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ISR Issue 55, SeptemberOctober 2007
Apartheid in the United States
(EDITORS NOTE: In a suprising but welcome turn of events, the governor of Texas commuted Kenneth Foster’s death sentence not long after the ISR went to press)
“HAVE WE not created a new, more modern form of apartheid?” ask criminal justice professors Randall Sheldon and William Brown. They were referring to the startling rates of Black incarceration, but even the staid New York Times couldn’t avoid a similar conclusion when assessing the recent Supreme Court decision effectively reversing the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling in their June 29 editorial, “Resegregation now.” As the Times put it, “It was a sad day for the court and for the ideal of racial equality.” True, but from the looks of a recent Sentencing Project report and several high-profile criminal justice cases, institutional segregation is on the rise and creating a new Jim Crow reality in the United States.
Nine hundred thousand of the nation’s 2.2 million incarcerated individuals are Black, according to “Uneven justice: State rates of incarceration by race and ethnicity,” the July 2007 Sentencing Project report. If current trends continue, one in three Black males born today will wind up behind bars at some point in their lives. Among the more surprising statistics the report reveals is that racial disparities in sentencing are most egregious in Northeastern and Midwestern states, not in the South. While the national Black-to-white ratio of incarceration is 5.6-to-1; in seven states: Wisconsin, Iowa, Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut, and North and South Dakotas, the ratio exceeds 10-to-1. Iowa leads the pack, with an incarceration rate that is nearly 14-to-1—this, in a state with a Black population that amounts to just 2.3 percent of the total. In fact, some of the lowest Black-to-white incarceration ratios in the nation, 4-to-1, are in states of the old Confederacy—Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas. Not surprisingly, these states with some of the highest Black and white poverty rates also have some of the highest rates of white incarceration.
As Sheldon and Brown conclude in their four-part series, “The new American apartheid” in the online magazine, Black Commentator:
With constant corporate downsizing and deindustrialization during the past couple of decades came the elimination of millions of jobs that previously helped minorities to get out of poverty. Specific social control apparatuses have been deemed necessary to control human frustrations in the aftermath of diminished opportunities. The criminal justice system has been selected as the primary apparatus to apply social control mechanisms on the unskilled, the uneducated, the powerless, and ethnic minorities.
State legislatures and the federal government have disqualified felons (mostly convicted of nonviolent drug crimes) from voting as a further means of marginalizing and stigmatizing the incarcerated. Thirteen percent of Black men are disenfranchised nationally, while in Florida and Alabama a shocking 30 percent or more of Black men have had their right to vote taken away as a result of felony convictions.
The Texas “law of parties,” which allows for the death penalty even when someone does not directly participate in a killing, is another piece of draconian legislation that can be used disproportionately against Blacks. Texas, the only state with this law, has expanded the pool of people eligible for the death penalty through the law of parties in a state where only 12 percent of the population is Black, yet Blacks make up 41 percent of the people on death row. Kenneth Foster Jr., a thirty-year-old Black man, is scheduled to be executed in Texas on August 30, despite the fact that even his prosecutors admit he is innocent of killing anyone. Foster is likely to be put to death for simply having been in the same car as someone he barely knew who, by most accounts, left the vehicle and murdered someone without Foster’s knowledge or participation. Foster is unlikely to receive a last-minute commutation, despite determined efforts by activists and his family, since Texas governor Rick Perry has already exposed his bloodlust by exceeding former Governor George Bush’s execution toll with a record 159 executions—more than any other governor in history.
The “war on drugs” that was initiated under the Reagan administration of the 1980s reversed a previous trend in which white youths had a higher arrest record for drug crimes than Blacks. According to Sheldon and Brown, between 1972 and 1995, there was a more than 400 percent increase in the drug arrest rate for Black youths, who are also more likely to be charged with a felony, instead of a misdemeanor. And while statistics bear out that there is no correlation between drug use and race, it appears that the arrest and incarceration rate of Blacks is largely a result of the fact that authorities find the drugs in poor and minority neighborhoods precisely because that’s where they go hunting for them “rather than, say, on college campuses,” as Sheldon and Brown note.
Ironically, Barack Obama, a Black candidate with a credible chance of winning the Democratic Party nomination for president in 2008, refused to promise the repeal of the racist crack versus powder cocaine sentencing provisions that were condemned more than twenty years ago by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. As it stands now, it takes possession of 100 times more powder cocaine (a largely white drug) to equal the prison sentence for possession of crack cocaine (a largely Black drug). In answer to a question by the Trotter Group of African-American newspaper columnists about the legislation, Obama replied that if he were president he would “support a commission to issue a report ‘that allows me to say that based on the expert evidence, this is not working and it’s unfair and unjust.’” As if what’s needed is more evidence of racial injustice instead of action to confront it.
The institutional racism that pervades American society, however, is not going unrecognized or unchallenged. After years of activists organizing to expose the injustice and racial disparities of the death penalty, the total number of executions in the U.S. dropped again in 2006 to fifty-three, a decline of almost 50 percent in the past seven years since the high point of the 1990s surge in executions. In New Jersey, an independent commission supported abolishing the death penalty because of “increasing evidence that the death penalty is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency,” according to the commission report. Marlene Martin, national director of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, argues that “The number of abolition and moratorium bills being put forward right now is I’m sure the most ever since reinstatement.”
And there is the case of the Jena Six (see interview in this issue), in which white high school students last year went unpunished for hanging nooses from a tree, beating up a Black student, and brandishing a gun at two others; while six Black students now face decades in prison for a school fight that ended in scratches and bruises. Yet, in spite of the minimal corporate media coverage this case has received so far, more than 60,000 people have petitioned Governor Kathleen Blanco to dismiss the charges, and 300 antiracists marched through this Louisiana town of 2,500 in July. It’s a testament to the divide between official apartheid policy and the consciousness of many ordinary Americans that tens of thousands have come forward to organize against this kind of Jim Crow justice.