September 25, 2018
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The hurtful racial truth about criminal justice in the US

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By Steven E. Barkan, Special to the BDN
Updated:

Sometimes the truth hurts. One truth many Americans don’t want to face is racial and ethnic injustice in our criminal justice system. Kneeling athletes and the Black Lives Matter movement have been reminding us of this problem, but too many Americans refuse to hear what they are saying.

Much criminological research documents this form of injustice, which goes beyond the police shootings making national headlines. Taking into account factors such as type of crime and prior record, this research finds that:

Police are more likely to arrest black suspects than white suspects accused of the same crimes.

Police are more likely to stop black drivers and pedestrians and then to search them after being stopped; after being searched, these individuals are no more likely than whites who are stopped to be found with illegal contraband.

Police are more likely to use severe force against black suspects than white suspects, including shooting unarmed black civilians more often than unarmed white civilians.

Prosecutors are less likely to drop or reduce charges against black suspects than against white suspects.

Judges are more likely to send convicted black defendants to prison than convicted white defendants, who are fined or sentenced to probation, or both. Judges impose harsher sentences on convicted defendants, black or white, with darker skin tone. In capital cases, death sentences are less likely when the victim is black than when the victim is white.

Although there is less research involving Latinos, it finds similar disparities overall when comparing legal outcomes for Latinos and whites, but the difference here is generally weaker than the black-white difference. There is even less research involving Native Americans, but they, too, experience discrimination in criminal justice.

This large body of evidence demonstrates that the criminal justice system often does practice racial and ethnic discrimination. The Black Lives Matter movement should thus be applauded, not condemned, for reminding us of this hurtful truth. And the athletes kneeling during the national anthem should be commended for calling attention to racial injustice in criminal justice, rather than condemned for disrespecting the flag.

This injustice reflects continuing racial and ethnic discrimination and bias in the larger society. It is true that the United States has thankfully evolved from the vicious Jim Crow racism of the past. Some people are still outright, hateful bigots, but racial prejudice today is less harsh than in the Jim Crow era.

Still, we must not fool ourselves by thinking all is now good. Racial stereotypes persist in today’s society; racial discrimination endures in employment and housing despite laws to the contrary; racial slights — microaggressions — remain an everyday reality for people of color; and hate speech and hate crimes against them continue.

A half-century ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement reminded us that America had a long way to go to achieve the “liberty and justice for all” promised in the Pledge of Allegiance. Continuing racial injustice in the criminal justice system and elsewhere in our society reminds us that America still has a long way to go.

Americans who want our nation to be great should welcome the reminders from kneeling athletes and other protesters that America needs to do much more to achieve King’s dream. In this regard, let us begin with criminal justice. The familiar Lady Justice statue is blindfolded to signal that the administration of justice should disregard race, ethnicity and other legally irrelevant variables. Sometimes the truth hurts, and one truth is that Lady Justice too often has her eyes wide open.

Steven E. Barkan is professor of sociology at the University of Maine in Orono and the author of the forthcoming “Race, Crime, and Justice: The Continuing American Dilemma” (Oxford University Press). He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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