Judge Asked Harvard to Find Out Why So Many Black People Were In Prison
September 14, 2020 3:54 PM   Subscribe

"They could only conclude that the criminal justice process was a Rube Goldberg machine that produces “racially disparate initial charging practices..." An excellent data-driven look at one state's charging and sentencing rates.
It wasn’t Black-on-Black crime. Violent video games and rap songs had nothing to do with it; nor did poverty, education, two-parent homes or the international “bootstraps” shortage. When a judge tasked researchers with explaining why Massachusetts’ Black and Latinx incarceration was so high, a four-year study came up with one conclusion.

Racism.

It was always racism.
posted by hanov3r (25 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
 
The article doesn't seem to have been updated yet, but Massachusetts SJC Chief Justice Gants sadly passed away today.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 4:25 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]


I had a very frustrating interaction today when I suggested that incarceration mattered for our local (academic) diversity efforts. How are we going to recruit black scientists if they are all in jail? This is very refreshing (and depressing). I'm bad at formatting pull quotes but: "For instance, despite making up only 24 percent of Boston’s population, Black people made up 63 percent of the civilians who were interrogated, stopped, frisked or searched by the BPD between 2007 and 2010."
posted by lab.beetle at 4:37 PM on September 14 [9 favorites]


See also Last Week Tonight's show on Jury Duty last month. Which was fascinating because jury selection was part of some homework in a textbook I was running through on statistics the day before: in some cases the odds that a prosecutor issued their strikes racially blind would come up with all white jury pools were like one in a billion.

The thing is, that book was written twenty years ago and this show was literally last month with virtually no new data to report on, no changes to the system.
posted by pwnguin at 4:43 PM on September 14 [11 favorites]


"Always has been."
posted by entropone at 4:46 PM on September 14 [7 favorites]


lab.beetle: Indeed; there are restrictions on federal student aid (such as pell grants) for people with convictions, with a particular emphasis on drug convictions. This certainly narrows the pipeline.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:46 PM on September 14 [16 favorites]


PDF of the study described by this article.

When I think "crime," I think of robbery and assault; I intellectually know about the appalling social cost of the War on Some Drugs, but I tend forget how high it truly is (no pun intended), so seeing Table 14 on p. 58 was a good reminder for me: of the 10 most frequent charges carrying mandatory minimum incarceration sentences, 6 appear to be related to drug use or sale - that is, if you exclude driving under the influence (OUI), which is actually directly dangerous to others, and concealed carry without a license, the other 6 are for possession or distribution/sale of drugs.

How many jobs lost, opportunities lost, hours with your kids lost just for possessing a currently illegal substance? It boggles my mind and breaks my heart.

Thank you for posting this, hanov3r. Data and data analysis are such important tools
posted by kristi at 5:17 PM on September 14 [15 favorites]


One could credibly make the argument that pretty much everything in America is “a Rube Goldberg machine that produces ‘racially-disparate’ outcomes.”
posted by turbowombat at 5:57 PM on September 14 [29 favorites]



One could credibly make the argument that pretty much everything in America is “a Rube Goldberg machine that produces ‘racially-disparate’ outcomes.”


I'm not trying to quibble here, I'm genuinely curious: how much more racist are Americans compared to other places?
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:49 PM on September 14


how much more racist are Americans

On any meaningful sociopolitical scale, “racism” isn’t some vice or personality flaw that can be attributed to individuals. It is the foundation of the system by which society is organized. It is the machine whose cogs grind up Black bodies.
posted by mr_roboto at 8:08 PM on September 14 [36 favorites]


That doesn't answer my question or contextualize your point.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 8:50 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]


I'm not trying to quibble here, I'm genuinely curious: how much more racist are Americans compared to other places?

I'm not sure why it matters if America is less or more racist than other countries unless you are trying to say that it doesn't matter because other countries do it too.
posted by simmering octagon at 8:54 PM on September 14 [12 favorites]


No, no, it’s a perfectly reasonable question.

I just ran the numbers and it turns out that Americans are 17.28% more racist than Belgians but 24.87% *less* racist than Turks. Strangely enough, Americans and Chileans are *exactly the same amount* of racist.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:00 PM on September 14 [14 favorites]


I'm not trying to quibble here, I'm genuinely curious: how much more racist are Americans compared to other places?

There's no useful way to answer this question, it's like asking "how much colder (temperature wise) is America compared to other countries"

As a point of note, kristi's comment about 6 out of 10 top mandatory incarceration sentences being related to drugs - I can't help but contrast that to home, where Malaysia and Singapore both have mandatory death penalty for drug possession. It's 15g of heroin or morphine, 200g of marijiana to get hit by the mandatory death penalty. In Singapore they're stricter on marijuana, 100g is enough for mandatory death penalty. Get caught with smaller amounts and you could still be facing life in prison. It's also considered a strict liability crime like child pornography, there is no need for the state prosecutor to prove intent, they only need to prove possession. If we're talking about "years of potential lost" I'm not sure if the US or Singapore is worse: ironically, because the penalties are so harsh, very few Singaporeans offend in the first place.

To complicate things further, in Malaysia the minority ethnic Chinese are economically wealthy, while the majority ethnic Malay are economically worse off. You could say these laws represent a divide more along class lines than racial lines. You could argue the same in the US, where it's always been a class war, it's just there's racial correlation as well.

In terms of racial discrimination in employment, because races are split along language lines it makes it trivial for businesses to discriminate by saying, hey this is Chinese business with Chinese customers and management, so we make it a requirement of hiring that you speak Mandarin. This automatically excludes 99% of non Chinese. It's still common for landlords to explicitly discriminate (ads saying looking for Chinese tenant only) or to do it on the sly, they interview 5 tenants and always pick the Chinese one.
posted by xdvesper at 9:52 PM on September 14 [5 favorites]


McCleskey v. Kemp was decided back in 1987. SCOTUS admitted that in aggregate the system was racist. They just didn’t care unless you could point to where racism actually and directly affected an individual case.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 10:44 PM on September 14 [10 favorites]


Reasonably Everything Happens, I am not sure this is something you can quantify in the way you are asking. I would suggest you look into information on white people in the US have actually done (White Rage by Carol Anderson is a good place to start) and see where you find a comparison to other places helpful or necessary.

Or to take a real stab at answering your question-- I would say the legacy of colonialism informs a great deal of the world. There's an addiction to cheap labor which not shockingly seems to work better if you can Other the people who are performing the cheap labor. However, as a fading empire, I'd argue the US is particularly vicious at the moment.
posted by frumiousb at 11:14 PM on September 14 [12 favorites]


I don't know if you can compare racism across borders. For instance, after WW2, many continental Europeans admired Black Americans just as much as all other Americans. A lot of Black Americans moved to Europe where they could experience less day to day racism, and much less systemic racism. At the same time, people from the Maghreb, Turkey and some parts of Yugoslavia (or my Italien friend who looked North African), would be stopped more by the police and find it harder to get a well-payed job.

On the other hand, universal healthcare and education does a lot for equality, and it is only after 1990 or later that European countries have begun to invent sneaky laws that look "universal" but hit immigrants harder, like that you have to have lived somewhere for seven years to be entitled to some benefit. Finally, incarceration isn't as big a thing in European countries, not even in the more authoritarian ones. These are all about the systemic element. You might have a lot of racist individuals in Denmark, for instance, and racist policemen and judges, but you just can't lock people up for years because they had a few grammes marihuana in their pocket once.
posted by mumimor at 4:58 AM on September 15 [9 favorites]


I'd argue that we can meaningfully divide racism into two broad categories that overlap: individual deliberate racism and systemic racism.

A cop doesn't necessarily have to personally believe in white supremacy to be an integral part of systemic racism. That's part of the reason why even when police departments actively work to hire more Black cops, police departments where the Chief is a Black woman, etc still produce racist outcomes.

The very American desire to see everything in terms of personal virtue fails utterly here. We have a system of white supremacy and it doesn't matter if any particular person is more or less virtuous, the system will produce white supremacy regardless even if Black people are involved in the system at every level.

Systemic problems require systemic solutions. Better police, even if such a thing was possible, cannot end the racism in the legal system because the racism is baked into the system.

The first steps have to be ending the War on Drugs and ending incarceration for anything but the absolute worst of really, genuinely, violent crimes where there is a reason to think the person will commit similar crimes going forward.

Abolishing prison as we know it is as important as ending the drug war.

A partial step towards ending prison hat might be easier to get through at first might be ending the economic incentive to keep large prison populations by ending prisonlabor entirely. Or failing that at least mandating that prison labor be paid minimum wage.

Another good step would be making it so for Congressional apportionment prisoners count a population at their last home address not the address of the prison. A lot of white rural areas have their representation at both state and local level boosted by having a non-voting prison population, mostly Black, who are counted as residents of their area.
posted by sotonohito at 6:36 AM on September 15 [23 favorites]


sotonohito, I'll add one more thing, no, two more things.

Prisoners are also counted as part of the local population for getting federal funds, which are spent on people in the area who aren't prisoners-- it's not just representation.

Prisons also function as public works projects. They're a way to get jobs as guards and such into an area.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 6:57 AM on September 15 [6 favorites]


I am close to finishing my first read through The New Jim Crow, and the answer is absolutely "racism". Tied in second place are "sadism" and "capitalism," but I repeat myself.

See also, Carceral Capitalism and Captivating Technology.
posted by JohnFromGR at 7:33 AM on September 15 [7 favorites]


I'm not trying to quibble here, I'm genuinely curious: how much more racist are Americans compared to other places?

Quite a bit, in aggregate:
The US had 2,173,800 prisoners in adult facilities in 2015. That means the US held 21.0% of the world's prisoners in 2015, even though the US represented only around 4.4 percent of the world's population in 2015.

Wikipedia


Since we are talking systemic racism, then those rates either represent (1) racism, (2) Americans on average are generally worse people than any other country, or (3) America has more laws and more robust enforcement. I don't believe #2 or #3 are true.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:58 AM on September 15 [8 favorites]


Part of the difficulty in measuring racism in America, on the individual rather than the institutional level, is that Americans have been conditioned to avoid slurs in the presence of people less racist than they are and in any sort of study. Basically individually racist people tend to lie and hide their racism.

Institutionally it's clear that a America has a staggeringly racist system. But very few individual racists will admit to being racist so polls are less useful than they might be.
posted by sotonohito at 9:03 AM on September 15 [4 favorites]


I'm not trying to quibble here, I'm genuinely curious: how much more racist are Americans compared to other places?
From a post 10 days ago, about a black person traveling to every country in the world,
Finally, the way black people suffer in the US is unlike any places I’ve ever been. I’ve been held at gunpoint by police officer in Miami. The chances of that happening anywhere else in the vast, vast majority of world—maybe 191 countries—is pretty slim.

posted by showbiz_liz at 4:35 PM on September 5
Anecdata and all, who knows. As other comments indicate, most world police would skip the pistol. So maybe racism is equally present in many places, but the expression differs.

As for incarceration rates, "Indigenous people are vastly over-represented in the Canadian prison system", and there is "a higher number of convictions for racial minorities in Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Denmark and France".

This is beyond my area of expertise, who knows the relative racism score of various countries.

(*) I didn't read her blog, I didn't want to visit the site of anyone who celebrates mass GHG emissions.
posted by ecco at 12:31 PM on September 15


I'm not trying to quibble here, I'm genuinely curious: how much more racist are Americans compared to other places?
And let's add in one more element to why it's difficult and maybe even irrelevant to argue about how much more or less racist Americans are than other countries. We have a founding document that says "All men are created equal." And yet we have spent so much time and effort creating laws that were designed to punish, alienate, and prevent Black residents from being treated as equal citizens under the law since the very first moment of our birth as a country. Sure, South Africa may be more racist than us, but they don't claim to treat people equally. They know their system has a long way to go. But us, we sit here and pretend that racism is Donald Trump's fault or that it happened a looooong time ago and we're all better.

At every turning point of our country, at every spot where we could have thrown out the racism that was built into the system, our leaders, and by extension, our people have chosen over and over again to double down on racism and white supremacy and codify it further into the fabric of our society.

So the actual level of racism may be similar to the amount you'd find in a more homogenous country, but our level of commitment to sustaining the system that rewards whites and punishes Blacks is hard to ignore. Sometimes, it's not just about quantity but the quality of racism as well.
posted by teleri025 at 2:57 PM on September 15 [2 favorites]


A tangent, but there's a fairly fascinating report on racism in the EU (2018 EU Agency for Fundamental Rights).
posted by aramaic at 3:40 PM on September 16 [1 favorite]


In re whether Americans are uniquely racist being a legitimate question: just focusing on Americans can make it sound as though Americans are uniquely evil. If systemic/pervasive oppression is common, then it's a human tendency.

Framing the problem as racism is America-centric, since some systemic/pervasive oppression involves two groups who look the same to outsiders, like Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. I don't know whether this has a name.

teleri025, "At every turning point of our country, at every spot where we could have thrown out the racism that was built into the system, our leaders, and by extension, our people have chosen over and over again to double down on racism and white supremacy and codify it further into the fabric of our society." That's an exaggeration-- there have been some serious efforts to make things better, notably the Civil War. It wasn't a complete success, but cutting back drastically on slavery did help.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 2:37 AM on September 17


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