Black Robes, White Justice Part 1:
The rapper, the Republican, and race.
As you are reading this article from the palm of your hand or on the screen of your computer, take a trip with me down memory lane. Think back to when you were in college, or younger, or not as socially refined as you are now and may have broken the law. Whether the crime was in the benign class of a misdemeanor or a felony, think about how the entire trajectory of your life would’ve been altered if you were caught in the act of say, joy-riding in a stolen car, or purchasing drugs, or having a bar fight. Imagine how much more impacted your life would have been if the car you were in was chased and accidentally struck and killed a pedestrian; someone overdosed on the drugs you shared, or if that fight accidentally ended someone’s life. Imagine what it would be like if the entire sum of your life was evaluated, scrutinized, and discriminated against because you were convicted.
For more than 70 million Americans who have served their debts to and are living in society with convictions, this is a daily truth and a perpetual reality.
The Rapper: Meek Mill
This fact was recently polarized in the case of Meek Mill, a hip-hop artist whom Philly Mag recently named one of the 100 most influential Philadelphians, who was sentenced to 2 to 4 years in prison for probation violations that predicated on an offense committed 9 years earlier; a violation that Jay Z trumpeted as “unjust and heavy-handed.”
For the ignorant or unconcerned, allow me to remind or inform you of some sobering facts:
- While people of color make up about 30% of the United States’ population, they account for 60% of those imprisoned.
- As recent as 2015, one-third of the 4.65 million Americans who were on some form of supervised release were Black.
- In 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million correctional population, but only comprise13% of the total US population.
- According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime.
- African American women are three times more likely than white women to be incarcerated, while Hispanic women are 69 percent more likely than white women to be incarcerated.
Meek Mill is the latest casualty in a decades-long assault on people who especially fit his pre-celebrity profile of those who come from the same cultural, class, or financial background. Take two examples of racial bias in sentencing involving Stanford University rapist Brock Allen Turner and Raul Ramirez. In both cases, the individuals were charged with, convicted of sexual assault, and sentenced by the same judge, Aaron Persky. Turner, a White, 20-year-old, former Stanford swimmer from a leafy, upper-middle-class neighborhood in Ohio. Ramirez, a 32-year-old El Salvadorian immigrant.
Instead of sentencing Turner to the mandatory minimum of two years in state prison prescribed by law, Persky made an exception for Turner, determining that his case was “unusual” and that prison would have a “severe impact” on him. After the victim’s impact statement went viral, the judge’s controversial sentencing decision, which resulted in Turner spending three months in jail, received international scorn.
In the sentencing of Ramirez, he will spend three years in state prison, the minimum punishment for the offense.
Before you contend that Persky and Meek’s judge, Genece Brinkley, have nothing to do with the other, it’s imperative to understand that the essence of the disproportionate sentencing has the same application: Black robes, white justice!
This week, President Trump engaged in a one-on-one skirmish against LaVar Ball, father of LiAngelo Ball, one of three UCLA basketball players arrested for shoplifting in China. Trump, Tweeted:
"Now that the three basketball players are out of China and saved from years in jail, LaVar Ball, the father of LiAngelo, is unaccepting of what I did for his son and that shoplifting is no big deal. I should have left them in jail!"
The incredulity that a sitting US president would publicly regret having come to the aid of American citizens being held by an authoritarian government presses the question if the influence of race is informing Trump’s tantrums.
Trump’s acknowledgement that the Black student-athletes could’ve disproportionately faced a “5-10 year sentence” and he should have “left them in prison until [his] next trip to China” amplifies the larger notion demonstrated in our nation’s courtrooms when it comes to the application of justice: Those without access to resources and power often find themselves without bail and in jail! This fits into Michelle Alexander’s framework, asserting: “The nature of the criminal justice system has changed. It is no longer primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed.”
"...LaVar, you could have spent the next 5 to 10 years during Thanksgiving with your son in China, but no NBA contract to support you. But remember LaVar, shoplifting is NOT a little thing. It’s a really big deal, especially in China. Ungrateful fool! "
Trump’s scathing criticism of the likes of Colin Kaepernick, Stephan Curry, Jemele Hill, Rep. Fredrica S. Wilson, Judge Gonzalo Curiel, and President Obama — all of whom are of color and none of whom have been accused of the slightest criminal infraction — seems to persuasively suggest a racial bias. This is especially convincing since Trump has been virtually silent on the alleged criminal and/or inappropriate behaviors US Republican Senate-candidate Roy Moore, Sheriff Arpaio, Paul Manafort, and other cohorts — all who are White!
Ultimately, when you have the President of the United States of America, whose Cabinet is predominately White male, and the top law enforcement officer in the nation executing a rollback-and-reverse prosecution policy that perpetuates the excessive sentencing of minorities, prosecutors have less compunction about negotiating plea deals that bully the disenfranchised with take-it-or-go-to-trial options. In other words, those in power in our criminal justice system operating from a space of white privilege or institutional bias and classism are willingly following the lead of the Commander-in-Chief and have political cover for doing so.
Meek’s sentencing isn’t so much about race, as it is about our society’s values. Michelle Alexander poignantly articulated in The New Jim Crow: “In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind...We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
We have subscribed to the narrative that there’s a necessity for incarceration, particularly when recommended by district attorneys or executed by judges. However, the riveting stories of those who accepted questionable plea deals because they couldn’t afford bail, or grew exasperated with attention-deficit public defenders, or didn’t want to languish any longer in violent conditions akin to Rikers will tremendously challenge our uninformed assumptions.
Meek Mill’s experience, albeit by an inexcusable conservative “do the crime, do the time” notion, is, unfortunately, one non-exclusive. He is part of a prejudiced class of 70,000,000 convicted Americans — approximately 22% of the total United States population — who are Black, Brown, and poor White, all of whom are closest to the problem and can thereby create viable solutions, but furthest from resources and power.
I recently visited Independence Hall, the birthplace of the United States. Standing in the Assembly Room, I attentively listened to the tour guide describe how the framers of the Constitution debated Articles therein. My mind contemplated a grammar school concept that I had learned through the words of Benjamin Franklin, one of the chief influences of the Declaration of Independence:
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
As we continue to shine a brighter spotlight on the issues fraught within our criminal justice system, there will be much more than we expect or have taken notice to, emerging from the shadows to shift the tide of mass incarceration from wrong to right. For the injustice of Meek Mill could produce in the form of our sons, daughters, colleagues, neighbors...or even ourselves!