The article, “Virginia Governor calls for inquiry into student arrest”, describes the arrest of Martese Johnson: a 20-year-old, Black student at the University of Virginia (BBC 2015). He is being charged with obstruction of justice without force, public swearing and intoxication. The article recounts that Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agents arrested him using brute force, tackling the unarmed man to the ground, claiming that he was “very agitated and belligerent”. However, witnesses testify that “he didn’t need to be tackled, he wasn’t being aggressive at all”. There is not much to dissect from what little is said in the article, as it leaves out the incident’s connections to a systemic and historical struggle of disproportionate law enforcement and conviction of racial ethnic minorities and frames it as an isolated incident.
Public swearing and intoxication, as well as drug use and possession are prime examples of what sociologists call “crimes without victims”. Crimes without victims are a form of formal state control, and are arbitrary decisions of the state that dictate behaviours worth convicting, but the lack of victims creates room for individual law enforcement agents to arrest and penalize suspects at their own discretion (Tepperman and Tepperman 2012). Since 2002, the United States has had the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world with about 500 prisoners per 100,000 residents in 2010, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Forty percent of the total two million male inmates in US jails and prisons are African-American, while African-Americans only make up 12% of the total American population (U.S. Department of Justice, 2009). Black men are sent to state prisons on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men. This disproportionate black representation in the criminal system does not indicate any inherent traits of African Americans, it merely points to a legal discretionary tool being used to criminalize and silence a particular racial ethnic group. Mandatory minimum sentences confiscate discretionary power from judges who are advertised as informed decision-makers to the public eye, such that the average citizen feels a false sense of confidence and security about the integrity of the justice system.
A discussion of the US Criminal Justice System cannot be complete without exploring the influence of neoliberalism: a free-market philosophy which parallels profit-making to democracy, and consumerism as the only ticket of citizenship. This provides the foundation on which previously public services have been handed over to reigns of private interests to maximize personal profit through the commodification of “practically everything” (Giroux 2012). As a collateral result of the privatization of state functions such as imprisonment, government oversight is lost and therefore there is no governing body to mitigate social damage. The state demands inmates because for-profit prisons aim to maintain an alarmingly high quantity of prisoners. More prisoners mean cheaper labour, through conditions rarely scrutinized under the law. These people become: undocumented bodies, property of the state, and the modern day equivalent of a slave (Lopez, 2015).
The U.S. legal system undeniably favours the incarceration of black males; while popular media depicts black males, as less educated and violent to convince the public of this notion that Black people inherently second-class citizens. Negative representations of black males are readily visible and conveyed to the public through news channels, film, music videos, reality television, and other forms of popular media. Typical roles are aggressive black sidekicks of a white protagonist, the comedic relief, the hyper-sexualized “ladies’ man”, or the violent black man as a drug-dealing criminal (Smith 2013). To the public, these messages draw a simple explanation for the mass incarceration of black people, thereby deflecting inquiries into what is truly an expanding form of institutionalized racism.
Alexander, in her widely acclaimed book “The New Jim Crow”, describes mass incarceration as a functional extension of the legacy of American anti-black racism. The war on drugs disproportionately targets blacks and other minorities and the poor across all racial demographics (Kain 2011). In the course text, Gendered Worlds, Aulette and Wittner (2003) describe the US war on drugs where, despite the decline in drug use in the early 1980s, the US government expanded its efforts to stop drug abuse by increasing incarceration of drug offenders. The war on drugs, along with the rest of the “get tough on crime” movement, is directed toward African Americans. While Mr. Johnson’s case described in the article is indicative of overt racial ethnic discrimination by the law enforcement agents, there are other techniques through which higher arrest rates among African Americans exist. For example, enforcement priority is placed on outdoor drug venues, the geographic concentration of police resources in racially heterogeneous areas, and focuses on crack cocaine, which is used by African Americans while the wealthy whites use powdered cocaine (Beckett, Nyrop, and Pfingst 2006). Until 2007, the sentencing laws dictated a minimum sentence of five years for crack cocaine for possession of 1/100th of the amount of powdered cocaine needed to trigger the mandatory minimum penalty, which carried no mandatory sentence.
Public response has become more visible and vocal recently, but it is barely a start. In class we discussed the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which was started three years ago after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s killer. The movement aims to dismantle the New Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex. In many ways, the modern day mistreatment of the non-white populations in the U.S. using justifications of the law, parallel the happenings of pre-Civil Rights Movement U.S. When the Grand Jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson or George Zimmerman in the shooting of unarmed teen Black males, it incited the trauma that Black citizens whose ancestors experienced Master-Slave dynamics in which the death of a slave at the hand of their master was deemed an “accident” under the law. The unyielding state violence and mass incarceration of Black citizens of the U.S. is a testament to Michele Alexander’s almost too-true summary of the phenomenon: “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Revised ed. Print.
Aulette, Judy Root, and Judith G. Wittner. Gendered Worlds. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
BBC.” Virginia Governor calls for inquiry into student arrest”. BBC News U.S and Canada. Accessed on April 2 2015. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-31965856
Beckett, Katherine, Kris Nyrop, and Lori Pfingst. “Race, Drugs, And Policing: Understanding Disparities In Drug Delivery Arrests*.” Criminology 44.1 (2006): 105-137.
Giroux, Henry A. “Radical Art Initiative.” Radical Art Initiative. 30 Nov. 2012. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.
Kain, Erik. “The War on Drugs Is a War on Minorities and the Poor.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 28 June 2011. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.
Lopez, Alan. “How American Police Forces & Higher Legal Systems Embody Master/Slave Mentalities -.” 7 Jan. 2015. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.
Minton, Todd D. “Jail inmates at midyear 2010–statistical tables.” Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, DC (2011).
Smith, Ph.D. “Images of Black Males in Popular Media.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 14 Mar. 2013. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.
Tepperman, Lorne and Alex Tepperman. Deviance, crime, and control: beyond the straight and narrow. Oxford University Press, 2012.
“Support the Movement for Black Lives!” Black Lives Matter. Web. 9 Apr. 2015.