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One persisting issue that this nation has failed to adequately address is that of racial

inequality. In particular, the impact of race relations on the American criminal justice system,

and how it has led to the current state of mass incarceration, and the over representation of

African American males within the prison system.

The problem is that our current system is flawed by systematic racism and inequality.

Race has been constructed over time, with a fluidity in definition, that allowed European-

Americans to continually benefit from society by asserting their superiority, using race as a

rationale. In a world parallel to the real suffering of the racially oppressed, there is this narrative

that claims “not only is there no discrimination in the criminal justice system towards African

Americans—but they are in fact, afforded more breaks. Police, prosecutors, and judges bend

over backwards to avoid the appearance of bias” (Mann, 2006). This is simply a more elaborate

way of ignoring the issue by essentially saying it no longer exists because it has been solved,

invalidating the circumstances that minorities face, and promoting a culture of blaming the

victim.

While many believe we are living in a “post-racial society” the reality is that we simply

live in a more coded racial society. It is more difficult to identify independently, because race

and economic status have become so intertwined, and outright racism is less socially accepted.

Slavery set a tone in America which dehumanized African Americans, introducing a new level of

segregation based on scientific racism and prejudiced superiority. It was only the beginning of a

pattern of negative characterization and systematic oppression (Mann, 2006).

After the abolishment of Slavery, African Americans were not simply handed their

freedoms. It was only the beginning of an arduous battle that remains to be fought and won.

Lynching is just one example of how disparities were shaped within the criminal justice system.
Though generally misrepresented as infrequent and rural crimes, the reality was that these were

frequent occurrences from The Civil War until World War II. The number of victims surpassed

4000. In actuality, these lynchings consisted of “large crowds of white people, often numbering

in the thousands and including elected officials and prominent citizens, gathered to witness pre-

planned, heinous killings that featured prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment, and/or

burning of the victim.” “These killings were bold, public acts that implicated the entire

community and sent a message that African Americans were sub-human, their subjugation was

to be achieved through any means necessary and whites who carried out lynchings would face no

legal repercussions” (Equal Justice Initiative, 2017). They hung them because they saw the

changing status quo, in particular, the legal interacting between European American women and

African American men, as criminal.

In the 1930’s, as lynching became illegal and more socially unacceptable, the narrative

continued to portray African American males as rapists, or as a threat to European American

Women, and therefore society. Political leaders ran fear campaigns and encouraged these

stereotypes that criminalized African American men. Often the accusation of rape was a way to

rationalize an interracial relationship that society could not grapple with. In order to continue to

keep African Americans in an inferior position, they controlled the narrative and further isolated

and endangered African American males. The trial of the Scottsboro Boys epitomizes the

damage these stereotypes had and continue to have. Falsely accused of raping two white women

in 1931, these 9 men (originally accused in their teens) spent over 30 years seeking justice to

clear them of a crime they never committed. In spite of a gross lack of evidence, and the

confession of one of the perceived victims that the crime was made up, stereotypes so heavily

contributed to people’s perceptions of what must have occurred and influenced how the courts
handled the case (Kindig). 20 years following, in 1955, the infamous case of 14-year-old Emmett

Till is evidence that this bias continued to impact the lives of African American men. Accused of

whistling and accosting a white woman, Emmett Till was kidnapped and beaten until he died,

unrecognizable from the amount of damage to his face. These are only two examples out of the

4000’s that were wrongly convicted or killed for a crime they did not commit. Desegregation,

and the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s brought added freedoms and new challenges for

African Americans. Opposition from European Americans, meant that African Americans still

faced open discrimination in people’s attitudes in particular. A court decision wasn’t going to

immediately change decades of influence that shaped peoples’ perceptions.

This trend of political and media influence in shaping attitudes and criminalizing African

Americans continued into the 1980’s and 90’s. Their condition “was exacerbated by the policies

put in place by President Reagan and Congress when they declared a war on drugs. Those

policies were maintained by Bush and even intensified by the crime bill passed in 1994 by

President Clinton” (Georgetown University). “The politics of fear and anger fueled ‘tough on

crime’ policies—including mandatory minimum sentences, extraordinarily harsh and racially

disparate penalties for even minor drug offenses, and the explosion in life sentences without

parole—that led to the unprecedented and unparalleled incarceration rate in America today.

Private prisons operated by for-profit corporations multiplied from five in 1998 to a hundred in

2008” (Mass Incarceration, 2018). These differences in sentencing have led to the mass

incarceration of African American males in that they are imprisoned at more than 5x the rate of

European American males. “Misguided drug laws and draconian sentencing requirements,

especially pertaining to crack cocaine, have produced profoundly unequal outcomes for

communities of color. The results have decimated minority families - black men in particular
have been victims of the wars on drugs and on crime” (Georgetown University). The transitions

in racial biases throughout history and the reality of the disparity in treatment is evident in that

“while we were putting white offenders on chain gangs in the 1920’s, we were lynching putative

black offenders. When we doubled sentences for white drug offenders in the 1980’s, we

increased them tenfold for black drug offenders. When we increased community-based programs

for white delinquents, we filled brutal state-run reform schools to overflowing with black

adolescents. When we restarted the machinery of death and began executing white murders, we

managed to find grossly disproportionate numbers of black offenders fit for killing.” “Their

images have shifted from the ‘rape prone’ black men, to the ‘super-predator’ black youth, to the

dark-terrorists destined for interminable interment” (Mann, 2006).

A trend of stereotypes, lack of representation, the degradation and decimation of Black

culture, and the disenfranchisement of going to prison, contributes to a lack of stability within

the African American community. This acts as another means to keep African Americans from

participating and prospering. In addition, the refusal to see a need for addressing the issues at

their core, a lack of role models, resources, and representation, as well as the added complication

of uncontrolled capitalism and the profits of the prison system, further impede efforts to reverse

centuries of circumstances that have created this divide.

One organization in particular, The Equal Justice Initiative, located in Montgomery,

Alabama, seeks to address this racial inequality in efforts to end systematic oppression like mass

incarceration. As a Sociologist, I have to acknowledge some bias I have in favor of them and

their work. It was a combination of a TedTalk presented by founder, Brian Stevenson, on racial

injustice and mass incarceration, and a study released by the Equal Justice Initiative on the
history of lynching that first sparked my passion for racial justice and encouraged me to pursue

the field of Sociology.

The organization itself was founded in 1989 by Bryan Stevenson, an acclaimed public

interest lawyer, best selling author, and professor at New York University School of Law. It is a

private, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, that’s primary purpose is to provide legal

representation and counseling to those who have been abused by the criminal justice system.

Whether on the streets, by the courts, or within prisons. They work alongside those who have

been released, and provide access to the tools they need in order to reintegrate into society

(About the EJI). In addition to this, they are involved in community work in low-income areas,

perform and distribute relevant research to influence criminal justice reform, provide educational

resources like films, guides, and reports to the public, and continue to encourage a confrontation

of America’s racial past in order to create real change.

Their mission statement is represented in the work they do as they are “committed to

ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial

and economic injustice, and to protecting protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable

people in American society” (About the EJI). There is a board of twelve directors and a staff of

approximately fifty people, comprised of three Directors, a number of Attorneys, Social

Workers, Financial Officers, and Community Educators, who provide the relative services to

individuals and communities alike. As well as a team of developers, IT specialists, advisors, and

managers who are responsible for keeping the organization running, and a program of interns

being trained in law and social justice leadership.

In addition to Grants, the organization accepts donations through their website. They

have received contributions from companies, like Google, who support their research, and they
partner with the Amazon Smile program to receive percentages of supporting purchases. In 2017,

their operating budget was $6.2 million dollars. Their financial statements show they exceeded

their budget due to an increase in community education work, but their revenue covered their

expenses and left them with some profit. They have new projects like establishing racial justice

sites to provide accurate representations of history, which they anticipate an increase in spending

for, and have expanded their budget to $10.7 million dollars for 2018. They put out an annual

report detailing their efforts and what they have accomplished over that year. In addition, they

provide financial statements that detail the allotted budget and the actual distribution of funds, as

well as relevant tax documents; all easily accessible on their website. They are forthcoming with

their policies and how they conform to certain nonprofit practices in management.

Two notable successes for the organization include Bryan Stevenson’s win of “an

historical ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger are

unconstitutional,” and the accomplishment of him and his staff winning “reversals, relief, or

release for over 125 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row” (Bryan Stevenson). In the last

week, another example of racial discrimination hit the media headlines. Two African American

men were arrested at a Starbucks after a manager called 911 when the men remained at the store

without purchasing anything. Founder and former CEO, Howard Schultz acknowledged the

problem in what occurred at the Philadelphia store. "There's no doubt in my mind that the reason

that they (police) were called was because they were African American," he said. "That's not

who Starbucks is” (CBS News). Though the employee chose to leave the company, instead of

crucifying her, Starbucks used the opportunity to try and rectify the situation. In order to address

the issue, Starbucks has partnered with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and The Equal Justice

Initiative to create a curriculum to educate their staff on unconscious racial bias as well as
training in attempts to reduce levels of ignorance and prevent further discrimination (CBS

News). Starbucks will close their 8,000+ stores in order to implement this training. The Equal

Justice Initiative is continuing work that contributes to achieving their mission statement, and are

gaining more national attention and opportunities to encourage a reconciliation with our corrupt

racial history.

The Equal Justice Initiative organization, through their work and example, impact people

directly. They impact the lives of individuals that they represent and provide aid to. They have a

voice to influence judges and juries through their persistence in fighting for justice within the

system. They are gaining more and more recognition in media, which draws more people to their

education materials. They do work that gives more and more individuals freedom and

opportunities. They actively influence change in policy in order to lessen racial disparities and in

efforts to end mass incarceration. Their educational materials are working to change perceptions

and stereotypes that contribute to the misrepresentation of minorities as criminals. Their work is

representative of the kinds of things the must be done to address the present issues within

society. Over time, their influence will continue to expand its reach, and draw more support in

fighting to end mass incarceration.


References

About the Equal Justice Initiative. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://eji.org/about-eji

Bryan Stevenson. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://eji.org/bryan-stevenson

CBS News. (2018, April 18). Starbucks' Howard Schultz "ashamed" after controversial arrest of

2 black men. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/starbucks-executive-

chairman-howard-schultz-racial-bias/

Equal Justice Initiative. (n.d.). LYNCHING IN AMERICA: CONFRONTING THE LEGACY

OF RACIAL TERROR. Retrieved from https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/

Georgetown University Law Library. (n.d.). A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States:

The War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration. Retrieved from

http://guides.ll.georgetown.edu/c.php?g=592919&p=4172706

Kindig, J. (n.d.). Scottsboro Boys Trial. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/great-depression/scottsboro-boys-trial-defense-

campaign-1931-1937/

Mann, Coramae Richey and Majorie S. Zatz (2006) Images of Color: Images of

Crime. Roxbury Publishing

Mass Incarceration. (2018, April 24). Retrieved from https://eji.org/mass-incarceration