July-August 2000

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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.

Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.

Black, Poor, and Incarcerated: Criminal Justice in America

Katheryn Russell, The Color of Crime: Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment, and Other Macroaggressions, New York University Press, NY, 1998, 203 pp.

Marc Mauer & the Sentencing Project, Race To Incarcerate, The New Press, City University of New York, NY, 1999, 208 pp.

Two recently published books provide an excellent analysis of the criminal justice system in the United States. Race to Incarcerate by Marc Mauer and The Sentencing Project, and The Color of Crime, by Katheryn Russell both take a close look at the intersection of race, crime, and public opinion and policy. Both come to the conclusion that our current criminal justice system is seriously flawed.

Mauer presents an historical picture leading up to current day policies. In his introduction, he makes the point that the criminal justice system has been under critique and subject to protest since its inception. He quotes Charles Dickens' observation about prisons in Philadelphia in the 1840s: "I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body."

Also in his introduction, Mauer examines the history of the war on drugs and how this policy has led to an ever-escalating attack on poor people, especially poor people of color: "...the wide-ranging effects of the race to incarcerate on African American communities in particular is a phenomenon that is only beginning to be investigated. What does it mean to a community, for example, to know that three out of ten boys growing up will spend time in prison? What does it do to the fabric of the family and the community to have such a substantial proportion of its young men enmeshed in the criminal justice system?...What is the effect on a community's political influence when one quarter of the black men in some states cannot vote as a result of felony conviction?...It is hard to imagine that this complacency [on the part of political leaders] would exist if the more than a million and a half prisoners were the sons and daughters of the white middle class." This passage represents what Mauer and The Sentencing Project do best: turn statistics into impassioned arguments.

Mauer also looks at trends both in violent and nonviolent crimes, and in public policy as it relates to the criminal justice system. This book blows apart the propaganda presented by our public leaders: that drug abuse is on the rise, which is why more people are incarcerated, and that violent crime is down because more violent criminals are behind bars. Mauer rips into these and other illogical arguments about race, drugs, crime, and incarceration with a series of extraordinarily well-researched facts and figures. The end result, that thousands of people in this country are incarcerated unfairly, without due process, and because of public propaganda, is nothing short of horrifying.

Katheryn Russell's book, The Color of Crime: Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment, and other Macroaggressions, won the 1999 Gustavus Myers Oustanding Book Award. The Myers Center annually recognizes books written about discrimination and bigotry, and ways to develop equitable future communities and societies, and The Color of Crime certainly fits the bill.

Russell makes many points about how Americans make racial associations around crime: "Interestingly, as a group, Whites have managed to escape being associated with crime. This would not be so odd if Whites were not responsible, in raw numbers, for most of the crime that is committed. ...It is notable that phrases such as 'White crime' and "White-on-White" crime are not part of our public lexicon on crime." Russell attacks the racist notion that "most black people are criminals" with a two-part statement: first, that African Americans are prosecuted and convicted of crimes at a rate disproportionate to whites because of the perception of what she calls "the criminalblackman"; and second, that African Americans commit crimes at a rate disproportionate to the population because African Americans are reacting in resistance to a politically repressive and oppressive system. She spends much of the book exploring the different facets of these two points.

Russell asks many questions in thisbook: Why don't people talk about White-On-White crime? What was different about O.J.? Why do some people, like the protagonists in the famous Charles Stuart or Susan Smith cases, use racially motivated hoaxes to cover up crimes? She also does an analysis of the criminal justice system based on fairness principles, and finds it glaringly lacking. She hammers away at the racism inherent in the US criminal justice system with example after example.

In a particularly chilling section on police harassment, Russell reports some of the reasons African American men are stopped while in their cars:

"Driving a luxury automobile (e.g., Lexus, Mercedes, BMW)

Driving an old car

Driving in a car with other Black men

Driving in a car with a White woman

Driving early in the morning

Driving late at night

Driving a rented automobile

Driving too fast

Driving too slow

Driving in a low-income neighborhood, known for its drug traffic

Driving in a White neighborhood

Driving in a neighborhood where there have been recent burglaries

Fitting a drug courier profile

Violating the vehicle code (e.g., excessive speed, exposed tail light."

Russell writes, "It seems that no matter what Black men do in their cars, they are targets for criminal suspicion." And it also seems evident that we live in an apartheid state.

These two books, taken together, paint a bleak and terrifying picture of our criminal justice system. But both authors, in their thorough and convincing analysis, point the way forward. W.H. Auden wrote, "We must love one another or die," and it has never seemed more evident than now.

Russell sets up a series of basic principles which she calls the fairness principles. She states that these basic principles are minimally required for a fair criminal justice system:

1. Criminal penalties apply to everyone, regardless of the race of the offender.

2. Criminal penalties apply to everyone, regardless of the race of the victim.

3. The race of the offender is not relevant in determining whether his actions constitute a crime. The offender's actions would have been considered criminal, even if he were another race.

4. The race of the victim is not relevant in determining whether the offender's action constitutes a crime.

5. The offender's racial pedigree (e.g., "degree of Blackness") is not used to determine punishment.

6. There are checks and balances that mitigate against racial bias within the legal system.

Through the course of the book, Russell examines each one of these points, finding examples which counter each principle -- for instance, the sentencing laws for crack and powder cocaine. The sentence for 500 grams of powder cocaine is five years, but only five grams of crack will get the same sentence. Russell points out that this is a "100:1" disparity. With these precise definitions, she explodes the myth of a fair criminal justice system.

Erin Miller is a writer residing in Beverly, Massachusetts.

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