The Illusion Of Justice

You often hear Black parents talk about giving their kids the talk – about how to respond when (not if) they are ever pulled over: Hands where the cops can see them. Don’t reach for license and registration until you are told to and do it slowly. Be polite and obedient. The first time I ever heard of this was reading a transcription from a parenting panel around the time of Michael Brown’s death and a few black mothers on the panel started talking about it and I it was like a bomb went off in my head. BOOM! I was blown away, as a mother of a young white Man who never ever considered talking to him about proper protocol if he got pulled over. It was a very stark reminder about the privilege my own white skin gives me.

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, in terms of the law & order culture, is how I also don’t consider the possibility of being arrested or wrongfully accused for something. I was listening to a black woman tell a story recently about her brother – a graduate school student – getting wrongfully arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. He was cleared, but the trauma of it and what it did to her family was something that kept her from even considering reading my favorite book: The Sun Does Shine. She couldn’t handle thinking about how that could have been her brother. It’s one of my favorite books from 2018 and yet, while I was reading it, there was never a part of me that considered anyone in my family facing the same challenges. Yet for her, it was too real, too close for comfort.

John Legend has thrown a lot of his celebrity behind the campaign to reframe how we look at, and evaluate, our District Attorneys. I was listening to an interview with him recently and he was talking about how DAs always run on platforms where they either tout past success at convictions, or promise many convictions upon election. That’s the metric we use to rate a DA: convictions. But Legend brought up a key factor there…if we’re using conviction rates, then we are somehow equating CONVICTION with JUSTICE and those things are not equal. 

BOOM! Because I’ve never spent time thinking about the possibility of being wrongfully accused, I never considered how the metric of convictions is a terrible judgement for someone’s success as a DA.  Legend focuses most of his efforts on California which has passed some propositions to help reduce mass incarceration, but the DAs do not seem to be in agreement across the state. But the more I read about it the more I realized how distorted my since of value and justice is because I have grown up with a trust in the system that I would not have if I was black.

This brings me to a new podcast I’ve been listening to – Season 2 of In The Dark by APM. It’s an investigative journalism piece following a 4-person murder and trials of a the man convicted –  Curtis Flowers – who, by all accounts of the reporting, seems to be a victim of a terrible criminal justice system in his small Mississippi town. During the investigation, the reporter found that black juror were struck from jury pools at a rate FOUR TIMES higher than white jurors over 250+ trials from this one District Attorney.  During the episode where the lead reporter – Madeleine Baran – discusses their data collection and analysis methods, she also talks about what it means to have this imbalance. About how this is not only unfair to the people on trial, but it is also unfair to the black community who never get to be part of this system and therefore absent from this leg of democracy.

BOOM! Because I’ve never considered that rates at which black people may be struck from juries as compared to white people, and never considered the racial makeup of juries during trials (because they’d probably always be in the majority in my favor), I never considered the bigger-picture ramifications of that. If you are in a community where black people are struck from jury pools FOUR TIMES more than white people, then the black voices in that community are systematically removed from a key piece of  the judicial branch of our democracy. 

I just find myself constantly waking up to new ways my white skin has protected me. I don’t ever worry about how my skin color might affect someone else’s judgement of me. I had jury duty recently, but didn’t get put on any jury and it never crossed my mind that it could have been because of my skin color. And I’ve never considered my chances of being arrested or convicted for a crime I didn’t commit. And if I did get arrested for a crime I did not commit, I would implicitly trust the entire system – from the DA to the jury – to clear my name and uncover the truth. There would be no part of me that feared imprisonment because I did not grow up hearing stories of friends and family who were wrongfully arrested, tried, and/or convicted.

In Curtis Flowers’ case, his jury was often comprised of white people like me who implicitly trusted the DA and his witnesses. Witnesses that Baran found fault with in her investigations. Even after convictions got overturned due to improper behavior from the DA, he was able to take the case to trial again and the jury AGAIN implicitly trusted him. And I can’t say I would have been any different.

There’s really no point to this entry. (Why do I feel like I’m writing that more and more lately in my closing paragraphs?) It’s just something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I work my way through this podcast and as I read more about the role of District Attorney and the powers they have to shape the justice systems in their community.

5 Comments

  • Chasity

    I just want to say that I love your posts about inequalities and the things you are learning about privilege and institutional/structural racism that is so ingrained in our society. Thank you for letting me be part of your growth and learning so I can also grow and be inspired to learn more.

  • Cheryl

    I echo Chasity’s statement. I think that when people I know say that they’re not racist or that they haven’t benefitted from racism, they truly believe that because it never occurs to them about some of the systemic advantages they have had. I have used some of your examples with them and have actually seen the dawning of wisdom. Personally, I never once thought about the dismissal of jurors until today.

    Although this doesn’t address that in some communities (my very suburban almost rural community) there are hardly any people of color to call for jury duty. The few times I have had to serve on a jury (again, smallish community) the defendants were people of color twice and white once and I think maybe there were 2 people of color in all of the potential jury pools. So thank you for your continuing education of many.

  • Liz

    Have you listened to the podcast “More Perfect?” They look at how Supreme Court rulings affect us on a local level. The DA comment in your post reminded me of one of the episodes that dealt with jury selection and how there are recordings of lawyers being trained to avoid using black community members. I listened to a whole season on a drive from SC to NY and highly recommend it for podcast driving.

  • Julie A

    I encourage everyone to read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson the lawyer who founded Equal Justice Initiative. It was heartbreaking and uncomfortable and forever changed my view of the legal system. I couldn’t put it down.