Many of us watch in horror as white supremacists, neo-nazis, and racists come out of the woodwork to march. Why is our country not better than this? We inherit many original sins from our founders, but why do KKK members now find it safe to stop hiding their faces in hoods? Why are the racists now openly, proudly, shamelessly taking up their Tiki-torches of hate? Yes, we have a Bigot in Chief running the show whose political rhetoric and governance champion racism. And yes, the media has sanitized the abhorrent fanaticism, giving it the benign name “alt-right” and, until recently, refusing to call violence in the name of racial hatred domestic terrorism. But, while both Trump and the media are certainly blameworthy to varying degrees, to stop there, without considering the other ongoing institutional factors that continue to fuel this problem, would be a profound oversimplification.
The reality is that our criminal justice system has always tolerated violence against people of color. Racial disparities inflicted on an institutional level have implicitly given the haters permission for violence. A recent analysis by The Marshall Project illustrates the hidden extent of the problem. The Project analyzed civilian shootings between 1980 and 2014 and found that when a white person shoots a black man, the police find the killing to be justified (thus the killer faces no legal consequences) 17% of the time. Compare that with when white people get shot – only 2% of those shootings are considered justified. The implicit message from this disparity is that black lives don’t really matter in our justice system.
And even when there are legal consequences for the killings of black men, our justice system devalues black lives. Think of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager walking home from the neighborhood convenient store with his bag of Skittles, gunned down by George Zimmerman, who was then found not guilty of any crime. Twenty-five states have passed Stand Your Ground Laws: laws that allow people like Zimmerman to shoot first in public, when they claim to perceive a threat, even if they could safely avoid force by retreating. The Stand Your Ground laws are laws authorizing the George Zimmerman’s of the world to go ahead and shoot.
This disparity was on vivid display during last weekend’s hateful violence, where white purveyors of bigotry in Charlottesville were allowed to parade around with semiautomatic weapons. Imagine what would happen if a Black Lives Matter rally brought out black men and women toting assault rifles—we could easily foresee a bloodbath at the hands of the police.
The criminal justice system also sends its message that the lives of people of color are less important through the extreme over-incarceration of African Americans. According to the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, in eleven states at least 1 in 20 adult black men is in prison, 1 in 15 in Oklahoma. In Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin, African American men are imprisoned at a rate of more than ten times the rate of white men. In twelve states, more than half the prison population is black. In Maryland, 72% of the prison population is black. These are staggering numbers, especially considering that the United States has, by far, the highest incarceration rate in the world. In fact, a stunning 37 out of 50 states have individual incarceration rates that top any country in the world.
And for those who might use those numbers to support racist beliefs that it must mean that African-Americans are inherently dangerous, let’s be clear: the disparate sentencing is unjustified. Not only is there discrimination throughout the entire process – from who gets stopped by the police, to who gets arrested, to who gets charged, to how they’re charged, what plea deal they’re offered, and who sits on their jury – black people are sentenced to far higher sentences than white people for the same crimes under the same circumstances.
The criminal justice system sends the message that black lives don’t matter in this country and, all too frequently, it condones violence against African Americans. This is not an aberration, but another example that our country is far from shedding its racist legacy. Is it really any wonder that it took so little for the racist, xexnophobic, anti-semitic haters to openly trade in their hoods and cloaks for polo shirts and Dockers?