By Dr. Jason Michael Williams
As many commemorate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., I cannot help but to ask how he might define justice in late-modernity. Forty-six years after his death, America still has not dealt with its issue of racialized social control. America continues to be the leading nation regarding incarceration rates, especially of minority and oppressed groups. The current state of the country is not only a scolding denunciation to that which King stood for, but it dictates the fact that America continues to be the land where minorities are seemingly unable to receive due process-a terrible picture of fact for a nation that prides itself as the moral compass of the world.
On his supposed birthday (January 20th), many people, especially Americans, routinely take to social media and television and exclaim their respect and gratefulness for this great leader; however, few of them mention the rate at which Black males, in particular, are continuously sought and destroyed by the American justice system. On this day, the agents of punditry fail miserably to apply King’s dream to contemporary realities of oppression and repression. Politicians assume the role of blindness against the numbers of mass incarceration, which are ever so readily available for their viewing. And some educators, both within criminal justice and outside, fail to use mass incarceration as a pedagogical tool in conjunction with teaching and understanding King’s call for social justice.
The US’ problem with mass incarceration is one that continues to bear its hypocritical soul. Time and time again, the US demands from others what it cannot do for its own. How can the government stand as the world’s foremost arbiter of humanitarianism when members of its own society have long been the target of inhumane treatment at the hands of government itself? Moreover, while the US government assumes this role, members of the oppressed are sold the adage of self-responsibility in hopes that somehow the issues that plague the undesirables will simply and magically go away. Not only is this farce consciously known by many in America, but it is also a well-known fact throughout the world.
Despite the status quo’s mentioning of there being a fair justice system, reports from all corners continue to display the utter opposite. For example, The Sentencing Project produced a chilling info-graphic depicting the likelihood of imprisonment over the lifespan (see, fig 1.). This data shows that men are more likely to be arrested than women, which is consistent with much of the gender-based literature regarding criminality. However, when looking at the racial differences, the data shows that, when it comes to both men and women, members of minority groups are more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. In fact, Black males take the lead followed by Latino males and this is also reflected in the female data. A critical consultation with this data suggests that minorities, for whatever reason, are being arrested at rates much higher than their white-counterparts. Not only is this disparity a modern national disgrace, but it should be noted that such practices have historical roots.
One controversial offense that is included within the aforementioned rates of incarceration is that of drug violations. For example, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released a report entitled, “Prisoners in 2012, Trends in Admissions and Releases, 1991-2012” and within this report are numbers gathered from the states regarding commitments to prison based on offense. It has long been empirically shown that Whites and Blacks tend to use drugs at equal rates, yet imprisonment rates defy the logic found in the empirical literature (see, e.g., Alexander, 2009; Tonry, 2010). For example, in 1991, the BJS report mentioned above showed that Blacks accounted for approximately 39% of drug related offenses while Whites accounted for 19% of those offenses. It should be noted that Hispanics are not included within these figures.
In 2001, however, a category for Hispanic is accessible. The numbers in this year show that Blacks account for approximately 37% of drug offenses, Hispanics 36%, and Whites 23%. In 2006, drug offenses for Blacks were at 35%, Hispanics approximately 30%, and Whites approximately 24%. Lastly, in 2011, Blacks were recorded for 24% of drug offenses, Hispanics approximately 26%, and Whites 23%. Clearly, throughout the years there have been minor decreases in drug-related prison commitments; however, even with the decreases a disparity remained. Therefore, such disparity forces society to answer for the tactics and strategies used in drug enforcement, especially when empirical data continues to show that there are no real differences between the races regarding drug use.
It is also profoundly important to mention that when most people are released from prison they face major de jure and de facto discrimination. This atrocity is presented in a ground breaking book entitled,“But They All Come Back: Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry” by Jeremy Travis. The most crude form of ex-con discrimination is the banning of drug offenders from receiving federal funding for education. This is one legal consequence that hurts minority groups the most being that they are least likely to afford college without the help of federal funding. Moreover, in a society where education is considered the great equalizer, those whom most need it are by law locked out of the dream of earning degrees-a paper that could, in fact, reduce recidivism. As a result of the de jure and de factodiscrimination, most ex-cons are recommitted to the prison. This is especially inhumane when these violations include those whom were originally arrested for non-violent offenses, like drugs.
The BJS report cited above displays numbers regarding parole violations for those originally convicted of drug offenses. For example, in 1991 Blacks accounted for 33% of those violated under parole while Whites sat at approximately 18%. Those numbers also include Hispanics. In 2001, the violations were as follow, 42% of Blacks, 36% of Hispanics, and 29% of Whites. Moving into 2006 the counts were 39% Black, 30% Hispanic, and approximately 27% White. In 2011, there were 31% Blacks violated, approximately 25% Hispanic, and 23% White. Once again, here, we see a variation between the races that begs for contextualization. It should be noted that much of the scholarly literature is helpful toward understanding those percentages. Much of the disparity has to do with bias and differential treatmentwithin the administration of justice (Walker, 2012), differential employment and housing opportunities(Visher & Farrell, 2005) and lack of social bonds (ibid) and self-actualization after being released.
What is more important to recognize here is the fact that ex-cons are instantly denied their right to self-actualization and determination. This is accomplished by the many forms of de jure and de factodiscrimination they face upon release. Also, such discrimination can be viewed in the aggregate or locally. When controlling for race, the differences are astoundingly similar to the conditions of Jim Crow for Black males (Alexander, 2009). In addition, Black females are steadily becoming the newest victim of mass incarceration. Not only does this aid in the destruction of the Black family but it destroy whole communities (Clear, 2007). Such maltreatment is validated by law and custom (see, e.g. Browne-Marshall, 2013) that is to say that, society has found it to be “ok” or “normal” for Black bodies to be treated as penal caricatures numb to the pains of imprisonment and maltreatment. Sadly, that societal feeling may have credence considering the historical context by which Blacks have long been the target of social undesirableness. Blacks know all too well how to prepare for an unjust traffic stop, or how to prepare for an unjust verdict, whether it is in the context of Zimmerman or Mehserle. Nevertheless, these experiences are no different from the extrajudicial lynching of their forebearers and the undemocratic nature of Southern law enforcement during the Jim Crow era. To put it simple, Blacks have long had to experience the wrath of state-sponsored terror democratically disguised as “justice”.
If King was brought back to life today how might he define justice? He will probably look at the above numbers, which are only an inch of the problem, and bow his head in shame. He would denounce what little progress has been made and cry that more could have been done. He would shame political leaders for their utter abandonment of those who cannot help themselves against the power of a state preoccupied with white supremacy and plutocratic interests. He will possibly shame society for falling for a two-faced friendship with neoliberalism. He would remind us that, in relationships, all parties must sacrifice and give, but sadly neoliberalism has only robbed society – not give to it. He would encourage us to revert to a mechanical society, or a society in which people care for their neighbor and the suffering of others. King would remind us that the definition of justice as it stands today is not of its origin. In fact, he would probably define justice as:
1. The dehumanization of minority bodies disguised as justice.
2. The practice of disposing human bodies as worthless and undesirable.
3. The utter obsolescence of an ideology that cares for those who cannot do for themselves.
4. The destruction of Black youth as a consequence of the enslavement of their parents.
5. The refusal to recognize the LGBTQ community as human beings deserving of their pursuit to happiness and prosperity and protection from the U.S. Constitution.
6. The refusal to recognize women as the sole authority of their bodies, lives, and as equal partners to men.
7. The radical opposite of due process and fairness for all.
King would have to admit that the dream since his death has been continuously deferred-by design! He would have to investigate the beneficiary of this deferral and confront that entity head-on. As people celebrate King’s accomplishments they should try to ask themselves one simple question, how might King define justice in light of today’s issues of oppression and repression? Because although most like to bask themselves in his accomplishments, it is time for individuals to begin to ask themselves how might they make King’s dream a reality, as opposed to an idea that is cherished each year without any forthright action or critical consultation. Lastly, King would remind us to read and study his letter from a Birmingham jail, for the cure for our social decay is not so far away!
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