is not putting blacks in prison at significantly higher rates than whites. Committing crimes is doing a fine job of that by itself.
A final point of contention in this debate is sentencing disparities. Just because some sentences are different for the same or similar crimes does not prove the criminal justice system is racist. People who get longer sentences (black or white) for the same or similar crimes often have a past criminal history or are trafficking drugs rather than just using them. Study after study finds that prior history, offense details, age and gender are far more influential in sentencing than race(Kramer & Steffensmeier, 1993; Pratt, 1998; Steffensmeier & Demuth, 2001; Mitchell, 2005; Miller 2015). Pratt found that the only significant variable when it came to sentencing was offense severity, and Mitchell reached a similar conclusion in 2005. All of these studies speculate but cannot definitively prove that race is the underlying reason for longer or shorter sentences. The most famous of all the arguments of sentencing disparity is crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine. The drug is essentially the same thing in a different form, used by different groups of people. Crack is used more by black people by a large margin, and powder by white people. The problem is that crack cocaine had a minimum sentence of 5 years, until Obama changed this in 2010. Powder carried no minimum sentence and it’s possession usually allows the possessor to escape with probation. Before we can say that the differences in penalty for these two drugs proves institutional racism, we must understand why the punishments are different, and who instituted the punishments. Ben Shapiro, Harvard lawyer and editor in chief of The Daily Wire states that black lawmakers from inner cities were sick of watching crack ravage their communities so they increased the punishment. This was in fact the initial reason for the heavier weighted penalty, and legislation was passed in 1986 to increase the penalty for crack. At the time of the legislation the Congressional Black Caucus pushed for even heavier penalties due to the rate at which crack cocaine was decimating their communities. That doesn’t shout institutional racism to me. Another thing to note here is that the penalty for crack cocaine is nearly identical to that of methamphetamines which are widely known to be used more often by white people. If the justice system were so racist, wouldn’t the penalties for drugs used more often by whites be lower across the board? Sentencing disparities do not prove racism, as a matter of fact, they only prove that more blacks are continually committing more of the crime, reflected in the sentencing, not as a result of their skin color, but as a result of the prevailing culture.
In conclusion, racism is not the motivation for differential treatment by police of minority groups, and blacks are not being systematically targeted or hunted by police. This is explained by the nature and style of policing in areas of high crime that just so happen to be majority black, and the fact that cops use lethal force with white people just as much as black people. Racism is not behind high incarceration rates of blacks. This is due to blacks being 13 percent of the population, but committing on average 30 percent of the crime, and representing near that same percentage in prisons. Finally it is not racism that is behind sentencing disparities. Black people, worried about their own black communities have instituted higher punishments, and other factors like prior history, age, and gender play far more important roles in sentencing than race. Racism is not behind any of these issues, and it would behoove us as a nation to accept that. Once acceptance has taken place, and personal responsibility has been assumed, there will be great strides in minority communities across the nation.