Photo of "Black Lives Matter protest" in New York by The All-Nite Images
The execution-style shooting of a black teen by a white Chicago police officer—and the subsequent cover up by government officials—has been just one more incident raising awareness about the need to eradicate institutional racism and the inequities of the justice system.
On October 20, 2014, Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shot Laquan McDonald, 17, by unloading sixteen bullets into the teen’s body. Nine of the bullets struck McDonald in the back. It took more than a year for the city of Chicago to release dash cam footage of the incident, and for the Cook County state’s attorney to file first-degree murder charges against the officer. The city’s Independent Police Review Authority failed to flag down Van Dyke, who had remained on the force despite being the target of at least 20 complaints and two lawsuits. Mayor Rahm Emanuel reportedly knew of the shooting soon after it happened, and during a contentious mayoral reelection, the city quietly paid a $5 million settlement to the McDonald family.
U.S. Attorney general Loretta Lynch has announced a U.S. Department of Justice investigations of the Chicago Police Department for possible civil rights violations.
Chicago—like Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities—has emerged as a national focal point for questions from the public: Why are black people, particularly young black men, killed by the police? Why do such atrocities continue to occur, and why do African Americans, Latinos, and other groups receive unequal treatment in the schoolroom, at traffic stops, in the courtroom, and behind bars?
America still has not come to terms with its legacy of slavery, including the branding of black people as inferior, criminal, and other crippling racial stereotypes. The effects of slavery are not ancient history but rather a present-day reality, as these stereotypes—these unconscious, implicit biases that continue to guide actions—are manifested in the institutions, policies, and practices that govern our society.
For example, a U.S. Department of Education study found that black students make up 16 percent of the population, but 32 to 42 percent of students suspended or expelled. Blacks are expelled three times more frequently than their white peers, and are referred more often for criminal prosecution. Black and Latino students are often perceived by teachers to be disrespectful, unruly, and disorderly, with low ability and motivation. As a result, these children are burdened by low expectations and shunted into a school-to-prison pipeline.
Studies have shown that police and members of the general public alike are more likely to shoot a black target than a white one, with shooter bias increasing in states with lax gun control laws.
In the court system, subconscious racial bias plays a role in the administration of justice. The American Bar Association has found that fully 88 percent of lawyers in the United States are white, only 4.8 percent are black, while 95 percent of prosecutors are white, and 79 percent are male. The majority of those incarcerated are men of color.
A recent comment by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia—who said black college students are “pushed into schools that are too advanced for them” and would benefit from a “slower track”—is an extreme example of the racial bias that permeates American institutions, and the routine biased decision making around the allocation of resources and the dispensation of justice.
I recently spoke with Paulette Brown, president of the American Bar Association, about racism and the American justice system. Brown is the first woman of color to lead the national organization of more than 400,000 lawyers. She told The Progressive that lawyers have a responsibility to help reform the legal system. “I know that I have the responsibility to do what I can to try to disrupt the school to prison pipeline, and also to bring attention to how implicit bias may play a role in that, and play a role in overincarceration and the sometimes negative decisions that are made,” she said.
“Lawyers, all of us, are responsible for maintaining the rule of law,” Brown said. “Lawyers make the laws, they influence the laws, they help develop the laws, and so we are, and have always been, catalysts for change.”
Brown believes lawyers have been jolted into taking a close look at the whole system after the recent atrocities involving the deaths of black men in police custody. "There has been a really new awakening," she said. "Lawyers are more interested than ever in trying to understand what it is they can do change this trend and rebuild the confidence in the justice system.”
While the Justice Department is focusing on local police departments, Brown said, that the ABA is reaching out to the legal community. “It really threatens the rule of law when people don't have faith in the justice system and think that it's not fair, especially at such high percentages—65 percent of people between 18 and 29 think the system is unfair,” she said.
The ABA has created a diversity and inclusion commission, which will provide training materials on how implicit bias influences decision making for judges, prosecutors, and public defenders. According to Brown, “so many people don't know what implicit bias is or have an understanding of it—including people at a major newspaper that I spoke with last week, which was a little surprising.”
Brown says part of the solution is for African Americans to become prosecutors, which has been an anathema to some in the black community because of their role in locking up black people:
“Prosecutors are such key decision makers in the whole process, sometimes even more important than judges, because a prosecutor decides who is going to go before the judge in the first place, whether they're going to be charged with anything, and what crime they are going to be charged with.”
The ABA chief points out that no one is exempt from implicit bias, and public defenders must have training in understanding “so they won't make assumptions and encourage people to plead guilty to things that they have not done, to accept plea bargains that are not as good as plea bargains they might have offered to other people.“ Brown also suggests that lawyers offer to do pro bono work in their school districts, learn about the laws and zero tolerance policies that impact children, and represent children in administrative hearings and juvenile court.
“We have lost more than a generation of African Americans as a result of people not paying attention to what's going on,” Brown laments. “I think that we can move forward now in bringing attention to what's really happening and having some viable solutions and action plans for things to really get done.”
David A. Love is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to theGrio and Atlanta Blackstar,and his work has appeared on CNN and been published by The Guardian and The Nation.