A last word on criminal justice disparities.
I still remember how astonished I was when, some twenty years ago, at a meeting of a small group of executives and government officials of which I was then a part, someone asked “how many of you have ever been stopped for speeding?” Every hand went up. The follow-up question was: “How many of you then had your vehicle searched?” Every black hand went up; no white one did. These were well-educated, well-dressed, well-spoken upper-middle class citizens.
Discriminatory laws are easier to change than the historic social structures and ingrained attitudes that have privileged white citizens and disadvantaged black ones for over two hundred years.
Social change tends to be slow and difficult, and racial disadvantage isn’t just economic. Even when the laws of the land are facially neutral, they are not always neutrally applied. If you are black, and especially if you are poor and black, the justice system you encounter is markedly different—and considerably less just—than the system that governs your Caucasian fellow-citizens.
In 1999, David Cole wrote what has come to be regarded as a seminal work on the issue of equality in the American justice system, No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the Criminal Justice System. The book documented pervasive race- and class-based double standards in criminal justice.
Cole’s unsparing look at the American justice system examined everything from police behavior and jury selection to sentencing; he argued that our system not only fails to live up to the promise of equality, but actually requires double standards to operate. Cole argued that it is the disparities in the system that allow the privileged “to enjoy constitutional protections from police power without paying the costs associated with extending those protections across the board to minorities and the poor.”
In its review of the book, the New York Times said “No Equal Justice makes a strong case that we have tolerated a law enforcement strategy that depends on the exploitation of race and class divisions.”
Although this unequal application of the law falls most heavily on poorer African-Americans, more affluent members of the community are hardly exempt. (There was something of a media firestorm when prominent Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates was arrested for “breaking in” to his own home after a trip to China; police initially refused to believe he lived there.)
White America has finally begun to confront the reality of our unequal application of the laws. Thanks to technology and the proliferation of smartphone cameras and other digital recording devices, social media is filled with visual evidence of police conduct that challenges our most cherished beliefs about the maintenance of law and order. Recent books, like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, an eye-opening examination of the drug war, have added to the evidence of dysfunction.
Even Congress—in a rare bipartisan effort—has acknowledged the inequities and is attempting to reform the system.
If we are to create a truly equal society—defined as a society that gives its citizens a level playing field and genuinely equal protection of the laws—we must look beyond economic security, important as that is. We also need to ensure that our government institutions are not treating similarly-situated citizens differently based upon the color of their skin rather than upon their behavior.