According to an article on AlterNet, the American criminal justice system is disturbingly raced and gendered to the detriment of men of color. 1 in every 15 black and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men in America are currently incarcerated. One in three black American men will be imprisoned at some point in their lives.
Seriously. One in three. If you’re white and have spent most of your life in majority-white spaces, you might want to go figure out how many people in your family, your graduating class, your knitting circle, whatever would have been imprisoned. I’ll be here when you get back.
Now, some people are going to be like “1 in 3 black men in America are incarcerated? That’s not necessarily racism. Maybe black men are just more likely to be criminals!” and then go off muttering something about dysfunctional ghetto culture and The Bell Curve. (Incidentally, you guys should see some of the comments I deleted about Trayvon Martin. I’m almost tempted to make this Race Week just to piss them off.)
What these lovely “well, maybe men of color are JUST CRIMINALS. Have you thought of that, huh?” people never seem to think about is that even if the difference were entirely because men of color are more likely to commit crimes, that is also an indictment of our racist society. Maybe we should wonder about why men of color have so few opportunities that crime seems like a good option, hmm? I dunno about you, but as an upper-middle-class white person, it has rarely occurred to me that it would be a good idea to rob a convenience store. The failing schools, few jobs, and institutionalized racism people of color all too often experience make crime a lot more tempting of an option.
However, all of this is entirely irrelevant, because as it happens the “black people commit more crimes” explanation is not actually true.
Consider drugs, for instance. African American men comprise 14% of regular drug users and a third of those arrested for drug offenses. Maybe the dysfunctional ghetto culture and supposed lower average IQ of black men make it so that they’re really really bad at not getting arrested for crimes? Yeah, that’s the ticket. God forbid we come up with an explanation that involves white people actually having flaws.
Even once you’re in the system, the definitely-not-racism of the American justice system fucks shit up. For instance, black people get sentences that are ten percent longer than those of white people who committed similar crimes; they are far more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences or to go to prison. So once you’ve gotten yourself in the American justice system for a crime that a white person may or may not have been arrested for, you get to stay in there even longer. Yay!
The most awful part, for me, is that even once someone is free, they are no longer free. Thirteen percent of black men have been denied the right to vote because they committed a felony. The wages of black former inmates grow at a 21% slower rate than those of white former inmates– which, incidentally, helps put more black men back in to the criminal justice system, because when a lot of people choose between “not committing crimes” and “having enough to eat,” they are going to pick the second one.
And, yes, all of this is a gendered and not just a raced issue. Women in general are far less likely to be incarcerated than men are; African American women are three times more likely to be incarcerated than white women, while African American men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. Similarly, Hispanic American men are 200% more likely to be incarcerated, while Hispanic women are 69% more likely. Racism in the criminal justice system disproportionately affects men of color.
Why? Because racist stereotypes of black men teach that they are stupid, hyper-violent, and hyper-criminal. That they all take and sell drugs. That they are ready to attack anyone on the slightest provocation, or none at all. It’s a racist idea as old as slavery– the wild savages in the jungles of Africa, the black man who rapes white women and murders white men and must be oppressed by whites for the good of all.
Racism in the justice system does not require that the police officers, judges, and juries all be Klan members who burn crosses on doorsteps (honestly, if people trot out that strawman one more time, it won’t have any more straw left). All it requires is that people are a little more likely to trust a white person than a black person, a little more likely to believe that the black person committed a crime, a little more suspicious of black men, a little more likely to think that people who are “like that” probably did it– the suite of cognitive biases and preconceptions that are all too possible, even for people who don’t think of themselves as racist.
And when all those little bits of racism get piled up together, you end up with a system in which one in three black men will be imprisoned by the time they die.