Just about everyone agrees that it’s imperative we find solutions to problems of racial disparity among those incarcerated. Over 45% of those incarcerated are people of color although they only represent about 25% of the U.S. population (see more details below).
Police as Headwaters of Racism. Because of racial disparity in arrests and incarceration, there’s a perception that a majority of police officers must be going around and intentionally arresting people of color, and that is how we ended up with such a high percentage of people of color incarcerated. An aspect of this theory that is flawed are the high number of 911 calls where officers are dispatched and not initiating the contact but responding to a public request. It’s easy to blame police, but if one does, they will never find the causes and solutions that actually exist elsewhere.
Public Perception and Selective Social Media. Something that’s influenced public perception of law enforcement is YouTube, blogs, and independent media. Let’s say police officers nation-wide are engaged in a million incidents per year. Let’s say 900,000 incidents are fairly routine and just enforcing basic laws. Then there’s another 99,900 that were opportunities to help people, save lives, and go above the call of duty. Let’s say the remaining 100 incidents per year were problematic — perhaps an officer, in a tense situation, depending on the context and that officer, maybe the officer overreacts and uses too much force to subdue and apprehend someone. Or, maybe it’s a story of racial profiling (individual or neighborhood). Or, perhaps an officer is engaged in some kind of illegal activity. Unfortunately, the stories that make it in the news and the videos are pulled from the much smaller percentage of sensationalized incidents. The stores that seem to make headline news and go viral are the .1% (tenth of a percent) stories, and it’s those that shape public perception. Stories of corruption are important and need to be addressed, however, they really need to be balanced by a more representative presentation of the 99.9 other stories about law enforcement serving the public.
National Problem. According to a Criminal Justice Fact Sheet from the NAACP:
- African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
- African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
- Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
- According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%
It’s hard to disagree about hard data and facts.
What people disagree on is the cause of racial disparity in the justice system.
- Internal Causes. Some people conclude that the racial disparity in the justice system is almost entirely the fault of the justice system being internally racist in some way, and if we’ll just fix the justice system then the problem will be solved. This is the position of those opposed to building larger jails: “Fix the racially biased justice system first, and then you won’t need larger jails.” Or, similarly, “I’m not in favor of investing any tax payer money in a system that’s been proven to be racially biased.” Yet, the specifics of where racial unfairness exists and who is specifically at fault seem to be elusive. Who, specifically, are the people making racially biased decisions? What, specifically, are the laws that need to be changed? Are specific judges racially biased? Who, specifically, are the police officers who tend to focus their energy and attention on neighborhoods where people of color predominantly live? Who, specifically, are the police officers who use racial profiling (consciously or subconsciously) when deciding who to pull over?
- External Causes. It’s highly unlikely that there is a nation-wide conspiracy to disproportionately arrest people of color and treat them unfairly. What’s more plausible is that we’ve created (or permitted) a racially biased and unfair social, economic, and political structure where people of color are discriminated against at foundational levels of education, employment, and opportunity — then, we act surprised when some of these disenfranchised, marginalized, and oppressed people grow up, break some laws, and get arrested. Anyone coming from a difficult background, with limited means, is going to have less access to legal services, outside support, and bail money. This will, of course, make their situation worse.
- Both Internal and External Causes. Of course, the answer is probably that both internal and external influences are resulting in the racial disparity we see in the justice system.
Finding Solutions. It’s easy to blame “the police” or “the justice system” for racial disparities. However, the problem isn’t as simple as correcting a failed justice system. The problem permeates our entire society. Blame shifting simply avoids addressing the real problems, and inhibits finding real solutions. The solutions are going to be found “way up stream” and not in a local jail or court system.