In America's Justice System, White Means Right


A 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago went to Mississippi to visit his relatives.  During his stay, he was accused of flirting with an older white lady by the name of Carolyn Bryant. Enraged by what had occurred, her husband along with another friend drove to the boy’s residence and forced his relatives to surrender him.

A few days later, the boy's body was discovered in a river; he was completely unrecognizable. The perpetrators of this horrific crime were charged; they were acquitted, however, by a jury of their peers. The mother of the boy decided to leave his casket open during his funeral.

The deformed face of Emmett Till became a symbol of an era in which African Americans were routinely brutalized and killed with impunity. The country has undergone tremendous changes as a result of the civil rights movement. Those changes have allowed African Americans to be an integral part of American society. But some vestige of the past continue to be seen today. Nowhere are those vestiges more evident than in the criminal justice system.  The treatment of African-Americans by the justice system continues to weigh heavily on many in the black community.

The immediate release of George Zimmerman has revived painful memories of an era where vigilantes could terrorize or wreak havoc in their communities without being held accountable by the justice system. In the South, this reign of terror took the form of lynching and on some occasions, race riots. From 1882 to 1951, more than 3,000 African Americans had been subjected to this terror, which led them to migrate en mass to northern cities. Unfortunately, the north did not prove to be a safe heaven either. The violence they encountered in those cities mostly consisted of mob violence. The flimsiest accusations or rumors could prompt a group of individuals to go into black neighborhoods, destroy properties, and beat up anyone who happened to be on their path. Those attacks always left a number of deaths in their wake. These “race riots” took place in many cities, including Detroit and East St Louis. 

Chicago had been the scene of one of those violent riots. It started with the stoning death of a young African American who got too close to a swimming pool that was reserved for whites only. The riots caused casualties on both sides. But, African Americans, as was always the case during those riots, suffered most of the casualties both in the number of deaths and property damages.

No one was ever brought to justice, in either the north or south, for subjecting the African-American community to such terror. People in the community were not only victims of random acts of violence, but they had absolutely no recourse, no way to correct those wrongs, since the justice system was completely indifferent to their travail. 

The botched investigation by the Sanford police in Trayvon’s case is the most recent example of this long and disturbing history. As it has been reported, upon their arrival on the crime scene where an unarmed dead teenager lie face down on the ground in possession of ice tea and skittles, the police decided to run a background check as well as checking the alcohol blood level of the victim, but not of the shooter. They did not seek out all the witnesses who might have helped them establish what happened before and after the shooting took place until much later. In fact, they did not even try to talk to Trayvon’s girlfriend with whom he was carrying on a conversation with just minutes before the shooting. They relied solely on Zimmerman’s claims of self-defense before deciding to close the case.

The U.S. is a country where the laws matter. But those laws have not originated in a vacuum. In other words, the framers of those laws had not been behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance while they enacted important legislation. Thus, many state and federal laws including the country’s most cherished document helped sustain both slavery (1865-1776) and Jim Crow (1965-1876). Hence, those two systems, as vicious as they were, did not exist outside of the law. Those systems lasted almost 200 years. Unlike China and other European countries, the U.S. is a relative young country, which has been in existence for 236 years. Therefore, African Americans lived under the yoke of sanctioned discrimination for 178 years out of the 236 years of the country’s existence.

The United States is a country of immigrants. No other ethnic groups, however, had to face state-sanctioned discrimination on that scale and with the same relentlessness. African-Americans' distrust of the courts and law enforcement stems from their horrendous treatment under the justice system, which has been in many ways the enforcer of the very laws that buttressed the system that kept them subjugate for so long. Their continuing apprehension is not because they have become prisoners of their past experiences, but because blacks are ten times more likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses than their white counterparts, although African Americans use drugs at a lower level. This huge disparity in arrests has led to mass incarceration of African-American males. Moreover, the failure of police to solve crimes whose victims have been black and their propensity to racially profile African Americans are responsible for this current mistrust.

The nation has been shedding its racial past. In fact, the individual with the most protection in the country is an African American who happens to be the president. Yet, some of its remnants still linger within the criminal justice system. It is this embedded vestige that continues to reemerge on the surface and clutter the path of many AfricanAmericans even in the age of Obama.