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When Does Race Matter in Criminology?

The United States of America has been branded as the land of immigrants and diversity. This is because diversity is one of the greatest success stories of the United States. In fact, a lot of literature posits that America is the greatest diverse democratic nation in the entire globe. The United States has found great strength in the manner in which it handles its diversity and racial integration policy issues. According to Borjas (14), “America’s openness to and respect for its rich diverse heritage has long been a foundation of its economic and military strength, and a vital tool in its diplomatic arsenal.” However, concerns on how gains on economic prosperity have been shared across all segments of American society have risen in the past and presently continue to form topics of social debates.

This becomes more poignant when analyzed from the perspectives of discrimination, marginalization, and denial of basic rights across racial lines, especially with regard to the justice system. According to Darrell and Demuth (146), “one fundamental aspect of this marginalization is the disparate treatment of persons of color which occurs incrementally across the entire spectrum of America’s criminal justice system.” There is a general abidance in the fact that public authorities in the United States have long used race as a signal of an increased risk of criminality (Kennedy 138). Whereas this position remains contested within the justice system, the overriding factor is that the history of discrimination within America’s justice system based on color draws its origin from the days of slavery. Blacks were presumed to be slaves and any black person without obvious supervision by a white person was deemed suspect of possible fugitive from bondage. North Carolina attempted to lessen the burden of supervision by requiring that all urban non-slave blacks wear shoulder patches on the outside of their clothing inscribed with the word “free.” This indicates that despite gains in social integration and economic advancement, black color is often linked to criminality. The case of Plessy vs Fergusson, the reaction of the United States towards persons of Japanese origin during World War I, and data on arrests availed by state organs are vivid examples of the use of race as a signal of an increased risk of criminality by public authorities in the United States.

The case of Plessy vs Fergusson in 1892 was a clear manifestation of marginalization of minority communities across the entire spectrum of America’s criminal justice system. This was the case of Plessy v. Fergusson, which for a long time had acted as the doctrine on which ‘equal but separate’ were defined in America in as far as the existence of the blacks and whites was concerned. On June seventh, 1892, Mr. Homer Adolph Plessy boarded a car off the Eastern Louisiana railroad that was designed for whites only and had been arrested, as he was required to sit in the colored section. This was even though he was one eight black and seven eighth white. Under the Louisiana state laws, he was still classified as an African American. He immediately launched a suit challenging the constitutionality of this law. Plessy had argued that East Louisiana Railroad had denied him his rights under the Thirteen and Fourteen Amendment acts of the United States constitution and essentially stigmatized him and his fellow black men. The judge’s ruling against him made his appeal to the Supreme Court, where an unreceptive ear met him. The justices ruled that separation of races did not contradict the intent of the Thirteenth Amendment, which had abolished slavery, nor the Fourteenth Amendment.

The use of race as a signal to increased risk in criminality (Kennedy, 138) goes beyond the blacks as a marginalized community within the American mainstream society. The wholesale detention of the Japanese immigrants in the United States following the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II remains one single dramatic incident on the use of race as a conduit to increased criminality. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the unprecedented reaction of the United States authorities towards persons of Japanese ancestry pointed at the use of racial profiling in criminality. The United States federal authorities placed all persons of Japanese ancestry who lived on or near the West Coast under military orders pursuant to which they were subjected to a curfew, removed from their homes, and detained in camps. Furthermore, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of most of these measures against charges that persons of Japanese ancestry may not be granted equal justice before the law.

In Race, Crime, and Law by Randall Kennedy, the author examines various perspectives of race, crime, and law in asserting that public authorities in the United States have long used race as a signal of an increased risk of criminality. The author examines trends in crimes rates and arrests. In the understanding that most crimes go unreported to the police, the best source of data for the analysis of impacts use of race as a signal to increased risk in criminality comes from arrests data provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI).

According to Kramer and Darrell (366) “so long as racism exists within society at large, it will be found within the criminal justice system.” This is because the attitudes, assumptions, policies within the justice systems are greatly influenced by the overt bias fueled by racism. The statistics for arrests and capital punishment data for juvenile offenders provide groundbreaking analysis on the use of race by public authorities as an indication of risk to increased criminality. Nationwide each year, police make 2.2 million juvenile arrests, 1.7 million cases are referred to juvenile courts, an estimated 400,000 youths cycle through juvenile detention centers, and nearly 100,000 youths are confined in juvenile jails (Darrell and Demuth, 146). The issue becomes more profound when this data is analyzed along racial lines. According to Justice Policy Institute (31), “while African American, youth represent 17% of their age group within the general population, they represent 46% of juvenile arrests, 31% of referrals to juvenile court, and 41% of waivers to adult court.”

Statistics availed at the community and national levels reveal disparity in the delivery of justice along racial lines. The commonly used phenomenon “driving while black” indicates the levels at which assumptions and myths impede on equal delivery of justice. In fact, persons of minority origins experience higher rates of traffic stops and traffic-related crimes than whites. Other studies illustrate that “thirty-eight percent of prison and jail inmates are African American, compared to their 13% percent share of the overall population; Latinos constitute 19% of the prison and jail population compared to their 15% share of the population” (Justice Policy Institute, 31).

In conclusion, the public authorities in the United States have long used race as a signal of an increased risk of criminality. Research reviewed indicates that historical legal cases, the detentions of persons of Japanese origins during World War II and data revealed by state organs and research studies abide in the fact that disparate treatment of persons of color occurs incrementally across the entire spectrum of America’s criminal justice system. Race and ethnicity matter within the justice system based on the severity and types of the crimes.

Works Cited

Borjas, George. Heaven’s Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999. Print.

Darrell, Steffensmeier, and Demuth Stephen. Ethnicity and Judges’ Sentencing Decisions: Hispanic-Black-White Comparisons. Criminology 39: (2001): 145-178.

Justice Policy Institute. Reducing Disproportionate Minority Confinement: The Multnomah County, Oregon Success Story, and its Implications. Washington, D.C: 2002. Print.

Kennedy, Randall. Race, crime, and the law. University of California. Vintage Books. 1997. Print.

Kramer, John and Darrell Steffensmeier. Race and Imprisonment Decisions, Sociological Quarterly. 35, 2 (1993): 357-376. Print.

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