The Bridge is here again, and prepared for this final look at our Criminal Justice system. Today we want to focus our attention on the issue of race as it pertains to Mass Incarceration. One of the longest bridges our generations is challenged with building is that of strengthening race relations in America. No issue possess as great of a threat to our social fabric than police brutality, racial discrimination and the mass incarceration against communities of color.
One of the lasting consequences of racial segregation, whether geographic or metropolitan, is that we are removed from each others lives. The fact is we all live in different Americas. Sometimes these separate existences aren’t determined by the color of our skin, but race, along with class, are the prominent criteria for accessibility to resources and opportunities in our society. The distance created allows for assumptions to trump (no pun intended) truth. For too long we have lacked a social firewall that prevents ignorance from stealing the show.
As a generation that recognizes the shortcomings of “color-blind” policies,we are still confronted with defiant skepticism from peers and elders at the notion that different communities experience America differently. The fact is, if an average, middle class white person doesn’t want to learn about an abusive and oppressive justice department, he/she wouldn’t have to know a thing—it’s not a part of the white American’s immediate reality. Because even if they had been caught doing the petty crimes of youth, like underage drinking, their skin color and class would have statistically resulted in slaps on the wrist, not a record.
Full disclosure. This organization is overwhelmingly white, and largely come from middle-class rural and suburban backgrounds. We all arrived at The Bridge from realities and upbringings different from those who overwhelmingly bear the burden of “tough on crime” policies. While we strive to adequately discuss issues from a holistic perspective, we recognize that representation matters, and on this front, we fall short. That said with honesty at the core of our integrity, we’ll strive in this edition to discuss how we can best communicate the injustices that people of color face to the communities that we come from.
Today's Ground Rule: if we accept that communities of color have been, and are, continually discriminated against by both law enforcement and our criminal justice system, then we have an irrefutable responsibility to engage and communicate those injustices to our family, friends, communities and demand policies that aggressively combat these injustices.
"History is the present. We carry our history with us. To think otherwise is criminal." -James Baldwin
For a millennial that grew up believing Democrats were a party of moral principle, nowhere has the party’s privation been more discouraging than in their dismal complacency, and even active policy initiatives regarding crime, punishment, justice and mass incarceration. Whether it’s their color-blind silence or their outright advocacy, the result has been appalling—the exacerbation and perpetuation of America’s darkest sin, entrenched inequality, systematic and institutional racism.
There isn’t a more glaring example of how vacuous the party has become than hearing Hillary Clinton speak about inequality, racism and mass imprisonment when twenty years prior she actively sold the black and hispanic inner city—the poor—to the highest bidder in order to help secure Bill’s second term. The hyper-partisan politics has left us with politicians loyal to party over values, with figures full of ambition but void of character.
It was a different time arguments are nonsense. There are, and have always been, two Americas. American history cannot be understood without confronting methodical and institutional racism. Not being honest about our history and choices, is where the establishment is failing the most in the wake of Hillary's defeat. Trying to justify a racist stance in the 90s speaks volumes to their disillusionment. Could we possibly believe that the “progressive” party didn’t know the racial consequences of these policies in 1996?
Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who started his career working to free wrongfully convicted and wrongfully sentenced inmates on death row in Alabama, pondered this question. In a Ted Talk he told a story of speaking in Germany and at the end a person stood to comment, “We don't have the death penalty in Germany. And of course, we can never have the death penalty in Germany… with our history.” Stevenson said he thought about that:
What would it feel like to be living in a world where the nation state of Germany was executing people, especially if they were disproportionately Jewish? I couldn't bear it. It would be unconscionable.
And yet, in this country, in the states of the Old South, we execute people—where you're 11 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white than if the victim is black, 22 times more likely to get it if the defendant is black and the victim is white—in the very states where there are buried in the ground the bodies of people who were lynched. And yet, there is this disconnect.
We are a generation that grew up in an age of superficial reality and yet, either due to it or in spite of it, we crave honesty. We, younger, liberal voters, value equality, opportunity and we crave inspiration. Trump’s lies and deceits are glaringly transparent. However, the way democrats have spent decades sweeping minorities and poor under the rug, trumpeting fear and hamming it up with corporate money is no less deceitful.
In my childish naïveté I thought democrats were the party of principle, the party of morals and values over markets and competition, of compassion over institution, of progress over status quo, of marches on Washington and MayDay fights, of solidarity over individualism and of equality over, everything. It is not, though that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be. And for lack of a better option, it needs to be. But to become it, however, will take some serious honesty in confronting our past, some genuine humanity for the most vulnerable among us, and some furious courage to build an inclusive future, together.
“We knew we couldn't make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities”-John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s domestic policy Chief
No greater example of institutional racism exists within the United States than the War on Drugs. Many people have read the letter of the law, many have interpreted the spirit of the law, and many have conducted studies on the effects of the law. All of them have come to the same conclusion: drug policy in the United States disproportionately affects minorities and destroys communities. Despite the fact that the War on Drugs clearly doesn’t work, we are stuck with many of these harmful policies anyway, all in a misguided effort to be “tough on crime”.
In most every election, at every level, one candidate or another will lay claim to the fact that they are tough on crime- this has become integral to standard campaign rhetoric. It would be hard to imagine a Republican getting elected in a deep red district without making that claim, and the standard measure by which many politicians have chosen to measure toughness on crime is how rigorously they will enforce Nixon—era drug policies. Jeff Sessions, the current Attorney General of the United States and a man who once said that he thought the KKK was ok until he learned they smoked pot (not a joke, he literally said that), is one of the best examples we have of this kind of thinking. He, somewhat bafflingly, is of the belief that the War on Drugs has been a staggering success and that we need greater enforcement of existing drug policies in order to protect the populace.
In reality, being tough on drugs does not necessarily mean being tough on crime. Let us look at Colorado and Amendment 64. After the first full year of legal recreational marijuana in the state of Colorado: the rates of teen use declined, tax revenue increased, a new industry was creating jobs, and the crime rate went down. Legalizing marijuana allowed police departments to focus their efforts elsewhere, which allowed for the deterrence of other crimes. I feel like this bears repeating—liberalizing drug policy actually lowers the overall crime rate. Being tough on crime does not need to mean that we should focus on enforcement of existing policies, but that we should focus on the institution and enforcement of effective policies.
We clearly need to move forward, however, progress is difficult. Getting the electorate to buy into an idea is no easy task, especially when the voters have no real- world familiarity with an issue. The average mid-40’s, White, Trump supporter has never been negatively affected by racially biased policies, but they believe that simply because they aren’t openly calling people “N-----” or lighting crosses on fire in lawns, that they are doing all they need to do for race relations in this country. It isn’t that simple. Conservative voters must stop falling for the “tough on crime” rhetoric and push toward real solutions to this country’s problems that don’t unfairly punish minorities.
Legalizing marijuana, abandoning mandatory minimums for first time and low-level offenders, and equalizing sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine are 3 steps that could be taken to start to repair what we have broken. Not only would these policies increase tax revenue while reducing spending, they would be a large step in the right direction toward racial equality. If we are going to keep beating our chests and screaming about how the United States is a free nation, a fair nation, and a great nation—we need to start acting like it.
United States of Americas
Ian Vanness & Christen Corcoran
In April, 2001 Cincinnati experienced the largest expression of civil unrest since the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. On April 7th an unarmed 19-year-old black man, Timothy Thomas, was shot by Cincinnati police Officer Stephen Roach, while evading several officers pursuing him on 14 misdemeanor warrants, 12 of which were for traffic violations. Onlookers and taxpayers began questioning the pervasiveness of the departments use of racial profiling against young black men. At the time I was finishing 8th grade in the rural college town of Oxford, Ohio. As I recount the events, I am reminded of the question in my head, why would you run away from officers over traffic tickets?
Officer Roach graduated from Oxford’s Talawanda High School, he was a hometown guy. The place of Miami University, our little slice of Americana is quaint. Its residents are overwhelmingly white, and middle class. During the trial, Officer Roach’s character was under examination. At the time the Cincinnati Enquirer interviewed his family, coworkers, old friends and coaches about the Officer’s reputation. Positive comments like Roach’s black friends saying, “he wasn't racist.” His former football coach stated, “There's not a bigoted or racial bone in his body.” “He was a real good kid and a solid citizen.” For all intents and purposes, this very likely could have been the truth, but it was the wrong question.
16 years and millions of camera phones later, America has been engulfed by the same enigma Cincinnati experience in 2001—how can communities (determined by race) experience America, in particular our criminal justice system and law enforcement, so drastically different? As of today, many white Americans, from all walks of political life, still don’t understand, acknowledge, or recognize the unfamiliar reality that led Timothy Thomas to distrust and ultimately flee the police. From Ferguson to Baltimore, we continually hear the question, were the officers and departments racists? This willfully ignores that systemic racism and racial resentment are evasive, subtle, and therefore, more omnipresent in day-to-day life than I as a white male could ever fully comprehend. Having a friend of color can’t be the litmus test we use to determine whether or not racism was culpable, it’s deeper than that, more structural, more pervasive than any one person, any one officer. Our separate Americas have strategically been arranged in order to keep alternative realities hidden, and with it, accountable justice at bay.
Time and time again, growing up in the American public school system, we are fed all men are created equal like the pillsbury boy was fed dough. We were taught incessantly of the bootstrap constitutionalist America with no ruler but the rule of law, and that all men are equal before it. Without knowing better, and without wanting to challenge this ideal, it is easy as a white person to believe this is true. And in this mindset, when a black man runs away from a white police officer, it’s befuddling—couldn’t he just explain his side of the story to the officer?
That’s an easier question to ask, rather than questioning if our system and laws are actually upheld fairly and equally. We were taught these foundational values of American democracy for so many years, many people can’t alter their frame of reference, their perspective, and instead chose to believe the system is fine, and the incident is isolated.Timothy Thomas shouldn’t have ran, the Officer was in a difficult situation, he didn’t deserve to die, but it’s nobody’s fault.
What must change in white America to pop this bubble—the lies that people tell themselves about equality? We can believe everything is equal all we want, but reality says otherwise.
So what is outside that bubble? According to the ACLU, “African Americans are four to five times more likely to be convicted for drug possession, even though whites use drugs at a higher rate.” Once convicted, they are more likely to receive longer sentences due to mandatory minimum laws from the 80s. Abusive policies based upon socio-economic status and race (see Ehrlichman quote from Nick’s Common Ground) and take it from Federal Judge John Gleeson, “prosecutors file mandatory minimums twice as often against black men than against comparable white men.”
The War on Drugs has been the center point of the criminal justice system since Reagan era and is said to be the leading cause of mass incarceration:
There are 21 times the number of federal drug offenders now than there were in the 80s; there are more federal incarcerations for drug offenses than there are for homicide, aggravated assault, kidnapping, robbery, weapons, immigration, arson, sex offenses, extortion, bribery, etcetera, etcetera, combined.
Despite the current attorney general’s position, by no stretch of the imagination can these policies be said to be winning the war on drugs. They are not reducing crime; but more importantly they are systematically being administered unjustly, especially upon black America disproportionately and are not only ruining and taking lives like Timothy Thomas but are decimating entire communities. To quote Bryan Stevenson from the Equal Justice Initiative:
In urban communities across this country — Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington — 50 to 60 percent of all young men of color are in jail or prison or on probation or parole.
In Alabama 34 percent of the black male population has permanently lost the right to vote. We're actually projecting in another 10 years the level of disenfranchisement will be as high as it's been since prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
A study conducted by the DOJ after the Ferguson protests showed that the “Ferguson Police Department and the city's municipal court engaged in a ‘pattern and practice’ of discrimination against African-Americans, targeting them disproportionately for traffic stops, use of force, and jail sentences”.
When people talk about these communities being marginalized it’s because “those most victimized by crime and mass incarceration have had the least capacity to hold lawmakers and other state officials accountable for the penal and other public policies they pursue”. It is a vicious circle of oppression. Skin color simply leads to a higher probability of incarceration which leads to structural separation and discrimination.
Now why is the disregarding of such basic constitutional and inalienable rights being met with so little nationwide, united, outcry? The uncomfortable truth? Disbelief is a more convenient alternative than action. Self-reflection comes at the expense of altering one's worldview, even identity. Recognizing the illusion that is all men are created equal follows the realization of one’s complicity in the system. It's often easier to focus and place blame on individual choice, or misperceived cultural values, than it is to dissect a complex, interconnected societal construct like institutional racism. One who tries to justify it as not being a fault of an unequal system, can only be coming from an unmolested place, segregated from this reality. Timothy Thomas, why would you run?
It is jarring to admit that our system is not color-blind when it comes to allocating rights: but to ignore this fact is a perpetuation of privilege. Realizing our own roles in the matter is an endeavor that will take much more reproach, effort, and time. Our laws must be enforced in a way that reflects the universality that everyone really is created equally. If we hold this truth to be self-evident, then the criminal justice systems needs to be the first battleground.
We are sorry we are unable to bring more depth to the implications of mass incarceration on communities of color through an interview. However, in lieu of an interview we thought it important to highlight a couple less known institutions we relied on for this edition and are out there, every day, fighting for liberty and justice for all (and p.s. they have plenty of opportunities to get involved):
Author’s Note from Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, the founder of EJI:
With more than two million incarcerated people in the United States, an additional six million people on probation or parole and an estimated sixty-eight million Americans with criminal records, there are endless opportunities for you to do something about criminal justice policy or help the incarcerated or formerly incarcerated. If you have interest in working with or supporting volunteer programs that serve incarcerated people, organizations that provide re-entry assistance to the formerly incarcerated or organizations around the globe that seek reform of criminal justice policy, please contact us at the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. You can visit our website atwww.eji.org or email us at email@example.com.
This organization’s profound tagline says it all, “those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, but furthest from resources and power.” Founder Glenn E. Martin spent several years incarcerated in a New York state prison during the 1990s. His mission was to create a vehicle for those more immediately affected by mass incarceration to voice their concerns in order to reform the system. Their goal is to reduce the number of those incarcerated in half by 2030. You can follow their progress and media by using their hashtag #Halfby2030. “Our American values remind us that prisons must no longer serve as a substitute for sound social policies. Problems like mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness are better addressed through comprehensive community based social services and interventions that cost less and yield greater results. Join #Halfby2030 and demand a justice system that is fair, effective, and reflective of our values.” You can join JLUSA by visiting their website at www.justleadershipusa.org and become a member to help advocate for the organization’s goals.