Race Matters, Even Though It Shouldn't

Even though a person's skin color does not have anything whatsoever to do with whether or not they are guilty of a crime, it matters. Race matters in ways that it shouldn't. And a recent Sentencing Project report about racial perceptions of criminal justice emphasizes just how much.
11/14/2014 12:45 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2015

You do the crime, you do the time.

But not always for the reasons you may think.

Because it's not just about crime. Or about whether an accused person in fact committed the crime. It's not just about the quality of the evidence, or whether the prosecution can prove a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

It's also about race. Even though a person's skin color does not have anything whatsoever to do with whether or not they are guilty of a crime, it matters. Race matters in ways that it shouldn't.

A recent Sentencing Project report about racial perceptions of criminal justice emphasizes just how much race matters:

By increasing support for punitive policies, racial perceptions of crime have made sentencing more severe for all Americans. The United States now has the world's highest imprisonment rate, with one in nine prisoners serving life sentences. Racial perceptions of crime, combined with other factors, have led to the disparate punishment of people of color. Although blacks and Latinos together comprise just 30 percent of the general population, they account for 58 percent of the prison population.

Perceptions about race matter because they literally color our approach to crime. As author Lisa Bloom writes in Suspicion Nation, the assumption that criminals are blacks, and that blacks are criminal, is so ingrained that "in one study, 60 percent of viewers who viewed a crime story with no picture of the perpetrator falsely recalled seeing one, and of those, 70 percent believed he was African-American." Bloom concludes, "When we think about crime, we 'see black,' even when it's not present at all."

These perceptions and assumptions have infiltrated our entire criminal justice system with astonishing consequences.

According to the NAACP, if current racial incarceration trends continue "one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime."

If one in three people were going to be struck by a terrible disease, we'd certainly take whatever steps we could to avoid that outcome. There would be an emergency call to arms. New policies, new procedures, increased funding and research would be implemented in an "all hands on deck" approach to stave off that probability.

But there has been little, and quite muted, outrage at the prospect that, unless things change, one third of black men will be incarcerated during their lives.

Some argue blacks commit more crime and cite official statistics that show blacks are incarcerated at rates far greater than their percentage of the population. The data, however, do not adjust for the policies, such as the war on drugs or certain policing initiatives, that cause over-representation of racial minorities in the first instance. The data also are limited in that they fail to reflect the number people who actually commit a crime but are not arrested or are otherwise diverted from the criminal justice system. For instance, whites commit more drug offenses than blacks, but blacks are incarcerated 10 times more than whites for drug offenses. Many of those whites are not arrested for those drug offenses in the first place, or are placed in treatment programs rather than prison cells. There is a racial disparity that cannot be explained by crime rates alone.

In 1987, in what remains one of the most disturbing decisions ever written, United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor declared that racial disparities in the criminal justice system were "inevitable."

Inevitable means unavoidable.

But there is nothing unavoidable about this situation.

We need to do take ownership of the problem. We need to articulate a vision of justice that goes beyond race. We need to imagine -- and then work towards -- changing our perceptions about crime and criminals. We need to acknowledge the implicit racism that taints policy and practice, arrest rates and sentencing severity. We need to examine root causes of crime, and then expend the resources that are needed to address them.

This may sound vague. Or overly pollyanaish.

But we cannot and should not sit idly by and say -- and do -- nothing while an entire community faces a bleak, hopeless, and devastating future.

Racist perceptions are just that. They are perceptions. They are not, and need not be, reality.

We should say that loud and clear. And get on with the business of fixing our broken system.