Friday, August 16, 2019
African Americans and the Prison System Essay
I. Introduction In the book the Mugging of Black America, Earl Ofari Hutchinson relays an interesting experience by a reporter. The reporter, who spent two and a half hours watching suspects march before Washington, D. C. Superior Court Judge Morton Berg, noted that all but one of these subjects was Black. He stated, ? Ã §There is an odd air about the swift afternoon? Xan atmosphere like that of British Africa in colonial times? Xas the procession of tattered, troubled, scowling, poor blacks plead guilty or not guilty to charges of drug possession, drug distribution, assault, armed robbery, theft, breaking in, fraud and arson. According to Hutchinson, the reporter witnessed more than a courtroom scene; he witnessed the legacy of slavery. This paper will attempt expand on Hutchinson? Ã ¦s theory. It will do so by first describing slavery and its lasting impact then it will attempt to show how the current criminal justice system mirrors slavery. PART 1: Slavery I. The History of Oppression and African Americans The history of the oppression as it relates to African Americans began in 1619. It was this year in which a Dutch ship brought the first slaves from Africa to North America. Following this arrival of twenty Africans in Virginia, white European-Americans created the institution of slavery. Slavery spread so quickly that by 1860 the original twenty slaves turned into nearly four million. In the beginning the legal status of these Africans was undefined. This absent definition created a lack of certainty which allowed for some slaves to become free after years of service. This only lasted briefly. In the 1660s, however, the colonies began enacting laws that defined and regulated slaves and the institution of slavery. One of the most important of these was the provision that black slaves, and the children of slave women, would serve for life. These ? Ã §breeding laws were just the beginning. Soon, slavery in the United States was governed by a body of laws developed from the 1660s to the 1860s. Even though every slave state had its own slave code and case law, it became universal that slavery was a permanent condition. In addition to slavery being a permanent condition, slaves were also, under these laws, considered property. Slaves, being property, could not own property or be a party to a contract. Since marriage is a form of a contract, slave marriages had no legal standing. Most codes also had sections regulating free blacks. Under these codes blacks who were not slaves were still subject to controls on their movements and employment. These laws served not only as a physical limitation, but an ideological one also. In addition to granting slave owners and white people power over slaves and in some cases free blacks, the laws also granted slaveholders and white-Europeans an intangible source of power. Socially, the institution of slavery allowed white slave owners to believe they had not only physical control, but physical and mental superiority over the slaves. With only a few exceptions, all slaves were Africans. This fact placed the label of inferiority on black skin. The actual institution of slavery as it relates to master and slave lasted up in till the Civil war. The American Civil War was fought, in part, over slavery. During the war, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which ? Ã §freed all slaves. This seemingly, brought the end of slavery throughout the United States, but unfortunately left a lasting impression. From this point on slavery took on a new form as former slaves being associated with the label of inferiority. II. The lasting effects of slavery: continuous oppression Slavery is defined by Webster? Ã ¦s dictionary as ? Ã §The state of being under the control of another person . Aalthough the actual physical control and violence supposedly ended after the emancipation proclamation, The intangible theory of supremacy derived from the institution of slavery resulted in many lasting effects. These effects in and of themselves are a form of force, a form slavery. a. The lost sense of culture and cultural pride: Feeling of inferiority Slave drivers made great efforts to eliminate African culture. For instance Africans were beaten if they were caught speaking their native languages or carrying out native rituals . Therefore, they were not able to effectively pass the languages, stories and traditions on to their children. This forced suppression resulted in the loss of verbal records and a rich legacy of history. It is no secret that there is pride in culture. Taking away the culture takes away the pride and the motivation and results in feelings of worthlessness. b. no economic foundation Slave drivers not only attempted to deprive the Africans of there culture and pride, but they successfully robbed them economically. Slaves were forced to work without pay for years while padding the pockets of the slave owners. This deficit of economics resulted in an inability to establish an economic foundation in the United States. c. Unleveled playing field Along with the deprivation of financial resources, another significant factor concerning the state of African Americans is arrested development. Slaves were deprived of opportunities to learn and become more competitive in many areas of society. Black people were not allowed to read or learn to read, so they could not take advantage of written text. All these lasting effects placed blacks in a severely disadvantaged state when slavery was Ã¢â¬Å"abolishedÃ¢â¬ , led a socioeconomic structure in which white people generally held the highest ranks and Black people generally held the lowest ranks. III. Maintaining oppression In order to maintain this socioeconomic structure, there always seems to be a new form of oppression set in place to maintain ? Ã §slavery. As if the above detrimental effects of slavery were not enough, the White southerners were anxious to maintain more direct power and control over people with black skin, despite there classification as ? Ã §free. The White southerners decided to, again, use the law in order crystallize there theory of inferiority and keep black people at the lowest ranks. In 1865, southerners created Black Codes, which served as a way to control and inhibit the freedom of ex-slaves. These historic Codes controlled almost all aspects of life, and prohibited African Americans from almost all the freedoms that had been won during the Civil War. The codes, which were blatantly racist and oppressive, were eventually suspended in June 1866, during the ? Ã §reconstruction era. During this time period in America and despite resistance, African-Americans were slowly becoming part of this nationÃ¢â¬â¢s inclusion. By 1868, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution confirmed the long awaited citizenship for Blacks in America. By 1870, the 15th Amendment was added to the Constitution which made it illegal to deny the right to vote based on race. The Reconstruction era, although short-lived, showed the first real attempts of inclusive freedom for African-Americans since the abolition of slavery. Gains were taking place: Citizenship, Voting, Education, and Politics. But, the underlying desire to have power over those in black skin never subsided. Just like the black Codes, this desire to dominate again manifested itself in another form, Jim Crow Laws. These laws promoted discrimination and the denial of equal protection by law. Just like the codes, they too were eventually abolished. Just like the Codes, Jim Crow laws, the desire of our society to suppress those in black skin will soon take another form. Today that form is the Criminal Justice System. PART 2 The New Age Slavery: The Prison System I. The Prison Institution Prisons are big in the United States. During the past 20 years, the United States experienced a massive increase in incarceration. The prison population increased fourfold, from 330,000 in 1980 to nearly 1. 4 million in 1999, and the incarceration rate increased from about 140 to about 476 per 100,000 resident populations. Today there are more than two million Americans behind bars. But even more startling is the fact that more than one-half of these incarcerated Americans have black skin. Although black Americans only make up about 12% of the US population, they account for more then 30% of all arrests, 44% of all prisoners and 40% of prisoners on death row. II. Race and the Prison System These obvious disparities in the criminal justice system can be attributed to many different things ranging from racial profiling to the lack of opportunity and poor education, but most criminal justice observers believe that these disparities have emerged from the underlying assumptions rooted in slavery. The assumption that slaves were inferior has carried over to today. Currently this theory of inferiority and desire to maintain oppression influences one of the major policies in place attacking African Americans today, the ? Ã §war on drugs. Most of the shocking disparities in the criminal Justice System as it relates to African Americans in prison can be attributed to the ? Ã §war on drugs. According to a study by Human Rights Watch, African-Americans comprise 62 percent of the drug offenders admitted to state prisons. In seven states, Ã¢â¬Å"blacks constitute between 80 and 90 percent of all people sent to prison on drug charges. Ã¢â¬ According to studies of the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights, African-Americans constitute 15 percent of the national drug users, but comprise an amazing one-third of all those arrested on drug charges and 57 percent of those convicted on drug charges. The criminal justice system generally, and contemporary crime and drug policies in particular, serve as a means for White America to control the African Americans like they did in the 1600 . III. The lasting oppression Similarly to the black codes and segregation implemented after the abolition of slavery; restrictions are placed on prisoners after they are released. Once a prisoner is released from prison, parole and the bans on public assistance, public housing restrictions, etc. create barriers and a seemingly doomed cycle of dominance. Since half of the prisoners in prison are African American, these barriers, like the lasting effects of slavery, have a disproportionate effect on our black communities. III. The effects of oppression According to the Department of Justice? Ã ¦s Bureau of Justice statistics, the number of adults in prison, jail, or on probation or parole reached almost 7 million during 2004. Since Blacks comprise 30 percent of probationers and 41 percent of prisoners. That means around 4,500,000 African Americans are affected directly by the criminal justice system. Unfortunately those African Americans sent to prison or under parole are not the only people affected. The impact on the black community does not stop at the prison door, conversely it goes far beyond. Even after a prisoner is released there are lasting effects to the prisoner, his or her family and the community as a whole. a. Demise of the Black family One effect of the high rate of incarceration of African American males in particular has been the decreasing number of marriageable men in the African American community. Along with high rates of homicide, AIDS-related deaths and other factors, this has created a substantial imbalance in the male-female ratio among adult African Americans. Whereas gender ratios for African Americans at birth are about 102-103 males for every 100 females, by the age range 40-44, this declines to 86 males per 100 females, whereas white rates are 100:100 for this group. b. Lost political voice The impact of the criminal justice system on the black community goes beyond the declining family structure to issues of political influence as well. As a result of laws that disenfranchise felons and ex-felons in various states, an estimated 1. 4 million African American males, or 13% of the black male adult population, is either currently or permanently disenfranchised as a result of a felony conviction. In fourteen states, a felony conviction can result in lifetime disenfranchisement, and in seven of these states, an estimated one in four black males is permanently disenfranchised. Thus, not only are criminal justice policies contributing to the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans, but imprisonment itself then reduces the collective political ability of African Americans to influence these policies. V. Solutions The constant demise in the structure of the black family, lost political influence and seemingly arrested development are all very familiar results of a history of oppression. Since these effects of slavery and disparities in the criminal justice system seemingly steam from hundreds of years ago there is no Ã¢â¬Å"quick fixÃ¢â¬ . Ideally the answer would lie in the destruction of all prejudice. But, it is impossible to erase the deep seated legacy and resurfacing effects of slavery. Therefore this problem must be attacked from a variety of different angles. Recommendations for change can be considered in the areas of awareness, legislative change, criminal justice officials? Ã ¦ initiatives, and criminal justice/community partnerships. The following are some suggested that will allow for a beginning to a seemingly circular and endless problem. 1. Legislative Actions Legislation should be pushed to Reconsider Mandatory Sentencing Policies and Equalize Penalties for Crack and Powder Cocaine . 2. Criminal Justice Officials? Ã ¦ Initiatives ?n Criminal Justice Officials should Expand Drug Policy Options And Expand the Use of Alternative Sentencing 3. Criminal Justice/Community Partnerships. The criminal Justice system and the community should attempt to Increase Community-based Diversion from the Criminal Justice System And Strengthen the Link between Communities and the Justice System VI. Closing Oppression in the form of institutionalization is nothing new to those dressed in black skin; it has been present since 1619. In this year Africans were brought to the United States and forced into the institution of slavery. Even after the abolition of slavery, a series of codes and segregation laws were set in place to maintain the suppression of black people because black skin was stigmatized as inferior. Even though the prejudice and biased codes and laws were eventually abolished themselves, this stigma remains. Because this theory of black inferiority was embedded in the American culture due to slavery, various means of oppression are able to continually resurface in different forms. Today that form is Criminal Justice System, more specifically the drug policies. Practically mirroring the institution of slavery, African Americans are being controlled and dominated by this system. Control by the USCJS includes the probation, parole, imprisonment, lost economic power, struggling communities and lost political voice. In order to end this vicious cycle of oppression, action must be taken. First people must be made aware of the disparities. Next those who are made aware must press for legislative change, criminal justice officials? Ã ¦ initiatives, and criminal justice/community partnerships. The challenge for the community at large is to engage in broad discussion of the mix of family, community, and government initiatives that can begin to reverse the cycle that has been set in motion in recent years. Let? Ã ¦s do what Abraham attempted o do in 1877, let? Ã ¦s end this legacy of slavery.