Modern Racial Discrimination in Law Enforcement

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This paper explores the topic of racial discrimination in law enforcement and criminal justice system. Racial discrimination in law enforcement is when the law is implemented resulting in the unequal treatment of one group of people over another. Racial discrimination in law enforcement has taken place in the United States since its formation in 1787. While some may argue that racial discrimination in law enforcement is no longer existent today, a simple analysis of statistics and case studies will show that discrimination is just as prevalent today has it always has been. It may not be as clear or blatant as it was, but it is still as apparent and damaging as it always has been. This paper looks at the history of racial discrimination in law enforcement in the U.S. and how it builds up to the unequal protection of law existing today. It is clear through the evidence from sources gathered that there has been intent to discriminate and further suppress minority groups of people. Only by understanding what the discrimination is and where it may come from can efforts be made to reverse it.

Modern Racial Discrimination in Law Enforcement

The founding fathers of the United States founded the country on several philosophical beliefs. These beliefs are clearly stated in the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Furthermore, it states that it is the government’s duty to ensure these rights are provided to these people. However, since the adoption of the constitution in 1787, slavery, segregation and discrimination clearly took place in many different ways. While it is nice to think all of these forms of racism have been eliminated from our society with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a clear analysis of evidence will show that racial discrimination is still existent in the U.S. today. This paper explores the topic of racial discrimination in law enforcement. Racial discrimination is generally defined as “discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race”. Law enforcement refers to an officer or agency responsible for enforcing the law, otherwise known as the government. It can be shown through statistics that racial discrimination is still existent in law enforcement. For centuries, African Americans, Hispanics and other minority members of the American population have been subject to unfair treatment. The unfair treatment comes not only from majority citizens at large, but specifically in institutional practices such as law enforcement. This has taken place from the founding of the U.S. and continues to do so to this very day. In order to show how, a brief review of the country’s racist past must be reviewed.

As Europeans expanded and colonized North and South America, the indigenous groups were killed, enslaved or forced to move. In addition, slaves were captured from Africa and brought to the Americas to provide slave labor. A peak total of 4 million slaves were existent until the abolition of slavery in 1860. Punishment was typically degrading and in the forms of whipping, branding, burning, mutilating, raping, hanging and shackling slaves (Moore, 1980). The 8th amendment of the constitution protects against “cruel and unusual punishment”, yet the cruel and unusual punishment of slaves was allowed to clearly persist. Also, laws specifically controlling the treatment and punishment of slaves existed known as slave codes. It is clear that discrimination based on race in the creation and enforcement of law has existed from the creation of the U.S. in 1787 to the abolition of slavery in 1865.  

Slaves were released from their owners with the conclusion of the civil war, but many of them had nowhere to go, and those responsible for the racism knew this. With this understanding came what are known as “Black Codes” in 1865 and 1866. The most defining of these black codes was the vagrancy laws that allowed authorities to arrest and prosecute vagrants who had nowhere to go. When the vagrant was unable to pay the fines, they were sentenced to a county labor house (Moneyhon, 2013). While slavery itself was abolished, laws were made and enforced that implicitly enslaved people who mostly happened to be black. There is a difference between making laws with the intent of bettering society and with the intent of targeting a specific group of people. This type of implicit racism forms the basis for how racial discrimination in law enforcement can be prevalent even when there are laws that protect such practices from taking place. This is the beginning of how racial discrimination in law enforcement is set up today, something that the NAACP is working hard against.

Now it is commonly believed that racism in law enforcement no longer existent and is more of a perception than anything. This point of view is not completely unjust, as we indeed do have much less racism taking place today than we have had in our history. 

A breakdown of the prison population according to the Department of Justice prison statistics shows the following information. First, the total inmate population as of June 29, 2013 is 219,087. While the general population breakdown is 72.4% White, 12.6% Black and 16.4 Hispanic (Humes, 2011), the prison population breakdown is 59.5% White, 37.1% Black and 34.8% Hispanic (BOP, 2013). Blacks and Hispanics are clearly overrepresented while Whites are clearly underrepresented. But just because there is an over or under representation alone does not mean racial discrimination in law enforcement has taken place. A deeper dive into statistics shows that the offenses inmates are incarcerated by far the most are drug offenses at 47%. The second highest offenses are weapons; prisoners are incarcerated because they have violated laws that prohibit the possession and sale of drugs. Is it possible that the laws prohibiting drugs come from discrimination and racism?

The first law implemented by the colonists was in Jamestown Colony 1619 that ordered all farmers to grow the cannabis plant, from which hemp and marijuana are, derived (Harvey, 2009). The use of the marijuana plant for its physical and psychoactive properties has been used by humans for thousands of years (Rudgely, 1999). People all around the world have been using psychoactive medication for thousands of years. Blacks and Hispanics were especially known to use marijuana. Smoking marijuana led to certain crimes such as “looking at whites the wrong way and playing devils music”, as shown in the documentary The Union (Harvey, 2009). Just as the types of people responsible for the Black Codes looked to respond after the abolishment of slavery, the same types of people responded after the civil rights movement. 

Most recently, the NYPD began and stop and frisk campaign to help in enforcing the last. In a population of which about 74% is white, 5% (26,000) of the stops were for suspected possession of marijuana. Even though statistics show whites use marijuana at a higher rate, African Americans represented 61% of the total stops. A proportion of the population about 13% of the total population represented 61% of the marijuana stops by NYPD. Only 9% of the stops involving marijuana involved white people. The statistics are publically released by the New York Civil Liberties Union show (Brooks, 2013). A counter to this argument may be that African Americans and Hispanics simply happen to be in public with marijuana and that this is not enough to show that racial discrimination does not exist in law enforcement. Well, the next set of statistics should show conclusively that racial discrimination exists in law enforcement. 

With law enforcement comes proper adjudication. In the United States, the judicial system is one that builds off of precedent to promote stability, predictability and consistency of the law. The Sentencing Project is organization dedicated towards research and advocacy for reform. In a recent study on racial disparities in drug sentencing, it was found, “African Americans constitute 14 percent of drug users, yet make up 37 percent of arrests and 56 percent of people in state prison (Krainson, 2007). A major contributor to the high incarceration rate is the mandatory minimum sentencing laws and anti-drug abuse acts. Mandatory minimum sentencing law in a world where police stop African Americans who represent 12.6% of the population 60% of the time is unfair. The 1:100 crack cocaine law is another example of African Americans being targeted. The same study shows that while whites and Hispanics make up 66% of crack cocaine users, African Americans make up 82% of the defendants sentenced for crack cocaine. This law particularly is designed to keep its victims incarcerated well throughout life and it just so happens that 82% of the defendants sentenced are African American.

What could possibly account for the discrepancy in numbers? A possible explanation is African Americans are biologically predisposed to aggressive and defiant behavior. But, whites and Hispanics engage in the behavior just as much. Yet, African Americans are incarcerated nearly twice as much as their population is represented. Another possible explanation is the African Americans are more likely to sell whereas whites and Hispanics are more likely to simply use, making it more likely for African Americans to be caught and sentenced longer. One complicated scenario could be Whites are more likely to have houses, own property with space and thus privacy. Without any disruption in this space they are able to attend school and make it through without any trouble with law enforcement. In contrast, African Americans are more concentrated in large populations. With every area having its own law enforcement, the concentration of people makes it more likely for marijuana and drug users to find themselves arrested. Once arrested for drug sale or possession, it is difficult to apply for jobs, schools and licensing. Without a job or education, it is difficult to move the home urban area to a suburban area with space. Thus, a cycle is created where fathers with no education and no job leading to no money which leads to selling drugs leading to arrests taking the father away from the child resulting in the mother working leaving the child at home free to hang out on the street where drugs are available. One arrest places the child in his father’s shoes and the cycle begins again. There are possible explanations for the clear statistical discrepancies presented; either there are external factors at work or racial discrimination in law enforcement continues to exist today. With clear numerical discrepancies, it is concluded that racial discrimination continues to exist today. However, it is subject to further debate.

In conclusion, it is clear that racial discrimination in law enforcement is existent in the U.S. today. Racial discrimination in law enforcement exists when the enforcement or lack of enforcement of the law treats members of one group differently than another. Racial discrimination in law enforcement has been evident since the creation of the U.S. Shortly after the abolition of slavery, laws known as “Black Codes” were designed to regulate the behavior of African Americans. Today, a modern America exists with electronic monitoring capabilities. If the federal government wants to hear words spoken within the walls of a home, they can do so. And even with such controlling capabilities over the U.S. population, they still choose to regulate the possession and sale of naturally growing narcotics by introducing new substances like crack cocaine into the communities. It may not be conclusively proven, but Richard Nixon, Ronald Regan and all those associated with them are the ones responsible for these drug laws. And it is publically known that the presidency of Ronald Regan, the one who founded the “War on Drugs” was involved in multiple scandals, resulting in the investigation, indictment, or conviction of over 138 administration officials (Johnson, 2003). These people are the ones responsible for the laws and policies that just so happen to incarcerate a disproportionate amount of Hispanics, and African Americans. It may not be directly discriminatory but there is inequality among races in law enforcement today. Therefore, it is concluded that racial discrimination exists in law enforcement.


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