We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal. Thomas Jefferson wrote these immortal words in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. One has the right to impose the question Are we truly equal? simply by taking a look at American society. Presently, the United States is a country in which thirty-three percent of the male ages eighteen to thirty years old of African decent are in jail, on probation or parole. This is an exceptionally high statistic in comparison to their white counterparts. Some people argue that those statistics reflect high rate of crime, which is prevalent in African-American communities. Specifically the areas of concern are impoverished. The rate of unemployment is higher than the national average. The average income is considerably lower; this leads to a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. In the nineteen eighties unemployment was high and so was inflation, crack became a channel of escape. Powder cocaine, whose usage also gave rise in the eighties was fashionable in upscale Caucasian neighborhoods and was viewed as glamorous and clean. Just as there is, a difference in the form of a drug that is preferred between the two ethnic groups so is the severity of justice that is meted out. Federal law requires a mandatory sentence of five years for the possession of five grams of crack. To receive the same sentence for cocaine powder form, one must be apprehended in possession of five hundred grams. These disproportionate statistics leads to the notion of the existence of a bias in the justice system to keep the public unequal.
If a bias exists why isn’t it publicized? This question is valid question with an easy answer. If you, a member of the public are also a member of the white majority, you will not be affected by these biases. Since 1995, discrimination in the court system has become easier to notice. This partially stems from the fact that minorities in general have a history of being unable to afford adequate council. Two examples of these discrimination cases are those of Marvin Green (who barely had a traffic violation) and a young man by the name of Christopher Armstrong. In the first case, Green was the passenger in a car that had been stopped by police. The driver of the car abandoned Green leaving him to take the blame for five grams of cocaine that were found in the car. Facing up to forty years in the federal penitentiary, Green with his family’s aid was able to hire a respectable attorney and beat an absurd charge. He was reported to have become the first black acquitted of any crime in the Kansas Federal Courts jurisdiction. The Armstrong case argued that although Armstrong and his co-defendants were not angels by any means, they were selected for federal prosecution because they were black and no other reason. This came during a period of time when the only defendants of federal narcotics charges in California Federal Courts had been minorities. At the same time drug abuse had been relatively parallel in white communities.
Policing of the nation’s streets is commendable; abusing the power that comes along with it is not. Local prosecutors claim that the high arrest rates are higher in black communities because of a reported lack of secrecy or a so-called open air drug market. Despite the general public’s belief, minority convictions relate directly to the fact that they are usually poorly represented by underpaid, understaffed and overworked public defenders. Recent studies have shown that while drug use by whites is at about the same rate as blacks, blacks are five times more likely to be arrested. These alarming rates should call the nation’s attention to an obvious bias. No matter what is done there must be a change in how law enforcement handles the delicate race card. These statistics show that America’s War on drugs is merely a race war incognito.
Do white judges ever consider why there are so many black defendants in criminal cases? Do white judges ever wonder why so few black lawyers appear before them? Do they ever inquire about the history of bar associations that used to exclude Jews and blacks? Do they ever wonder, aloud or otherwise, why there are so few black judges? Concerns have revolved around having white judges who, in large numbers, are called upon daily to preside over the trials of black defendants accused of crime. Are they qualified for such sociological tasks, only incidentally mixed with law? Children are taught in school that John Marshall was the greatest chief justice the land has ever had, but not that on his tenth birthday he received a black slave as a gift and that upon his marriage he received another.
The battles of blacks have always been waged under adverse circumstances. Through their lawsuits for citizen rights, blacks have made U.S. Supreme Court rulings the common knowledge of even the most benighted whites, including white criminal court judges. Although many white cases are unheard of, or don’t receive any media attention at all. The black rulings on the Supreme Court tend to yield the highest publicity. What many blacks are not informed of is that courtrooms are sometimes in secret because what goes on at the bench is a seldom heard beyond that immediate area. What goes on at the bench constitutes the vitals of the entire system. There, the prosecutor, defense counsel, and judge have quiet and earnest discussions. There, plea bargains are struck; the question of what sentence is to be imposed is decided or agreed upon; the amount of a fine is determined; and the urgings of judicial mercy are made. More often than not, the name of the judge is not posted on the bench or elsewhere. Practically anonymous prisoners or defendants come before an unknown judge. Many defendants never know the name of the person who can, and often does, drastically affect their lives, their freedom, and their fortune. Many don’t know the name of the prosecutor who zealously seeks to abort their freedoms that they have. Many of blacks don’t know who they are trusting their fate to. Many of the defendants believe that everything is predetermined and that nothing a defendant can do will make any difference. One prisoner was quoted as saying that the more one resembles the judge, the more likely is the chance for justice or a break. Being that upward of 90 percent of the judges across the country are white and 85 to 90 percent of the criminal court defendants are black or dark Hispanics, the chance of such a chance of getting off is extremely nil. Most of the daily decisions of the Criminal Court are made in the privacy of chambers, in the robing room, or simply off the record. In these totally private sessions, the lawyers and the judge determine a defendant’s fate. The defendant is not present until the judge and lawyers return from making their quiet arrangements.
Both white and black judges are energized by political necessities in finding out what they tend to believe to be the omnipotent power of the black robe.(Wright, 1987) It is presumed that lawyers who reach the bench have studied the political sciences, some business courses, white history, economics, and accounting. Few, however, have touched the heart of social work and the horrible society in which most criminal defendants come from. Few white judges have black friends with who they have talked life experiences on what really goes on in these certain environments. The white judges who end up going into Criminal Court are all to often graduates from schools and colleges who don’t teach the history, and social issues that are out in the real world.
Many black judges tend to be so remote in their social relationship to other blacks that they enjoy being above other blacks and consider themselves the greater of the mass. It is said to happen so much that a named has been used to identify these types of black judges, Afro-Saxons. Unfortunately many Black judges seldom if ever speak out on controversial subjects. They maintain a low profile, wearing at all times the mask of mute and well-behaved dignity. They know their obscure place. Criminal Court judges know they are at the mercy of the mayor who appoints them or whoever is in office at the time of possible reappointment. It is said by one black judge, keeping a low, cautious, and obedient profile will ensure their survival. (Wright, 1987) Taking this statement into context one may understand the problems that are going on within the courtrooms today. Many of the black judges in today’s society must conform to what many of their white superiors thoughts are on criminal law if they plan on keeping their jobs. To the extent that they do the mayor’s bidding, or at least do not offend his standards for judging, they remain qualified, both to sit and to be re-appointed. Many judges find it best not to be too controversial, and it is not in their minds to harbor controversial concerns.
Due to the hidden exceptions in how the justice system treats defendants unequally, the country is in turmoil. These biases have been in existence since the birth of our nation. Albeit that there was progress during the Civil Rights movement, during recent years, there has been a retrograde movement. A study done by the Kerner Commission over thirty years ago stated that instead of moving toward the more perfect Union as described in the United States Constitution, just the opposite is happening We are moving toward two societies one Black and one White–separate and unequal.
Evidence of failure on behalf of the government on all levels is readily available. This can be seen from the riots in the sixties to the Los Angeles riots of the early nineties. Even with last year in New York, the case of Amadou Dialo, racial profiling and bias on behalf of the police goes on unchecked. In the Dialo case four police officers were acquitted of blatant murder. The Gestapo tactics used by modern police officers must not be tolerated. In order for all men to be considered equal we must strive for justice and equality.
Yes, social class plays a big role in an American way of life. For in all honesty, the better your social class the better the legal counsel you can afford. We live in a country however, where a minority holds control over the majority of the liquid assets. It is a travesty for this wealthy and powerful country not to be a haven of equality and peace. As stated in the Kerner Commission, we must seek equality and a balance in both social class and race. For, if we look within ourselves, we will see the truth that lies in front of us. Until we are recognized, as equals by white America justice will never be blind.
Karl Marx stated that Crime is an expression of the individual’s struggle against the unjust social conditions and inequality produced by capitalism. Being that the majority of people living in poverty are minorities one may draw many parallels to this statement. Many white judges though have never been able to grasp this concept therefore leading to the unfair punishments, to the defendants.
Black life is a constant ordeal, and the country is likened to a private club with glorious opportunities, options, and choices for white and, seemingly more recently, oriental immigrants. People who remain insensitive to the constitutional aspirations of black citizens have nevertheless found enough humanitarian enthusiasm to welcome foreign refugees, without remembering that black Americans are themselves refugees in their own land. One day, perhaps, black voters will begin to realize and insist that their black judges be more responsive to black concerns in a white world.
Kerner Comission. 1967
Loewen, James. Lies My Teacher Told Me. The New Press 1995
Manning, Marable. Black Liberation in Conservative America. South End Publishing: 1997
Personal Interview. McGinty, Mike Commonwealth’s Attorney Williamsburg James City County
Wright, Bruce. Black Robes, White Justice. Carol Publishing Group: New York, NY 1990.
Political Issues Essays