The Symposium: To Desystematize Racism, Start With Criminal Justice

Black Lives Matter.

One might see such a statement as uncontroversial. People’s lives matter. Black people are people. Therefore Black Lives Matter. It’s the simplest kind of argument you could make — a deduction following from two premises. And yet, the American justice system routinely devalues Black lives. Black people, men and women like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, are disproportionately murdered by the police. Similarly, though less often brought up, crimes against Black people, regardless of the perpetrator’s race, are routinely ignored by the police. I wouldn’t imagine that all police officers, or prosecutors or prison officials are ignorant of the logic that underpins this simple deduction I have made, so there must be something getting in the way of one of the two premises. Under our current system, either people’s lives don’t matter, Black people aren’t people or both.

As with many flaws in American society, I think it’s both. Broadly speaking, the way our culture and laws conceive of justice does more harm than good to anyone caught in the system, victim or offender — that’s the “people’s lives don’t matter” — and America’s history of racism has amplified this effect in Black communities.

I’m going to throw my two cents in on these issues, which, don’t get me wrong, require much more than a single article to fully address (and so I’m sure I will return to it for the duration of this column’s life). By looking at these issues, I will try to work towards a solution that takes the diverse range of perspectives I have seen expressed inside and out of the Black community, because no community is a monolith.

So, let’s take a look at the fundamental structure of our criminal justice system. When a crime is committed in America, the baseline assumption of what will happen is that it will be reported to the police, who will investigate, catch the perpetrator and pass them on to the courts. The courts have two functions: First, they confirm that the police actually caught the right person, then they determine the debt that the person must repay to society. After that, if the person tried is in fact guilty (although an overwhelming proportion of criminal cases end in a guilty plea — see here for more on that), they are passed on to the correctional system, which is a giant bureaucracy that manages how the person pays that debt. That is how the process is supposed to work.

There are also a few principles that the system nominally operates on: the right of an accused to a fair trial and due process of the law, the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven and, importantly, the idea that the punishment must fit the crime.

There is a fourth idea that some might suggest, that the punishment is intended to prevent future offenses, but our culture tends not to act as though that is the main concern. It’s in the language you hear when a high-profile offender receives a long prison sentence. “Good,” they might say, “I hope he rots in there.” It’s in the mere fact that “punishment” is a common word for a criminal sentence. This is the first major red flag I want to bring up, and it’s a method of thinking that underpins the entire system. We still think of justice as an eye for an eye. When a person does harm, they must pay for that harm by being harmed. It’s a natural and human reaction. If you have been assaulted by someone, you don’t want to correct their behavior. You want to set them on fire.

This is why we have judges who set punishments: to try to reduce the number of people who get set on fire. But, unfortunately, they are part of our culture; they have the same ideas about justice that we do, and if we don’t find a way to change our perceptions about how harm should be repaid, we may never be able to move beyond the other assumptions that support this broken system. 

Approaches like restorative justice and sentences that seek not to incarcerate, but to educate and truly prepare offenders to reintegrate into society, can help bring this attitude about, while turning prisons away from the bleak, dangerous places they have become. In fact, as part of this, we should stop calling them prisons altogether. We could turn them into vocational schools and mental hospitals, places that can give offenders what they need to become better people. We won’t just pull them off the streets, but give them the ability to pull themselves off the streets.

The second major issue within our cultural consciousness surrounding criminal justice affects the next links up the chain of this system, and it’s the implicit bias towards police officers’ and prosecutors’ versions of events. We can see this in a lot of the responses to when Black people are killed by the police. Thousands of people come out of the woodwork on Twitter and Reddit to enumerate every social, moral and criminal offense they ever committed, as if that somehow justifies their murder. The amplifying power of racial bias reveals this underlying trust, as does the portrayal of police in the media. Police on television almost never get the wrong guy, which helps perpetuate the myth that police in real life almost always get it right, too (they don’t). The ideas of innocent until proven guilty and the right to due process are lies because when the jury walks in, part of them is already convinced of the defendant’s guilt.

A lot of the activism already going on is, for now, one of the best ways to combat this. The more we expose the flaws in police and the law enforcement system, the more we talk about the innocent and unjustly accused, the more we can unlearn that unconscious, harmful bias.

Thirdly, there is the problem of policing itself. The police-community relationship is characterized by an imbalance of power and a training program that, more often than not, teaches police to look out for threats at all times. No amount of bias or use of force training is going to remedy the hair-trigger cultures of police departments across the nation.

What do we do, then? We should look to alternatives to police, alternatives that will keep everyone safe. We don’t actually need police to conduct the initial investigations of crimes. We don’t need someone with a gun. We need an accountant — someone who can take good notes — and we need a social worker to provide care and counseling to victims. We can swap out armed detectives and officers for these roles, and replace patrols with neighborhood watches that know their communities and can call in for armed backup when they actually need it.

This issue is way bigger than me and I am not the only person talking about these issues or what we can do about them. I have attempted to source my thoughts from a wide variety of thinkers, and I want to provide them for people to peruse and form opinions of their own.

In the Eyes of Others, a book review of “The Honor Code” by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Campaign Zero, an organization committed to police reform

Hearing What Black Voices Really Say About Police

The Ethicist by Kwame Anthony Appiah, issues from June 16 and Nov. 3, 2020

The Centre for Restorative Justice and Reconciliation

A black police officer’s perspective

“Police” from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, especially the very end of the segment

“Justice (Part 1)” by Contrapoints

More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City – by William Julius Wilson

A Matter of Justice

#SayHerName: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women

Kamala Harris, Mass Incarceration and Me by Reginald Dwayne Betts
The Symposium will continue this conversation next semester. To contribute to the discussion, go here