I had the opportunity yesterday to go to a panel discussion that was held by several campus entities, including the Institute for African American Research, Carolina Women’s Center and the Afro-African American Studies Department. The panelists were the Mayor of Chapel Hill/a defense attorney ( male, white), one of our political science professors ( male, white) and the President of the Chapel HIll/Carrboro NAACP/Sociology professor ( female, black).
They were talking about the death penalty and how it is so unfairly given to black men and how inequitable the justice system is. The statistics they shared were truly horrific. The defense attorney cited potential death penalty cases where 100% of black jurors had been eliminated from the pool, despite having said they would uphold the death penalty if the defendant was judged to be guilty. In the same cases only 24% of white jurors were excused and not chosen to serve on the jury.
So the system is broken at the beginning of the process, jury selection. Or even earlier, before you ever get into a court room. The prevailing wisdom in the black community is that black people, especially black men, are guilty until proven innocent. Even when they are proven innocent, as was Ronald Cotton in the Summer Reading book at Carolina, ” Picking Cotton”, they still have a hard row to hoe, with some people firmly convinced they are guilty.
The Mayor told of one case where a black man, poor, borderline mentally handicapped, was convicted of a murder with virtually no evidence. A man had been killed in the town and no one was arrested for seven years. After seven years the ex-girlfriend of a man “Beau” walked into the police station and told the police Beau had killed the man.
Beau was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death. There was no gun, no forensic evidence, nothing. But Beau was, as far too many black men are, viewed as disposable in the society he was living in. In cases like this the jury frequently seems to feel that if the black man is not guilty of this he is guilty of something and might as well be jailed.Beau was lucky, he had a high powered lawyer take an interest in his case and, after 11 years on death row, he was exonerated and freed. You have to wonder how many black men have not been as lucky and have had their time on death row run out before they can get a new trial or hearing.
A white male in the audience raised his hand to ask a question. When he was called on he said that he had recently been incarcerated briefly. He said in his experience the black men in jail with him thought being in jail was better than being out on the streets and homeless. He said that a lot of the men were drug addicts and could still get their drugs in jail along with room and board.
The audience kind of gave a collective sigh as he finished speaking. This young man was not speaking from any animus against black men, he was just speaking from a societal background of privilege which led him to presume that black men are born criminals just waiting to be apprehended.
After about an hour of the panel sharing their mournful statistics and anecdotes with us, the conversation switched to education. The link between dropping out of high school and ending up in jail is well documented. We know that black males are among the top groups likely to drop out of high school. My question is, why don’t we do something about that, or at least wonder why that is?
In my experience Many white female teachers are fine with black males until those males begin to look like men. Then suspensions go up, some white female teachers begin to express fear when the black male is insolent or disobedient, rather than annoyance which they tend to express when white males are similarly disobedience or insolent. As a result the white male may end up with detention while the black male ends up suspended, often for the same or equal offense.
Another lovely trait I observed, both as a classroom teacher for 18 years and an educational researcher for 5, was that even if the white female teacher ( more than 90% of our K-12 teaching staff) was not afraid of the black male, she did not expect a lot from him. If he was not violent or aggressive she tended to not push her luck, as long as he was quiet and obedient he would pass, not with a good grade, true, but he would pass.
I even had white teachers tell me that they did not push their black male students to achieve academically because they did not want to embarrass them, or cause them ot have a harder time in school when their lives were already so hard. How nice.
Until Americans are ready to give up the Myth of the Meritocracy, confront racism and other forms of bias we will continue to see black men jailed, sentenced to death and executed because we simply do not care enough as a society to stop it.
Educational researchers have filled tomes with examples of disparate treatment, from Jonathan Kozol’s wonderful “Savage Inequalities” to Lisa Delpit’s “Other people’s children.” I could fill a page with researchers who document and diagnose the way that black children are treated differently and short-changed in American schools, particularly black males.
So, we know black males tend to get a raw deal from the justice system. We also know that in many cases the school systems are not exactly places of welcome and encouragement for them and we know what happens when they cannot finish school and get jobs that can support themselves and/or their families. Again, why aren’t we doing anything about it?
Post Script: In 2009 the NC legislature finally passed the Racial Justice Act. It permits defense attorneys to use proof of racism to argue against the death penalty. This year the Republican party in NC has targeted the Act as something they want to repeal. As part of their efforts they have been distributed a flier with the phrase ” Meet your new neighbor” on the front and mug shots of two death row inmates, one white, one black on the inside. The text in brochure says that the Act, supported by a named Democratic state congressman, will let murders out of jail early. In actuality the law only allows the convicted murder to be sentenced to life in prison rather than death. The people who made the brochure know they were not being truthful, but they are betting on John Q public’s notorious lack of critical thinking skills and personal research or inquiry to make that a moot point. Is it any wonder that people believe that black men are dangerous and should be kept out of society?
The more things change…….