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August 15, 2019

"Slavery gave America a fear of black people and a taste for violent punishment. Both still define our criminal-justice system."

The title of this post is the title of this new piece authored by Bryan Stevenson from the New York Times magazine. Based on the title and author, regular readers should know this is a must-read in full.  Here is an excerpt:

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration of any nation on Earth: We represent 4 percent of the planet’s population but 22 percent of its imprisoned.  In the early 1970s, our prisons held fewer than 300,000 people; since then, that number has grown to more than 2.2 million, with 4.5 million more on probation or parole.  Because of mandatory sentencing and “three strikes” laws, I’ve found myself representing clients sentenced to life without parole for stealing a bicycle or for simple possession of marijuana.  And central to understanding this practice of mass incarceration and excessive punishment is the legacy of slavery....

The 13th Amendment is credited with ending slavery, but it stopped short of that: It made an exception for those convicted of crimes.  After emancipation, black people, once seen as less than fully human “slaves,” were seen as less than fully human “criminals.”  The provisional governor of South Carolina declared in 1865 that they had to be “restrained from theft, idleness, vagrancy and crime.”  Laws governing slavery were replaced with Black Codes governing free black people — making the criminal-justice system central to new strategies of racial control....

Anything that challenged the racial hierarchy could be seen as a crime, punished either by the law or by the lynchings that stretched from Mississippi to Minnesota.  In 1916, Anthony Crawford was lynched in South Carolina for being successful enough to refuse a low price for his cotton.  In 1933, Elizabeth Lawrence was lynched near Birmingham for daring to chastise white children who were throwing rocks at her.

It’s not just that this history fostered a view of black people as presumptively criminal.  It also cultivated a tolerance for employing any level of brutality in response.  In 1904, in Mississippi, a black man was accused of shooting a white landowner who had attacked him.  A white mob captured him and the woman with him, cut off their ears and fingers, drilled corkscrews into their flesh and then burned them alive — while hundreds of white spectators enjoyed deviled eggs and lemonade.  The landowner’s brother, Woods Eastland, presided over the violence; he was later elected district attorney of Scott County, Miss., a position that allowed his son James Eastland, an avowed white supremacist, to serve six terms as a United States senator, becoming president pro tempore from 1972 to 1978.

This appetite for harsh punishment has echoed across the decades. Late in the 20th century, amid protests over civil rights and inequality, a new politics of fear and anger would emerge.  Nixon’s war on drugs, mandatory minimum sentences, three-strikes laws, children tried as adults, “broken windows” policing — these policies were not as expressly racialized as the Black Codes, but their implementation has been essentially the same.  It is black and brown people who are disproportionately targeted, stopped, suspected, incarcerated and shot by the police.

Hundreds of years after the arrival of enslaved Africans, a presumption of danger and criminality still follows black people everywhere.  New language has emerged for the noncrimes that have replaced the Black Codes: driving while black, sleeping while black, sitting in a coffee shop while black.  All reflect incidents in which African-Americans were mistreated, assaulted or arrested for conduct that would be ignored if they were white.  In schools, black kids are suspended and expelled at rates that vastly exceed the punishment of white children for the same behavior.

Inside courtrooms, the problem gets worse.  Racial disparities in sentencing are found in almost every crime category.  Children as young as 13, almost all black, are sentenced to life imprisonment for nonhomicide offenses.  Black defendants are 22 times more likely to receive the death penalty for crimes whose victims are white, rather than black — a type of bias the Supreme Court has declared “inevitable.”

The smog created by our history of racial injustice is suffocating and toxic.  We are too practiced in ignoring the victimization of any black people tagged as criminal; like Woods Eastland’s crowd, too many Americans are willing spectators to horrifying acts, as long as we’re assured they’re in the interest of maintaining order.

August 15, 2019 at 09:12 AM | Permalink


And now we have sex offenders that are considered prescriptively criminal. No one on the registry has any chance of ever proving that they are not dangerous. The assumption is they must be controlled and not allowed to travel without notifying the authorities or risk a prison sentence. When will we ever learn?

Posted by: Steve | Aug 15, 2019 2:01:59 PM

The author is a blatant racist. Slavery did not give Americans a taste for for violent punishment, we got that taste from our treatment of the Native Americans long before the blacks came on board.

This article is yet another exhibit in the long line of exhibits in the moral poverty of the left.

Posted by: Daniel | Aug 15, 2019 2:58:20 PM

The idea that white people are "afraid" of black people is a racist idea. This racist does not deserve a mention on this blog, much less an endorsement. The title of the op-ed itself is literally insane.

It is abundantly clear that there is a certain percentage of blacks who are extremely violent. The only fear anyone--black white red yellow brown--has of black people is that this percentage of black people will visit violence upon them.

These racist cretins should never be given a platform anywhere without a vigorous counter op-ed. The narrative that this racist is proffering is completely utterly false and must be repudiated as the racist garbage that is it.

Posted by: restlelss94110 | Aug 15, 2019 2:59:43 PM

White fragility and blatant racism is rampant in these comments. They prove why Bryan Stevenson's work is so important and, sadly, so needed.

Posted by: Jennifer | Aug 16, 2019 12:08:40 PM

It's interesting that people who cross the street, question their own safety, call the cops on a Black person for innocuous actions (i.e. sitting in a park, reading in their car, shopping in a store) and/or feel threatened when a Black person is near (one of many examples) would call the author of this article "racist". Please, pray tell us, what would be the reason for these types of reactions for non-violent, every day actions that white people can do without thought or real fear? Is it not meant to instill FEAR that is expressed by the White person who calls the cops to accuse two Black men of kidnapping and drowning their child, murdering a family member, stealing an item, or breaking a rule (when in fact they did it themselves)? I'm sure it would be hard for a White person to fathom or understand an experience they've never had to deal with. Remove the rose-colored glasses from your eyes and try to see past your own privilege (known and unknown). Try to see past your fragile egos if at all possible.

By the way, there are a "certain percentage" of WHITES who are "extremely violent", as well. Which race exhibits the greatest percentage of mass shootings? Murder-suicides? The idea that Blacks instill fear is a racist thought in itself. You have a platform to say what YOU believe is correct, as we all should. Don't let your own mentality cloud the reality of Blacks in this country.

Posted by: Natasha | Jun 3, 2020 2:22:40 PM

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