Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, at University of Minnesota, hosted a discussion that promised to be about “building trust between the criminal justice system and communities of color.” They introduced it as a post Mike Brown and Eric Garner analysis and I was hopeful the all white panel of three would offer something insightful; albeit ethnocentric. Unfortunately, without any explanation, they never once discussed the recent disturbing events nor did they offer any new information regarding the racial divide that persists in our courts.
The only mention by the panel in relation to the recent rash of deadly force against unarmed black men was a statement by KARE reporter, John Croman, who said the events have, “broken our hearts and called for our attention.” His guests, Sociology Professor Christopher Uggen and District Court Judge Leonardo Castro, never mentioned the events and instead offered a lesson in the sociological causes of crime in black America and a dissection of the wheels of the justice system.
Judge Castro shared an experience of a Somali juror who enlightened him with a story about racial profiling. The juror used to drive an old, beat up car when he first arrived in the country and he said he was stopped almost daily by the police but as soon as he was able to purchase a newer car he was stopped significantly less.
However, Castro seemed to mostly equate the difference between black and white treatment to two things: he believes more black males need to graduate high school if they want equal treatment and he also feels that the laws are more harsh on the types of crimes that blacks commit, thus creating an appearance of what Uggen referred to as “racialized mass incarceration”. He explained that judges have mandatory minimal sentences and for reasons unknown to him, crimes such as vehicular manslaughter carry a minimum sentence of 48 months whereas possession of illegal drugs carries a minimum sentence of 86 months. Castro explained that whites tend to use drugs like cocaine and do it discretely in their homes.
I found the Judge’s explanations short sighted since he just finished telling the audience that black males are indeed pulled over by police more frequently and it is reasonable to assume that is when drugs are discovered. It seemed he was saying that graduating high school will afford black men a better car and they can reduce, but not eliminate, their chances of random searches.
I by no means think black Americans are not accountable for their choices, and if the law bizarrely over-punishes those who possess drugs instead of those who drunkenly kill people, then the drunk driver and the drug user must each face their own consequences. Judge Castro added a disturbing caveat, however. Castro shared a story of a young white male who killed four people while drunk driving and was given the minimum sentence of 48 months instead of the possible sentence of 48 months per victim. Castro explained that judges try to decide how much of a criminal threat an individual is and sentence accordingly. For me, it begged the question; how is that analysis done?
John Croman talked about a 90 second story he covered for KARE; it was supposed to be a positive story about life in the predominantly black neighborhood of North Minneapolis. He found two men tossing a football around on their lawns with their children and interviewed the family on camera. That evening he was contacted by the police department and confronted for his choice to interview those particular men. “Why did you waste your time talking to those two felons?” They demanded. Croman was struck by the way the fathers were labeled.
Christopher Uggen explained the cumulative impact of labeling and how it prevents black individuals from gaining access to the jobs and housing that would allow them to join mainstream society. Criminal records seem to define the rest of their lives leading to a road of poverty and a lack of choices. “I committed crimes as a young man and it was due to the compassion and wisdom of a few officers and a judge that I wasn’t marred by those mistakes.” Uggen confessed that such lenience and understanding is not often afforded to black youth.
For me, the most troubling moment was when Judge Castro stated that both the appearance of justice and the carrying out of justice are equally important. “Justice must happen all the way along the trail” he asserted. How can either happen in a system that admittedly has separate and unequal systems for the same crimes? More importantly, how can either of those happen when a panel about black disparity in America doesn’t invite a single black perspective to participate? How can justice exist when the acknowledgment of disparity is followed up by putting the responsibility upon the disenfranchised to change their behaviors without an honest and introspective look at how we disparage them? Most of all, if our thinkers and leaders are too uncomfortable to discuss aloud the fact that we all watched a video of Eric Garner being choked to death on a public street for selling loose cigarettes and we did not charge his murderers with a crime, how in the hell will we ever do as they promised; build trust between the criminal justice system and communities of color?
If we collectively turn our heads the other way every time law enforcement and leaders twist laws and use them in a way we know in our hearts is unequal, if we tolerate their obfuscation and intellectualizing without ourselves speaking up, we ultimately undermine freedom, and decency and justice for us as a whole. If we can each work to change a small portion of events, then collectively we will become a generation that made a significant change. We can no longer afford to allow the status quo to comfortably pontificate from behind their benches, their educational institutions, and their cameras. The only way left to rebuild trust between the criminal justice system and communities of color is to retire those who have perpetuated and exasperated the system. The time of pacification has ended and if we as a society lie down with the dead then we will be buried with them.
The great President Lincoln warned, “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or exercise their revolutionary right to overthrow it.”