Unequal Justice

A last word on criminal justice disparities.

I still remember how astonished I was when, some twenty years ago, at a meeting of a small group of executives and government officials of which I was then a part, someone asked “how many of you have ever been stopped for speeding?” Every hand went up. The follow-up question was: “How many of you then had your vehicle searched?” Every black hand went up; no white one did. These were well-educated, well-dressed, well-spoken upper-middle class citizens.

Discriminatory laws are easier to change than the historic social structures and ingrained attitudes that have privileged white citizens and disadvantaged black ones for over two hundred years.

Social change tends to be slow and difficult, and racial disadvantage isn’t just economic. Even when the laws of the land are facially neutral, they are not always neutrally applied. If you are black, and especially if you are poor and black, the justice system you encounter is markedly different—and considerably less just—than the system that governs your Caucasian fellow-citizens.

In 1999, David Cole wrote what has come to be regarded as a seminal work on the issue of equality in the American justice system, No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the Criminal Justice System. The book documented pervasive race- and class-based double standards in criminal justice.

Cole’s unsparing look at the American justice system examined everything from police behavior and jury selection to sentencing; he argued that our system not only fails to live up to the promise of equality, but actually requires double standards to operate. Cole argued that it is the disparities in the system that allow the privileged “to enjoy constitutional protections from police power without paying the costs associated with extending those protections across the board to minorities and the poor.”

In its review of the book, the New York Times said “No Equal Justice makes a strong case that we have tolerated a law enforcement strategy that depends on the exploitation of race and class divisions.”

Although this unequal application of the law falls most heavily on poorer African-Americans, more affluent members of the community are hardly exempt. (There was something of a media firestorm when prominent Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates was arrested for “breaking in” to his own home after a trip to China; police initially refused to believe he lived there.)

White America has finally begun to confront the reality of our unequal application of the laws. Thanks to technology and the proliferation of smartphone cameras and other digital recording devices, social media is filled with visual evidence of police conduct that challenges our most cherished beliefs about the maintenance of law and order. Recent books, like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, an eye-opening examination of the drug war, have added to the evidence of dysfunction.

Even Congress—in a rare bipartisan effort—has acknowledged the inequities and is attempting to reform the system.

If we are to create a truly equal society—defined as a society that gives its citizens a level playing field and genuinely equal protection of the laws—we must look beyond economic security, important as that is. We also need to ensure that our government institutions are not treating similarly-situated citizens differently based upon the color of their skin rather than upon their behavior.


  1. I am hesitant to say racial disparities exist because of racial bias. Probably puts me in the minority of liberal leaning thinkers. I do think there is a huge class difference in outcomes.

    I grew up in what some call a rural town, but I think maybe it’s more of a poor white suburb. My town was/is 98% white, now mostly older (I don’t live there anymore, but 2010 census showed demographics haven’t changed much, but median age is I think 38). I was pulled over on average every other month ages 16-25. On numerous occasions was searched, several times breathalyzed (though I was a very young looking kid and rarely touched alcohol before 21).

    I had similar experiences in Indianapolis, mostly when I was driving older model cars. The only real difference between me and my peers is that my mom was my champion and I was a decent enough student I never got in serious trouble.

    There are serious problems for the poor. In my current state the public defender office is so under staffed it will likely become a Constitutional issue soon. And there’s little impetus to change that, as my republican dominated state views poor people in trouble with the law as undeserving. That largely impacts African American citizens, because the large urban areas have most of the states crime and that is concentrated in areas of the highest poverty… Which due to our housing policy historically means it falls hardest (but not only) on African American communities.

  2. Interesting that 150 years after the end of the Civil War, we are beginning to notice that we don’t treat African Americans as equals before the law. I wonder how long it will take to fix it. I doubt I’ll live to see full equaltiy and I plan to be around for at least another 20 years.

  3. It will take exactly as long to fix the equal protection for all in the criminal justice system as it will take to fix the bigoted hearts and souls of the American people.

  4. I am a white male retired IPS teacher who worked in a 90% black student population. Many of those students and the communities from which they came were not faultless. I witnessed pure hatred there. Just because I was white. And don’t tell me it was my built in white prejudice.

  5. The battle for civil rights in America has been waged over my whole life. Of course the start of it was several lifetimes before me. Progress has been at a snail’s pace, expensive beyond measure and decidedly uneven.

    Like with other things there is a culture here of victims, another of those who empathize with the victims, and another who are those who feel entitled to feel superior to the victims.

    Is today the best that we can do?

    I think that further progress will be stalemated until the culture of white superiority begins to shrink in size. In other words a few more lifetimes.

    I believe what I do because I believe in cultural evolution. I believe that humanity adapts to the environment both physically and culturally.

    In the past white superiority was de facto largely due to guns, germs, and steel. After that it was maintained by energy technology including slavery. After that by networking technology. But now the genies are all out and what we worshipped as progress for so long will be replaced, because there is no option, with a new god, sustainability.

    The genies unleashed demographic reality that is really physical evolution and natural selection. Race as a physical reality will disappear. What caused it, tribalism, is unsustainable.

    The white race are largely the architects of our own demise. And that’s a good thing.

  6. Imagine the thoughts of a black, inner city family who struggled for years to provide their son a college education. When he graduated with above average grades, the best job he could gain was that of a custodian. He did not abuse alcohol or drugs but was regularly stopped and searched and sometimes roughed up by police. He did not respond with hate though one could understand if he had. Ultimately he became a police officer in part to help correct the prejudicial treatment he felt he’d received. He felt that hate begets hate and he wanted to be a positive agent for change. He found that hardened attitudes made it much more difficult for anyone who’s fair – be they white or black – to win the confidence of those who have come to expect unfair treatment.

  7. Nancy:
    “We do not have a justice system. We have a legal system” Bravo!

    Irwin: Read James Cone’s “A Black Theology of Liberation.” The original was published in 1970 but there is a 2010 reprint easily obtainable on line. Read also Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” James Baldwin’s excellent essay “The Fire Next Time,” Malcolm X’s Autobiography and MLK’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and you will come to understand more about WHY some blacks hate whites. A friend of mine (also an old white coot like me) once said to me, “It is a testimony to the decency of Blacks that they haven’t simply raised up and murdered us all in our sleep.” I would suggest more books, but if you read through those your understanding will be raised by a significant factor.

    Pete: Right on. Hate results in hate. The equation I often cite is that ignorance breeds fear, fear breeds hate, hate breeds violence . . . etc.

  8. Pete, as I have read your many and lengthy posts you sound so good that the answer to your last question, in your case, I would have to say , No. 🙂

  9. Those who write that “Race as a physical reality will disappear. What caused it, tribalism, is unsustainable” are discounting and dismissing the cultural validity of perhaps half the world’s population without their consideration. Indeed, what a pompous attitude for one person to set forth such an arbitrary statement based solely on the individual’s discretion.

  10. Irvin, I certainly wasn’t picking on you personally or your experiences but humanity in general. We tend not to be accepting of different and that’s a two way street.


  11. Wray, you suggest that I read this or that, I would suggest that you read my name. It is IRVIN not Irwin… My original post just pointed out that just because you are white does not mean you are an automatic demon but when “that”black kid walked into my class that is how he saw me. Hell I have many stories to tell. But all you want to see is because that kid, without knowing me, hated me just because I was white and therefore I hated him. BS.

  12. Irvin: My apologies for misspelling your name. With a monicker like Wray I should by more careful.

    I didn’t say you hated anyone, I just pointed out that there were reasons that he might have hated you. No need to be snotty . . . unless that is how you wish to be. Then again . . . maybe that is why that kid . . . ah, never mind.

  13. Pete,

    Like Irvin mentioned earlier, I too worked daily in IPS (Indianapolis Public Schools – a large inner-city public school district) at Arlington HS and John Marshall Community HS beginning in 2004 until 2011. Without a doubt, I learned far more about the real-time importance of recognizing, of validating the innate significance of a rather large demographic group’s culture, the day-to-day culture that certainly deserves both a contemporary and compassionate understanding that takes precedence over futuristic thinking.

    In short, try delivering effective instruction designed to improve academic achievement levels to a group of 30 inner-city African-American high school students who exist in the ‘here and now’ with your foundational attitude that all humans eventually will look like Brazilians. Perhaps all folks one day will look like Brazilians, but for practical purposes of those living and working with groups of people who desperately need basic skills in literacy that lead to economic freedom, your thinking takes a back seat.

    I make no apology for my viewpoint.

  14. I’ve been arguing for years that law enforcement is a shadow dictatorship in this country. I know that sounds conspiracy-minded & crazy, but I don’t mean that it’s a coordinated effort.

    Police have far too much leeway in what they choose to enforce, but even worse is the carte blanche accorded to DAs & prosecutors. Given the astronomical percentage of plea deals, prosecutors are, effectively, the judges now. And since many unscrupulous operators use these positions as their start in politics, many publicly defended people are sacrificed to their ambition.

    If equal access to court were taken seriously, there would be no court fees, and someone whose defense was successful would have their attorney fees paid by the state. But of course equal access is not taken seriously, even in blue states.

  15. Wray. Yes, never mind. If you have not been there, don’t be to critical of those who have.
    Greetings BSH. I was at Arlington from Sept. 1966 until the May of 1985. For those who have never been there(IPS) !!!!. We (teachers) were not an evil lot. I hope you have gone to greater things. 🙂 Irvin

  16. Strange that we even discuss race since it doesn’t exist as defined by our ability to procreate. We only have color among segments of humanity of our single race. I remember well when I was justice of my law school fraternity in the early fifties that we pledged a black person. We were called to a meeting of our fraternal graduates downtown who were practicing law and who severely questioned both me and my vice-justice (who later became the bankruptcy judge for the Southern District of Indiana) about the advisability of taking a “colored” law student into our fraternity. We stuck by our guns; he became an active member and we were glad to have him. Yes, there is what we call racism. It is one of several ill-advised “isms” that plague humanity and the sooner it is thrown into the dustbin of history the better.

  17. BSH. My position was that over a few lifetimes the human race will become that instead of tribes. I didn’t say it was good or bad, just inevitable according to many who study such things.

  18. Gerald E Stinson,

    Your statement “Strange that we even discuss race since it doesn’t exist as defined by our ability to procreate. We only have color among segments of humanity of our single race.” makes perfect sense to intelligent people.

    On the other hand, many people also consider that our country’s fascination with all things racial might be attributed, at least partially, to our own US Government’s preoccupation with assigning individual citizens into preconceived categories, especially categories of Race, those tidy easily measured boxes as best illustrated by the US Census. A quick glance at the US Census reminds us that following ‘Age and Sex’ all other measured categories include Race as a measurement which requires a disaggregation of every piece of Census data into minuscule categories and groupings with emphasis on Race. If our government does not wish us to seem overly focused on race, then why does our government insist on maintaining its focus on race?

  19. BSH,

    “If our government does not wish us to seem overly focused on race, then why does our government insist on maintaining its focus on race?”

    That’s a real good question. What’s the answer?

  20. BSH; you are rockin’ today.

    I have been caught up all day in compute glitches, banking, doctor and lab tests and an afternoon with my wonderful granddaughter, Ashley. Just getting around to reading blog and comments. May I please be allowed time for a brief brag again about my granddaughter; she is an RN at Riley Hospital, one of the 6 members on the pediatric heart surgery team. She has made two trips to Uganda to assist in surgeries at the Uganda Heart Institute. She has been invited to go to China in October with the chief pediatric heart surgeon to assist in more complex surgeries. She is not yet 29 years old; has worked to pay and is paying for her five years of university education at I.U. No “white privilege”; dedication, hard work and determination. But I have to wonder if she would have been allowed to amass $55,000 in student loans if she were Black or Hispanic.

    But; the subject today is “Unequal Justice”. Years ago I was selected for a three-month jury panel; one where I called in daily to see if “my number was up”. It finally did come up for a drug trial in criminal court; the defendant was Black, Judge, Prosecutor, Public Defender and arresting officer were all white. The arresting officer happened to be a very close friend. The judge asked me the usual qualifying questions and was ready to accept me on the jury; I told him the arresting officer and I were friends. He asked if I thought I could weigh the evidence and reach a fair decision. I told him I was sure I could but…didn’t believe it would be fair to the defendant under the circumstances. My friend stopped me in the hall later to thank me, he was put on the spot. Had the defendant been convicted with me on the jury; wouldn’t this be basis for an appeal. Depending, of course, on whether the Prosecutor, Public Defender or Judge was interested in a fair trial for a Black defendant. My friend and I were.

  21. Pete,

    “I would have said that maintaining demographic information is an important government function.”

    That’s one answer. But I’m sure there are others with a different SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF REALITY.

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