Race permeates every facet of American society, and racism is the original sin of the American nation – deeply interwoven in its DNA culturally and institutionally. Can America change its DNA?
Fifty years after the murder of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the discrimination and erasure of black lives continues. From police shootings to sentencings, the legacy of injustices demonstrates that black people, for no other reason than the colour of their skin, are perceived as an inherently suspect class.
On the anniversary of King’s death, Saheed Vassell, an unarmed 34-year-old-black male, was shot dead by four New York Police Department police officers; three were not in uniform. None wore body cameras while discharging 10 rounds at Vassell, who was holding a metal pipe.
Weeks earlier, 23-year-old Stephon Clark, a black Muslim, was shot and killed in his grandmother’s backyard for having a cell phone. Though Clark’s religion didn’t play an apparent role in his murder, being simultaneously black and Muslim placed him in one of the most marginalised strata of society. According to Mapping Police Violence in 2017, most police killings occurred after law enforcement responded to non-violent offences or where no crime was reported.
A staggering 89 people were killed after a traffic stop. The report also states, “Black people were more likely to be killed by police, more likely to be unarmed, and less likely to be threatening someone when killed.” The Washington Post reported that four unarmed black men have been killed this year alone. That’s one black man each month. Though Black Lives Matter activists have drawn awareness to the issue of police violence in black communities, black men continue to be a perceived threat to law enforcement. That law enforcement can play judge, jury, and executioner without fear of a murder prosecution allows police officers to remain above the law. Civil claims have also provided little reprieve, interpreting the qualified immunity doctrine so generously, as to effectively immunise law enforcement from personal liability for their wrongdoing.
The systemic discrimination blacks face in the United States is not isolated to police violence. Civil Rights attorney Bryan Stevenson, in his book Just Mercy, details the case of Walter McMilan, an innocent black man who spent years on death row after the state of Alabama charged him with capital murder.
His real crime was having an extra-marital affair with a white woman in his small town. The shaky testimony used to convict McMilan was directly contradicted by the vast majority of the evidence, but that did not affect the jury outcome. The Sentencing Project documents police-civilian encounters in several US cities, including Boston.
The study shows that between 2007 and 2010, 63 percent of the people the “Boston Police Department observed, stopped, interrogated, frisked or searched without making an arrest” were black. In Boston, blacks are 24 percent of the city’s population.
In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union reported black males receive 20 percent higher sentences than their white counterparts convicted of similar crimes. Even sentencing guidelines prove problematic, for instance imposing stiffer penalties on crack possession, more common in the black community, than cocaine, more prevalent amongst whites, though the two are identical drugs with identical effects, but slightly different in composition. Possession of five grams of crack yields a five-year mandatory federal prison sentence. Triggering a five-year sentence for cocaine possession requires 500 grams of powder cocaine. That’s a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity.
As a lawyer who studies the systemic inculcation of Islamophobia in the law as an institution, that the disparate treatment the black community has received in the criminal justice system has permeated into the Muslim community is not lost on me.
This month, the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding after a two-year study reported that in two-thirds of the convicted plots involving Muslims, undercover informants provided the weapons and means to commit the crime, compared to 16 percent of investigations of non-Muslims. Muslim defendants received four times longer sentences than their non-Muslim counterparts for similar crimes and 7.5 times as much media attention for “foiled plots.”
In the 2008 Fort Dix Five prosecution, Serdar Tatar, one of five defendants, was convicted of conspiracy to kill US soldiers. He reported the undercover FBI informant as a potential terrorist to both a Philadelphia police officer and the FBI six months before the sting ended. He is currently serving a 33 year sentence.
Mat Johnson, a novelist and comic book writer who created a biracial superhero who goes undercover to solve hate crimes against blacks, was interviewed on the Interecepted podcast last month. His father is white and his mother is black, and in describing his white family members, he says, “They don’t even see their own race. Like, in their minds, they are race-less. Other people have race. They’re just normal people.”
Statistics confirm this. White males have committed more mass shootings than any other group, according to data collected by Mother Jones spanning over 25 years, and yet there’s no outcry to profile or map predominantly white communities. Because such surveillance is ineffective. Compare this to HBO Real Time host Bill Maher’s statement: “Vast numbers of Muslims across the world believe, and they do, that humans deserve to die for merely holding a different idea or drawing a cartoon or writing a book or eloping with the wrong person. Not only does the Muslim world have something in common with ISIS, it has too much in common with ISIS.” Certainly, law enforcement pursuing investigation or arrests of people engaged in criminal conduct is expected.
However, that so many people of colour are regularly targeted who pose no threat beyond being born black or Muslim, is a travesty of the protean Jim Crow who’s echo continues to resonate insidiously. In an interview, Stephon Clark’s fiancee, Salena Malli, told listeners: “When [law enforcement] shoot[s] someone, if affects more than the person that they kill.
Here, me, my children, my family, and Stephon’s family, we’re all suffering the shooting of an unarmed man. It’s caused unrest within our family, unrest within the community. And we seek justice for my love. That’s all we want.” It is time to lift qualified immunity from police officers using lethal force and terminating police officers who’ve used unjustifiable lethal force, as a first step. America needs a justice system that does not penalise people on the basis of their skin or religion. The health of American society depends on it so that 50 years from now we are not having the same conversation.