Inequality: Race, Crime, and the Law
Inequality: Race, Crime, and the Law
Policing and punishment in America is hardly colorblind. It is not a coincidence that minorities serve longer sentences, have higher arrest and conviction rates, face higher bail amounts, and are more often the victims of police use of deadly force than white citizens. When it comes to criminals, many people have a preconception of what a criminal is. Usually when people think of a criminal they picture a Black or Latino face. The thought of an Asian criminal is often related to Asian gangs. Interestingly enough, White people as a group are rarely associated with the thought of crime, even though they account for 70% of arrests and 40% of the prison population each year (Russel xiv). This seems to be overlooked, though, when people consider their stereotypical views. Minorities have become victims of these stereotypes in the U.S. courts by judges and juries as well as in their neighborhoods by local police.
When asking for fairness, the desire isn’t for more rights for the criminally accused, yet for those rights of the accused to be fairly executed, before they are found guilty or innocent. This being because the system is unfair, it seems to be two different systems: one for the privileged, and one for the less privileged. Cops use methods of investigation and interrogation against minorities and the poor that wouldn’t be accepted against more privileged citizens. Courts assign public defenders to the poor in serious criminal trials that a rich person wouldn’t hire to defend them in a traffic court. Many minorities walk into a courtroom with the feeling that they are guilty until proven innocent. The complexion of their skin is too often viewed as negative. There is no doubt what the reason for it is.
The evening news often leads off with a crime story, many times showing black males being taken away in handcuffs. Black females are portrayed as grieving mothers over the death or arrest of their son or daughter. This is shown so much that it’s impossible to ignore. I’m not denying that the ones shown on the news may, in fact, be guilty, but seeing it so frequently results in Americans incorrectly believing that most black men are criminals. On top of that, they connect the image of arrested individuals on the news, and begin to stereotype all individuals they may come across personally that may have a similar appearance. Consequently, the thought of “black crime” comes to mind. I find it interesting how I have never heard the phrase, “white crime.”
This leads us to racial profiling. Stereotypical views of minorities by police officers can lead to tragic situations. Amadou Diallo was a 22-year-old West African immigrant who lived in the Bronx, New York. He studied English and Computer Science in Singapore and Thailand before coming to America. A devout Muslim, he worked twelve hours a day selling videos to earn enough money to finish his bachelor’s degree. On February 4, 1999, as he was standing in the vestibule of his own apartment, about to open the door, four undercover police in plain clothes, members of the “elite” Street Crimes unit, approached him.
What happened next is unclear, but when the dust settled, the four officers had fired a total of 41 times, at an unarmed man. Somehow, 22 of the 41 shots missed their target, though the officers aimed into a space not larger than a telephone booth. Of the 19 bullets that did hit Diallo, 11 hit him in the legs, five pierced his torso, one hit the right arm, one went through his chest and one entered through his back. The cops’ defense claimed Diallo was behaving suspiciously, and had not obeyed their command to stop. When Diallo raised his wallet, each one of them, imagined that this black man was raising a gun. Because this scared them, they shot at him 41 times.
One year later, on February 25, 2000, the four cops were found not guilty of murder. Diallo’s fear doesn’t matter. Who cares that the skinny black immigrant must have been terrified to see four white guys bearing down on him like thieves or murderers? Not guilty, these four police officers are entitled now to return to their jobs, strap on their guns, and hit the streets armed with the same racism, the same fear that killed Diallo. Police brutality is known to be very common in the Bronx.
With situations such as this one as well as the Rodney King incident in Los Angeles, Blacks have become to fear the police. When a police car approaches them, they can’t decide whether justice will be served or if the cop’s intentions are to harm or even kill them. The integrity of a police officer is not guaranteed to the citizen. In past cases police have been known to plant fake evidence simply to have a reason to arrest a “suspect.” As a result, African-Americans make up about 12% of the general population, but more than half of the prison population (Cole 4). With so much injustice being done to minorities in general, how can you expect minorities to respect a system that doesn’t respect them?
In fact, people are so quick to believe minorities are criminals that they are used as “fake” suspects by citizens who want to hide the real criminals. “Racial Hoaxes” are defined as:
“When someone fabricates a crime and blames it on another person because of his race OR when an actual crime has been committed and the perpetrator falsely blames someone because of his race.” (Russel 70) The negative image of African-Americans has become so bad that “imaginary” Black people are invented as criminals. In some cases Black individuals were even chosen out of a line up and after being identified by who would end up to be the actual committer of the crime. Usually, somebody guilty of racial hoaxing is just charged with filing a false police report.
On that note, hate crimes have been on the rise this past decade. There have been many race-related assaults on minorities. The majority of people arrested for Hate Crimes are White. So why is it that we rarely hear about “White crime?” Although the term “Black Criminality” is often used you never hear the term, “White Criminality.” White crime is rarely labeled. If the media feels the necessity to label crimes then when rural crimes take place they can easily call it “White crime.” When they label crime by race it gives the wrong impression that the criminals race had something to do with the reason he or she committed the crime. What most people do not know or realize is that White offenders are the most common. The following is taken from The Color of Crime by Katheryn Russell:
Whites account for approximately 80 percent of those arrested: driving under the influence (86 percent), liquor law violations (80 percent), and drunkenness (81 percent). For these offenses White arrest rates are on par with their percentage in the population. Table 7.2 also reports that Whites have high rates of arrest for several other offenses, including arson (74 percent), burglary (67 percent), loitering (76 percent), vandalism (73 percent), and sex offenses (75 percent). SOURCE: Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics (1991-1995), Bureau of Justice Statistics
Whites also have a much higher rate of white-collar crimes. Criminologists Francis Cullen and Michael Benson state: “The costs of white-collar crime?the violence it entails, the money it transfers illegally, its damage to the moral fabric?may well outstrip the costs of traditional street crimes.”(Color crime PG 116) Still there is no annual count of white-collar crimes. Some say that criminologists don’t view them as real crimes. The belief that black crime is disproportionate is true, but the belief that African-Americans are responsible for a majority of crime is false. Why is it that we hardly see crime represented in other colors? There is no term “criminalwhiteman” yet people use the term “criminalblackman?”
If more White criminals were in the media’s spotlight, the public image of crime would be completely different. Still, the Black stereotype will never go away unless the media exposes the “criminalblackman” as a misrepresentation. Whites who live in mainly suburban and rural areas, actually commit at a disproportionate rate as well. Only if the public could actually see the amount of Whites committing crimes, they would learn that their racial views about crime were misplaced.
The O.J. Simpson case was proof of the racial division and views about how the law handles cases. Had he been an average middle or lower class Black man who couldn’t afford a good attorney, he would have definitely been found guilty. Even with such overwhelming evidence that this injustice exists to poor minorities, you would never know it by examining the outcome of most minorities accused of a crime.
When it comes to statistics, lack of information may be misleading. The media’s overemphasis on how differently Whites and Blacks viewed the criminal case also masked the fact that many African-Americans believed Simpson was guilty, and many Whites believed he was not guilty. In a poll, it was found that 30% of Blacks believed he was guilty while the number of Whites who felt he was innocent outnumbered Blacks 3: 1. (Color crime, 31).
The public as a whole has a general misconception of the relationship between crime and race. Unfortunately, this misconception is brought into courtrooms. It’s no surprise that things are the way they are given the history of this country. You can change laws but you can’t change people. As long you have the image of minorities being portrayed as criminals in the media, the problem will exist. The problem only makes itself worse as it continues. Inequality is inevitable in today’s society.
This nation is too busy dealing with the problems that arise from the views of race and crime to focus enough attention on fixing them. The problem can’t be fixed until we as a people can agree on what the root of the problem is. It begins in the communities and ends in the justice system. We must look inside the system and the role it play’s in society and what outcome we want from it. We need to use equality rather than personal views when making difficult decisions in society.
Cole, David. No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System.
New York: The New Press, 1999.
Kennedy, Randall. Race, Crime, and the Law New York: Pantheon, 1997
Russell, Katheryn K. The Color of Crime. 1998. 10 Apr. 2002 http://emedia.netlibrary.com/reader/reader.asp?product_id=1331