In the year since Michael Brown was killed, Americans have focused their attention on the harsh treatment of black Americans at the hands of police. A shocking number have been killed in encounters with police, in the year since Ferguson and in the years before. Thousands more have suffered subtler forms of discrimination in the criminal justice system, where social science research shows striking racial disparities at nearly every level—from arrest rates, to bail amounts, to sentence lengths, to probation hearing outcomes. We combed a vast body of research to find the clearest indicators of racial disparities at different phases of the justice process. The eight charts below offer a grim portrait of what it’s like to be a black American in our nation’s justice system.
1. Black Americans are more likely to have their cars searched.
Police are three times as likely to search the cars of stopped black drivers than stopped white drivers, as the chart below, based on data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, illustrates. Nationally, black drivers are also more likely to be pulled over and less likely to receive a reason for being stopped. In one Rhode Island study, black drivers were stopped more even though they were less likely to receive a citation.
2. Black Americans are more likely to be arrested for drug use.
Police arrest black Americans for drug crimes at twice the rate of whites, according to federal data, despite the fact that whites use drugs at comparable rates and sell drugs at comparable or even higher rates.
3. Black Americans are more likely to be jailed while awaiting trial.
A 2014 study in New York City showed that blacks were more likely than whites or nonblack minorities to be in jail while they await trial, even after controlling for the seriousness of charges and prior record. Other research suggests that this disparity is often due to the fact that black defendants cannot afford to pay bail. The temporary incarceration stigmatizes the defendant, disrupts family life and employment, and makes it harder for the defendant to prepare a defense. In the chart below, “jail” refers to defendants who were offered bail but could not post it; “remanded” refers to defendants who were not given the option of posting bail.
4.Black Americans are more likely to be offered a plea deal that includes prison time.
The same study in New York found that black defendants are more likely to be offered plea deals that include prison time than whites or nonblack minorities. Even after controlling for many factors, including the seriousness of charges and prior record, blacks were 13 percent more likely than whites to be offered such deals.
5. Black Americans may be excluded from juries because of their race.
Researchers found that North Carolina prosecutors were excluding black people from juries in capital cases at twice the rate of other jurors, even when controlling for legitimate justifications for striking jurors, such as employment status or reservations about the death penalty. Other studies have shown that excluding black people from juries can influence deliberations and verdicts. For example, black defendants in capital cases with white victims are less likely to receive a death sentence if there is a black juror.
6. Black Americans are more likely to serve longer sentences than white Americans for the same offense.
A 2012 working paper found “robust evidence” that black male federal defendants were given longer sentences than comparable whites. Black men’s sentences were, on average, 10 percent longer than those of their white peers. This is partly explained by the fact that prosecutors are about twice as likely to file charges against blacks that carry mandatory minimum sentences than against whites.
7. Black Americans are more likely to be disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.
Most U.S. states restrict the voting rights of citizens convicted of crimes. Since black Americans are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, voter disenfranchisement has a disproportionate effect on the black population. According to recent estimates from the Sentencing Project, 2.5 percent of all Americans are disenfranchised due to a current or past felony conviction. For blacks, the figure is 7.7 percent, or about 1 in 13.
8. Black Americans are more likely to have their probation revoked.
Black convicts have their probation revoked more often than whites and other minorities, according to a recent study of probation outcomes in Iowa, New York, Oregon, and Texas. These racial disparities held even when the study controlled for other characteristics of the probationers, such as their age, crime severity, and criminal history. In the chart below, the “unexplained” portion of each bar is the level of racial disparity that could not be explained by nonracial characteristics.
Here are some paper topic suggestions. Ideally you will not need them and will develop your own topic. Please feel free to set up a meeting to brainstorm about paper topics, where to find relevant research material, how to structure the paper, or any other questions that you may have.
You are free to write either a formal research paper or a less formal essay. A danger, though, with writing a formal research paper is that you merely end up compiling other people’s thoughts, and writing an essay can easily turn into an excuse to be sloppy and spurt out poorly substantiated opinions.
During the course we have covered the origins and workings of modern racism and how it relates to some basic political concepts such as the liberal state, equality, justice, democracy, class, gender and cosmopolitanism. Now it is your job to put what you have learnt to good use!!
- What is (Racial) Equality? As you know, the so-called Age of Enlightenment gave birth to the revolutionary and anti-feudal idea that all persons are moral equals and that a state can only be justified so long as it upholds this equality. For Immanuel Kant persons are moral equals since they all have the capacity to act as moral agents, legislating and acting on their own moral principles and reasons, and should therefore be equally treated as moral ends. For John Locke—the “father of liberalism”—in force of a natural law that can easily be comprehended by any (normal) person, all persons have the same basic and equal rights to freedom, life, health and possessions. For a political theorist like Charles Mills, both these conceptions of human equality are racial. Is this fair? If it is, what then would true (racial) equality mean? How could we, in a non-racist way, make sense of the statement that we all deserve equal moral concern and respect? And what would the consequences of such an alternative conception be to our understanding of racial equality in society?
- Is there (Racial) Equality in America? Some would say that America since the civil rights acts of the 1960s has achieved racial equality? Others, like Glenn Loury, would say that the formal equality of American laws (e.g. criminal laws, voting rights and laws that govern public education) are illusory since they in practice discriminate against non-white people and since they do not rectify racial injustices (that fly in the face of equality). Focus on one or two laws (or other societal phenomena such as wealth disparities) and make an argument.
- Race and Equality of Opportunity. “Equality of opportunity” is a central and contested concept of liberalism. If all citizens should be treated by the state as moral equals, then the state should guarantee each citizen’s equal right to, say, a fair trial, quality public education or having access to decent housing. Pick an area, such as public education, and put the principle of (racial) equality of opportunity into question.
- Race and Poverty. Due mainly to a history of slavery, Jim Crow and discrimination African-Americans are unequally poverty stricken. Should the disproportionate poverty of African-Americans be ameliorated in the name of justice? Should perhaps poverty, regardless of whose poverty it is, be ameliorated in the name of justice?
- Race and the Criminal Justice System. African-Americans are more likely to be arrested, sentenced and receive harsh penalties than white Americans. For instance, although African-Americans on average neither consume nor sell more drugs than white Americans, they are much more likely to be arrested and sentenced on drug charges. Has the American criminal justice system reinstated a new Jim Crow as Michelle Alexander argues in a recent book? And what should be done? Should, for instance, prisons be abolished as Angela Davis argues?
- Reparations, Native-Americans and African-Americans. A long-standing debate is whether or not Native Americans and African Americans should receive economic (and/or social) reparations for the American history of slavery, genocide and oppression that have left these communities disadvantaged. What do you think?
- Black Bodies, White Norms. How are black bodies judged on the basis of white bodies as an aesthetic (somatic) norm? For instance, skin tone, hair texture, facial features and body shape? And how are these judgments racially loaded? And is a preference for white beauty ideals and a distaste for black beauty ideals—or a reverse preference—an expression of racism/white supremacy or merely a harmless personal preference (like preferring vanilla to chocolate or red hair to blonde hair)? Use examples from media and make an argument.
- Rap Music against a Background of White Supremacy. Mainstream rap music has stirred a lot of debate over the past decade. Mainstream rap music can in many ways be seen as a response to, some would even say an expression of, white supremacy. On the one hand, it is often said to be an expression of the oppressive conditions black Americans face. On the other hand it is aid to traffic two-dimensional racist stereotypes for a voyeuristic white audience and for the profit of predominantly white shareholders. Some black cultural critics celebrate mainstream rap music as progressive, others criticize it as promoting misogyny, gangsterism, violence and cheap materialism. What is your spin?
Race, Class and Gender
- Sexism and Racism. African-American womanists and other third-wave feminists have criticized white feminism for not paying attention to how race and gender can intersect as oppressive categories. White feminism have tended to see the oppression and liberation of white women as the model for women regardless of race (or class) and failed to see their own racially loaded complicity with white patriarchy. African-American womanists have also criticized black male civil rights advocates for not acknowledging, and even reinforcing, gender oppression and for failing to see parallels between racism and sexism. What’s your take?
- Addressing Poverty: Race or Class? Is ameliorating poverty among people of color a social justice issue? And should it be addressed as a racial issue or as a class issue or as both?