THE BLOG
01/05/2015 04:01 pm ET Updated Mar 07, 2015

Wrestling With 'Justice While Black'

Perhaps the best thing about Justice While Black, by Robbin Shipp and Nick Chiles, is the way that it puts individual faces on the persons, disproportionately African-American males, who are systematically abused by the criminal justice system. Shipp draws on her experience as a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta to provide case studies of the extreme harm inflicted by institutional and personal racism. She illustrates the myriad of ways that a black child, guilty of a youthful indiscretion -- or who is completely innocent -- can have his life ruined by the system.

The criminal justice system has always used "good cop/bad cop" interrogation methods to trick the accused into inadvertently testifying against themselves. The plea bargaining system further pressured defendants into accepting deals that can backfire, resulting in unfair and often ridiculously long prison terms for minor offenses. When combined with racial profiling, which means that even more young males of color are subjected to these tactics, a tipping point was crossed.

Shipp and Chiles are nuanced and sensitive to diverse perspectives when explaining the perfect storm of institutional racism which created such unconscionable racial disparities in incarceration rates. For instance, public defenders may or may not be exceptionally skillful in defending their clients; they often know the ins-and-outs of cases like armed robbery better than higher-priced attorneys. But, national standards call for caseloads of no more than 150 felonies a year, while public defenders commonly have caseloads of 500 to 800 per year, with some handling up to 1600.

I don't know if they would agree, but I read their account of the "school to prison pipeline" as being not dissimilar to their description of the way that overwhelmed public defenders have failed to adequately protect the rights of their clients. They criticize systems more than individuals, who can be overwhelmed by complex dilemmas. For example, it is often charged (correctly) that poor black males are over-identified as learning disabled, segregated, and thus shipped down the pipeline to prison. But, Shipp and Chiles note (correctly) that other poor children of color are under-identified and can thus be endangered.

Shipp and Chiles (correctly) condemn the way that schools "unwittingly" create circumstances that contribute to the "booby traps" that "suck" our kids into the prison pipeline. Given the disproportionate suspension rates for black and Hispanic students, it is impossible to say that the subjective assessment of disciplinary consequences is colorblind. But, I read them as more explicit in indicting the criminalization of youthful misconduct.

Robbin Shipp got in fights all the time at school. But, 30 years ago, "if you got into a fight at school, maybe your parents were called, maybe the school gave you some sort of in-school suspension or after-school suspension, and then you went on with your life." Now, such an offense is called an "affray," and the combatants end up in juvenile court.

Or, perhaps my bias emerged while reading this section of Justice While Black. In today's inner city schools with the most intense concentrations of children from generational poverty who have survived extreme trauma, we need comprehensive and expensive sets of aligned and coordinated socio-emotional supports to address disruptions and conflicts. Too often, in my experience, systems demand shortcuts, ignore real problems, and simply pressure schools to make suspension metrics look better. When our district was run by a data-driven superintendent from the corporate reform Broad Academy, administrators felt compelled to turn routine disciplinary infractions over to the police in order to keep their suspension numbers down. Consequently, in a school with just 350 high school students, we had 185 arrests in 173 days.

On the other hand, it is possible that I am grasping at straws in an effort to blame institutional racism, and perhaps I am too slow to face up to the power of personal racism. As an inner city teacher and a former legal historian, I have witnessed the outrages chronicled by Shipp and Chiles. Maybe, I am afraid to connect the dots in the way that they and other experts have.

In the late-1980s, all types of stakeholders in the Oklahoma County Courthouse made the same prediction. We had a long history of over-incarceration (especially of women), but the War on Drugs would make the problem far more unmanageable. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges predicted (accurately) that institutional racism, combined with the War on Drugs, would turn our prison population that was predominantly white to one that was mostly black and Hispanic.

But, Shipp and Chiles remind us that the Reagan administration launched the War on Drugs in 1982, before the crack cocaine epidemic. Would his Law and Order crowd have been as successful in whipping up hysteria without the assistance of personal prejudice?

"Community policing," crime sweeps, data-driven policing, and "stop and frisk" tactics combined to over-fill our prisons. The privatization of jails and prisons, and the additional racial profiling of drivers, then put those tactics on steroids. Worse, as budgets were cut and fines were increased to fund law enforcement, a new form of imprisonment for debt emerged when nonviolent offenders fell behind in paying their fines and fees. All of those factors stimulated demand for inmates. It is impossible to deny that the racial profiling which helped meet that increased demand was not made much worse by personal racism.

And, that brings us to the other great contribution of Justice While Black -- the way that it places today's inequities in a historical context. Especially in the South, law enforcement was rooted in the racist campaign to keep blacks down. The terms "stakeout" and "patrols" were coined in the days of slave-catching. We're not that many generations away from Jim Crow, and older law enforcement officers often pass down discriminatory practices to the white and black police of today.

The Warren Court's constitutional protections for defendants have been whittled down during recent decades, but Shipp and Chiles remind us of a timeless truth. The real solution for racial profiling must be found in the minds of the individuals that practice it.

The same is true across other sectors of society. From our schools to the jails, we are seeing racial disparities endure in ways that should bring all of us to tears. This tragedy would not be so extreme were it not for personal as well as institutional racism.