Is the Criminal Justice System Fair? Unmasking Injustice and Disparities
How it works
From the beginning of slavery to the modern day, our treatment of people of color has always been concrete. Our culture relies on stereotypes to reinforce these racist ideations that people of color are lesser than those who are white. No matter the scenario, white people are set up to be victims, whilst people of color are the victims, a feat especially prevalent in the media.
- 1 Media Bias: Chris Watts vs. Melvin Harris
- 2 The Ongoing Struggle and The Link to Slavery
- 3 Representation in Media
- 4 The Black Lives Matter Movement and Modern Perspectives
- 5 Conclusion: The Ever-Present Racism
Media Bias: Chris Watts vs. Melvin Harris
Take the comparison between Chris Watts and Melvin Harris, for example.
Watts, a white man, murdered his pregnant wife and their two young daughters- and yet the media takes this opportunity to paint the picture of a seemingly happy family, pulling happy family photos and statements from those who knew the family.
Conversely, Harris, a black male, was given harsher treatment. Harris had accidentally killed a man who had attempted to attack his daughter in a bathroom stall at a gas station. The media response? He is represented by a somber mugshot and dragged through the mud by previous, unrelated charges such as shoplifting brought up to be used against him.
Historical Context: The Scottsboro Boys
However, unlike many may want you to believe, this is not a new trend. The courtroom has never been a friendly place for people of color, especially evident during the Great Depression, with Jim Crow laws dictating who could go where. In the case of the Scottsboro boys, nine black boys had been falsely accused of rape by two young white women. Though one is guaranteed a fair trial, this was not possible for the boys. In Alabama, with a jury entirely composed of white men, the boys were sentenced to death before their trial could even begin.
Literature Reflecting Reality: To Kill a Mockingbird
These are only a few instances of the injustices that people of color have faced in American history, also evident in pieces of literature, an example being To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960 by Harper Lee. Though the story mainly focuses on the world from Scout’s point of view, it also follows the trial of Tom Robinson, a young black male who is falsely accused of rape by Mayella, a young white woman. Though the Scottsboro boys would eventually become free of their actions, more or less, Tom Robinson would meet his fate in jail. In an attempt to escape, he was shot seventeen times. Though a story of fiction, the fate of Tom is a reality that many young people of color have come to meet.
The harsh truth is that this hasn’t been looked at as a problem until more recently because this is people of color and not white people. The correlation is entirely with slavery, and though many say that it was so long ago, that’s not true. Three hundred ninety-nine years ago, a collective of white people decided that people of color were lesser – not even real human beings – because of the color of their skin. Two hundred forty-six years ago, slavery ended, but the struggles were still only beginning. 148 years ago, the fifteenth amendment granted people of color the right to vote. Nine years ago, Barack Obama came into office as our new president, the first person of color to win – and while many cheered that this was the beginning of the end of racism, it was too good to be true. Five years ago, three black women began the movement that would come to divide America – Black Lives Matter. More recently, on May 5th, 2018, Childish Gambino’s release of “This Is America” focuses on the way America treats people of color. Gambino sings towards the end, “This is a celly / That’s a tool,” which many have interpreted as a correlation to police brutality and how common it is for these acts of violence to be recorded on camera. America is harsh to her citizens, but even more so to those who are people of color.
Representation in Media
In terms of the media, those who are white are more favorably received despite the charges against them, and in many cases, they are painted in a more sympathetic or romanticized light. In fact, one study has found that white mass shooters are treated better by the media than people of color. And in many cases, the cause behind the people behind their actions will be treated as nothing more than victims of their mental illness. In other words, America fears innocent people of color more than mass shooters. When a white person is convicted of a serious crime, family, friends, and neighbors will be interviewed, who will go on to talk about how unexpected their actions were and how incredibly kind they were. When a person of color is convicted of a crime, they are usually represented by a somber mugshot. There will be little to no interviews with family or friends. In most cases, previous charges will be brought up to hurt your case. But this is also true of being a victim. In the case of Philando Castile, who was shot and killed on July 6th, 2016, previous charges against him would come to light and be used against him to justify the shooting that ended his life. This is the same for many other young black men who would needlessly lose their lives. The fact of the matter is that in America, white people are more important. If any of this had happened to a white man, there would be international outcry and rage that something like this had happened. And though there has been consequential outcry and anger, it is not enough to give serve the proper justice that is deserved.
Similarly, the courtroom has never been a friend to people of color. Though nowhere close to being the same, the tolerance for people of color in courtrooms is almost akin to that of which colonists were treated with such discrimination with trials involving the British. Though Americans are granted the right to a fair trial, it seems that this can rarely be the case for people of color. Studies have even shown that people of color, predominantly black men, are more likely to be convicted for crimes that they didn’t commit. It’s almost as if the justice system exists to fail the very people it claims to protect, which is especially true for Marvin Anderson, who was wrongfully tried and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. One study has found that black people are more likely to be wrongfully convicted than white people and spend longer in prison before being exonerated for their crimes. Black people represent only 13% of the country yet represent 47% of exonerations. The struggle for justice continues from here.
The Black Lives Matter Movement and Modern Perspectives
Though the Black Lives Matter movement has been around since 2013, the horrid crimes against people of color didn’t truly start to spread until around 2016. While many sit back in the belief that police brutality wasn’t always this bad, others point to the Great Depression era as Jim Crow laws. Police brutality against people of color isn’t new; it’s just now reaching a point where it is in longer acceptable. Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” is a powerful piece that alludes to the injustices of the system and the way that America treats people of color. Though people of color have been granted voting as well as other human rights, it’s still as though, in some ways, they are lesser than the rest of humanity, as if they are still not much more than a Jim Crow caricature.
Conclusion: The Ever-Present Racism
In America, people of color are not valued as humans as they should be. Racism is more alive than ever, despite what many choose to believe. Evident throughout history, especially in literature, it has always been a struggle for people of color to be validated, especially more now than ever. From the beginning and end of slavery 399 years ago to the Great Depression and Jim Crow era, all the way to now, there has always been a fight. Only now, with the popularization of the Black Lives Matter movement, are Americans finally opening their eyes to the horrors around them. In modern-day America, we value the melanin in our skin more than the person that lies beneath it. In modern-day America, racism is more alive than ever.
- Davis, D. B. (2006). Inhuman bondage: The rise and fall of slavery in the New World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Berlin, I. (1998). Many thousands gone: The first two centuries of slavery in North America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
- Entman, R. B. (1994). Representation and reality in the portrayal of blacks on network television news. Journalism Quarterly, 71(3), 509-520.