One of the most iconic images known to the legal profession is that of Lady Justice. This statute of a blindfolded woman with scales reflects the idea that justice is fair and impartial regardless of one’s appearance. The idea of fairness and the legal justice system is an oxymoron serving more as a myth rather than the actual truth.
Recently, a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article reported that a black judge from Allegheny County revoked a plea deal which would have given a white defendant 3 months of probation for assaulting a police officer and for a DUI charge. According to the article, the black judge said that no such plea would have been extended to the defendant, if he had been a black male.
Sure, the judge’s decision was partly motivated by his perception of race, but perhaps it was also rooted in his perception of fairness and justice, or his observations of the lack thereof. Realistically, all court decisions are motivated by the perception of race, despite the best intentions of the legal system to pretend otherwise.
According to the PEW Charitable Trust, the legal system incarcerates 1 in 9 African-American males between the ages of 20-34, which is more than any other race. Arguably, one could explain this phenomenon with the idea that perhaps black males commit more crimes as opposed to any other race.
However, such an explanation would ignore the adversarial nature of America’s criminal justice system towards Black people and the long-term effects of that hostility. Historically, the United States made the slavery of millions of black people legal, while imprisoning any person who assisted slaves in escaping to freedom creating a legal system founded upon injustice and unfairness due to race.
Less than 50 years ago, black people faced jail time for sitting in the front of public buses. Today, police kill unarmed black males allegedly by accident more than any other racial group. In addition, the police also stop black males so frequently that criminal justice advocates coined the term “driving while black.”
Most importantly, research reports show that black males do receive harsher sentences from judges in comparison with white males. Thus, the Allegheny county judge’s statement holds an element of truth to it.
Racial bias is not something that is overcome, simply because one says to themselves that race does not matter. Further, it can be difficult for people not directly affected by racism to empathize or even fathom the possibility that racism could obstruct justice in the legal system.
Nonetheless, that does not mean that racism does not still exist.
ABC’s primetime special examined the issue of perceptions of race and justice in its segment, “What would you do? Man Stealing Bike in Park.” During the episode, two male actors, one black and one white, enacted a scene in a park with predominantly white bystanders to capture reactions to a bike thief based on race.
While the white “bike thief” actor was allowed to openly steal a bike cutting a chain with bolt cutters without interrogation or harassment from all of 100 bystanders except one. In contrast, the black “bike thief” actor was yelled at, pictures were snapped, and people immediately called 9-1-1 for help.
Clearly, the episode showed that the bystanders held a negative predisposition towards the black person as opposed to the white person. Although none of the bystanders were able to perceive their own bias, Yale psychology professor, Jack Dovidio, explained that the bystanders were subconsciously racist or racist without knowing it because they reacted more negatively towards the black actor based on his race without perceiving that his race dictated their hostile response.
Perhaps, seeing this same subconscious racism plagued the African-American judge who may have witnessed the prevalence of legal cases with white defendants granted more leniency and forgiveness than black defendants.
Ultimately, the legal justice system is controlled by people who dictate justice and fairness. If people can be blatantly racist or racist without knowing it outside the court room, then certainly racism can exist inside the court room.
Colorblindness is the myth, not the reality of the criminal justice system.
Bobby Kerlik, ” Allegheny County judge: ‘White boys’ given deals.” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Charnee Perez, ” Lost Key or Bike Thief: What Would You Do?” ABCNews.
Christopher G. Herbert, “Sentencing Outcomes of Black, Hispanic, and White Males Convicted Under Federal Sentencing Guidelines.” Criminal Justice Review.
PEW Charitable Trust, ” One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008.” PEW Center on the States.