Yes, Race Still Matters in Our Criminal Justice System

Friday, March 11, 2011

Several years ago, comedian Chris Rock created a “public service announcement” called “How Not to Get Your Ass Kicked by the Police.” 

The message includes obvious directions like “obey the law” and as well as tongue-in-cheek suggestions like “if you have to give a friend a ride, get a white friend” and satire about police reactions. This piece is funny because it is based on a simple truth known throughout communities of color:  If you are a black or brown man, you don’t have to work very hard to attract the attention of the police.

I was reminded of this piece a few weeks ago when I attended a meeting with a number of leaders from Seattle’s communities of color and other advocacy organizations and representatives of the Department of Justice.  The meeting was scheduled in response to the call by the ACLU and 34 other organizations for the DOJ to investigate whether the Seattle Police Department has engaged in a pattern or practice of civil rights violations.  As an introduction to her comments, one of the community leaders referenced the Chris Rock piece.  Everyone laughed because we all understood what she meant. 

People of color live every day with the knowledge that their appearance will affect the way they are treated in the criminal justice system.  But some other people believe that racial bias is something of a myth.  Last fall, this difference in perspective was underscored by reports of comments made by two Washington Supreme Court Justices who disputed the notion that our justice system is racially biased.  In the words of one justice:  “certain minority groups" are "disproportionally represented in prison because they have a crime problem."  Those comments led the three Washington state law schools and the Washington State Access to Justice Board to convene a Task Force on Race in the Criminal Justice System.  The Task Force issued a preliminary report and presented its findings to the Washington Supreme Court in a meeting on March 2, 2011 in Olympia.  The report details the many ways that researchers have documented the racial bias in our criminal justice system, beginning with the disparity in police contacts with people of color through the disproportionate number of African Americans in our prisons.  For a short primer on the research results, take our quiz.

The problem is daunting, but the ACLU is hard at work with our allies to find ways to reduce this racial disparity.  We are working to improve police training and accountability which should reduce the disproportion in contacts with people of color.  We are advocating against bills that will increase the number of youth of color fed into the criminal justice system.  And, understanding that the “war on drugs” has resulted in a huge increase in incarceration of people of color, we are pursuing legislation that will replace the current criminal sanction for marijuana use with a taxation and regulation system.

Our aim is to limit the unnecessary use of force and other misconduct against people who are simply trying to live their lives in our communities.  Our goal is to get to a point where we can truly claim that justice is blind.