Simon Williamson

The harsh hand of racism

2014-03-28 08:32

Simon Williamson

There isn't a nation in the world that appreciates locking up its population like the US. You have likely heard that although the US has only 5% of the world's population, it has 25% of its prisoners. And while that has been true for some time, the hue of said prisoners has only begun being discussed recently.

Slowly reaching popular consciousness is "the new Jim Crow" - a system of "justice" disguised as a "War on Drugs" which has systematically targeted black Americans and locked them up, often with outrageous sentences that make a mockery of the term "justice". Black Americans are imprisoned disproportionately, not only in terms of demographic, but in terms of who uses drugs, and how often.

A higher percentage of white Americans than black Americans have tried alcohol, cocaine, hallucinogens and marijuana. The two races come out at a tie on heroin, and black people slightly pip white people when it comes to trying crack.

But to look at America's prison population you would never think it.

Black Americans are 3.73 times more likely than white Americans to be arrested for marijuana possession.

And that's just the average: in Chicago black people are nearly eight times more likely to be arrested for weed possession. In Brooklyn it's 10 times. In Illinois, Iowa, Washington, DC and Minnesota, blacks are 7.5 or more times more likely to be arrested for, quite literally, possessing the same thing in the same amounts as white people. From where I write this in the state of Georgia, blacks make up just over 30% of the population, but 49% of drug arrests.

Crack use

Take the ONE drug black people use more than white people: crack.

Until recently, the sentences for crack possession were 100 times more severe than that for cocaine - a 100:1 pulled-out-of-a-hat ratio in sentencing for the same basic drug. It lasted until 2010 when it was reduced to the arbitrarily chosen 18:1 ratio, instead of the far more applicable 1:1, which would actually have a base in things like reason and logic.

This sort of discrimination connoted with "The War on Drugs" is pervasive. But sadly, it doesn't end at drugs. New studies and reports are being published, showing it isn't just at adulthood that black Americans catch the wrong end of government policy.

In fact, sickeningly, it is when they are small children. In the last week the Education Department's civil rights division released a reportchock-full of harrowing statistics.

Not only are black, Latino and Native American children less likely to have access to advanced courses, they are also likely to be taught by less experienced teachers (often in the teachers' first year). When it comes to discipline black students are expelled at three times the rate of white students, and when it comes to the really young kids, black children make up 42% of school suspensions, while making up only 18% of enrolments.

Expulsion is a significant handicap when it comes to completing standard education. A lot of these children end up being pushed into the justice system by the school system, which gave birth to the term "the school to prison pipeline". As the American Civil Liberties Union puts it, "Students of color [sic] are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline."

And it isn't just at school. According to PBS: "A national study of child protective services by the US Department of Health and Human Services reported that "minority children, and in particular African American children, are more likely to be in foster care placement than receive in-home services, even when they have the same problems and characteristics as white children".

Widespread racism

That same report goes on to say that black children, once in the foster care system, are less likely to receive services, be returned home and less likely to be adopted. It adds that black and Latino parents are more than five times more likely than white families to undergo scrutiny for child abuse when hospitalised for the same injuries.

These phenomena are virtually lethal when it comes to the different ways black and white Americans are forced to live. Next time someone tells you that there's a black president and "we shouldn't keep focusing on racism", you will be able to remind them that the government locks more black people up for behaving exactly the same as whites, punishes their children more harshly for no apparent reason, and takes them away willy-nilly.

In modern day America racism is widespread, and has stunning consequences, whether people wish to discuss it or not.

- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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