Can Florida stick to its guns?
A white man is acquitted of murdering an unarmed black teenager: now the entire US criminal justice system is on trial, once again, in the court of public opinion
The Washington DC-based Sentencing Project says a black male born in 2001 has a 32 per cent chance of spending time in prison at some point in his life; a white male has a 6 per cent chance. On any given day, one in every 10 black males in their 30s are in prison or jail, the group says. Of all US prisoners, African-Americans represent 38 per cent, but just 13 per cent of the general population.
Black Americans also represent a disproportionately high number of death-row inmates, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre. In April 2012, of 3,170 inmates on death row 1,325 were African-American. Out of 1,339 people executed in the US since 1976, 35 per cent were black.
Racial caste system
Michelle Alexander, a law professor and civil-rights activist, crunched crime statistics for her seminal 2012 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness. She found that the racial caste system had not been eliminated but merely redesigned by the criminal-justice system and law enforcement. The targeting of black men in the war on drugs had created as a substitute for the racist Jim Crow laws of the 1960s and turned millions of black Americans into second-class citizens.
The figures cited in her book are compelling, from the disproportionate number of black drivers stopped on the New Jersey turnpike to the numbers arrested for low-level drug offences.
In her book, Alexander says that the US “imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid”, and that in major US cities wracked by the drug war, as many as 80 per cent of young African-American men have criminal records and “are thus subject to legalised discrimination for the rest of their lives”.
A criminal-justice system that claims to be officially colourblind achieves such high levels of racial discrimination, Alexander says, by granting law-enforcement officials extraordinary discretion and making it impossible to prove that racial disparities are the product of intentional racial discriminalisation. “This simple design has helped to produce one of the most extraordinary systems of racialised social control the world has ever seen,” she writes.
Zimmerman’s acquittal for Martin’s killing exposed a further weakness in the US criminal justice system that protects the aggressor and punishes the victim where racial stereotyping is a factor.
“The Trayvon Martin episode is clear; it started because George Zimmerman believed in a stereotype that exists in America,” says Denis Parker.
“The association between colour and crime is a strong one in society, and it is one that we need to break or else it ends up in more of these episodes.”