Racism in America’s Legal System
Every few decades, our assumptions about the progress we’ve made in terms of racial sensitivity are undermined by a disturbing and racially-motivated miscarriage of justice. As with the Rodney King trial of two decades ago, the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial demonstrated that our legal system remains highly reflective of the racial inequality that pervades our culture and society. Indeed, the legal system as a social institution is today, as it has always been, demonstrative of the racial hierarchy that detains the advancement of African-Americans.
This is an extremely troubling assertion given the perceived steps taken both during and since the Civil Rights Era. Here, the vast majority of those laws which were explicitly constructed to prevent equal treatment of African-Americans before the eyes of the law have been dismantled. The legal system has, by stated design, sought to achieve a greater degree of racial equality in its procedures and orientation. However, it can be argued that these changes have been in name only and not in deed. As the text by Vega & Maeda (2006) indicates, “the elimination of rigid laws of exclusion, which seems to have eradicated the most overt signs and symbols of racism, implies that we are living in a racial democracy. But the fact is that systems that preserve and reinscribe racial hierarchies are as intact today as they were during the height of U.S. racial apartheid.” (Vega & Maeda, p. 1)
The article here argues that our legal system stubbornly remains as a method of imposing harsher penalties on African-American defendants while likewise offering greater laxity for defendants who have victimized African-Americans. This could not have been made any clearer than in the trial of George Zimmerman, white defendant in the murder of an innocent and unarmed black youth. Employing the highly questionable ‘Stand Your Ground’ law in Florida, Zimmerman’s defense team was able to make the case that the perpetrator was accosted by the victim and therefore had a legal right to kill the unarmed youth with a firearm. Zimmerman was acquitted in spite of ample evidence of his actions and even given several correspondences sent by the young Trayvon Martin to his family indicating he was being followed by the eventual perpetrator.
The outcome of the case highlighted the racial discord that still pervades our legal system. With the Zimmerman-Martin case, we can see the manner in which the system’s inequality has evolved. In the place of explicit laws enforcing racial hierarchies are processes that are influenced by a grotesque implicity bias. As the text by Rachlinski et al. (2009) indicates, “two potential sources of disparate treatment in court are explicit bias and implicit bias. By explicit bias, we mean the kinds of bias that people knowingly — sometimes openly — embrace. Explicit bias exists and undoubtedly accounts for many of the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, but it is unlikely to be the sole culprit. Researchers have found a marked decline in explicit bias over time, even as disparities in outcomes persist.” (Rachlinski et al., p. 1196)
This suggests, and the Martin case further reinforces, that racial inequality is still a powerful force on our culture and society. Moreover, because the explicit dimensions of racialist law have been dismantled, we exist under the false pretense that racial equality of some measure has been achieved. Unfortunately, the details and outcome of the Trayvon Martin trial suggest beyond a reasonable doubt that our legal continues to present date to serve the same racial hierarchy that it has since the era of Jim Crow.
Rachlinksi J.J.: Johnson, S.L.; Wistrich, A.J. & Guthrie, C. (2009). Does Unconscious Racial Bias Affect Trial Judges? Notre Dame Law Review, 84(3).
Vega, E. & Maeda, W. (2006). “Colorblindness: Challenging the Discourse of Contemporary U.S. Racism.” ETHNIC AMERICA:READINGS IN RACE, CLASS, AND GENDER.
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