The American Penal System Racist Criminology

Essay add: 21-10-2016, 13:54   /   Views: 22

In this essay I examined the ways in which the American penal system can be described as racist and the way it reflects the values of American society. In doing so, I first looked at racism within the context of American history and culture. During the 1900s, the new penal system introduced racial discrimination and segregation against the African Americans. Since the timeframe of my essay is the 21st century, the historic facts of the 20th century play an imperative role. I then moved on to examine the breakdown of the US population and the percentages of black Americans, Latinos, American Indians and other ethnic groups. Then, I looked at the statistics of crime rates in the US. More specifically, I examined the ways in which race plays a part when it comes to sentencing and punishment. Through the analysis of these statistics I tried to establish the relationship between race and crime. Moving on, I discussed the effect injustice has not only upon the individual's psychology but upon society as a whole. I examined two cases of criticism of the American penal system presented in the media. To be more specific, I analyzed articles of journalists Bill Quigley and Christian Parenti comparing the African American drug users to white-American drug users, and number of imprisoned.

Finally, based on all the above, I came to the conclusion that racism is deeply rooted in American culture. It stems from the very history of the US. Racism festered in the 1800s and after the turn of the century, became a reality for the non-white Americans. My research included websites, books and articles related to the subject. My research question is "To what extent does the American Penal System reflect the values or prejudice of the American Society?"

Social justice in the US is a fascinating subject, currently unresolved and a highly controversial theme. My first encounter with the subject of social injustice in the US was through the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Reading this novel made me realize for the first time the importance of the equal treatment of all individuals regardless of the color of their skin. Tom Robinson, the black man accused of raping a white woman, stands trial for a crime he certainly did not commit. The fact that this trial takes up a significant part of the book made me think about the ways in which color or race might affect what we call a "fair trial." After reading the book I began researching this issue, particularly by looking at real controversial cases of people who were either wrongfully accused of crimes they did not commit, or severely "over-punished' for crimes they did commit due to their race. It was then when I decided to investigate whether the American penal system today is still biased.

In order to determine whether the American penal system is racist I will first look at racism in the context of American society and culture. I will then analyze the population of the US in terms of race and ethnic minorities. Moving on, I will discuss the effects of injustice upon individuals and I will examine the relation between race and crime in the US. Finally, before I reach my conclusion, I will survey the criticism of the American penal system in the Media.

Racism in the context of American Society:

By definition, racism is the belief that race is a primary determinant of human traits and capacities, and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. [] Discrimination typically points out taxonomic differences between groups of people by ethnic or cultural bases independently of their somatic differences. It refers primarily to the legally or socially enforced separation of African Americans from other races. It manifests into race-based hyper segregation using prejudice, violence, discrimination or oppression of not only African Americans but of ethnic minorities from the majority mainstream society and communities. Racism, also distinguishes a race as being either superior or inferior to other racial groups.

Racism in the USA can be traced as far back as the colonial era and the enslavement historical period. This prejudice initially manifested between the white man and the Native Red Indians and later on the black population.

However, when immigrants from all parts of the globe infiltrated the country this culminated into a xenophobic phenomenon reflected in socio-economic issues as well as ethnic discrimination. It subsequently ballooned into a massive social problem of segregation, hatred and abuse.

There are many organizations working fiercely to strengthen intercultural relations including the United Nations, Amnesty International, United Against Racism, Anti-Racist Action Group to name but a few. In an effort to inspire and inform people they organize nonviolent protests, political lobbying, public demonstrations placing political pressure peacefully, organizing festivals, handing out media posters while publishing information leaflets sharing knowledge and experience,  promoting unity as the only answer for pro-diversity.

It is interesting to see these groups encouraging individuals to voice and take active concern against any discrimination in any form, eliminating hate crimes and highlighting intercultural understanding while visualizing equal rights. This seems to be the only viable solution. Many organizations support anti racism movements by keeping the anti racist chain strong, respecting the feelings and opinions of all ethnics.

Contact with the media has been found crucial in the battle to remain constant for it is vital to give proper recognition to the activists whose actions have the common aim of promoting co operation between all pro diversity initiatives. Schools are now campaigning to unite the youth of America to ensure broad awareness providing background knowledge to avoid future social division.

The legacy of the late Dr Martin Luther King, one of the greatest anti-racist figures in American history has been introduced into many schools as a re education programme to transform the painful aspects of discrimination in a hope to dissipate the anger of the past.

Religious issues are finally being discussed and the connection between various dogmas are also a vital part of education which have, up until now, not been adequately bridged or understood.

In a nation of immigrants these complicated issues have generated strong emotions without the accurate facts to correspond therefore this has been grossly neglected. That is where the blame lies.

In essence, racism was not a national dilemma until the turn of the 20th century. There was, in fact racism in the south to a great extent, but the north was not affected much until the early 1900s. The new century gave birth to hardened institutionalized racism and penal discrimination against anyone of African, or generally foreign descent. The penal system was referred to as the "Nadir of American Race relations" and it introduced segregation, racial discrimination and expression of white supremacy.

Even though the migration to the North of many black workers begun in the early 20th century it, in fact, continued for many decades. The 1960 Census showed for the first time a great number of blacks living outside the South. [] So, as a result of the emancipation of slavery at the turn of the 20th century, segregation between white and black workers became predominant. [] 

While the African American issue presents itself as being huge, a formidable political social presence is also represented by Latinos who are one of the most rapidly growing minorities. Native Americans, described as "merciless Indian savages" [] , also have been persecuted and denied equality before the law. They were relegated to reservations and re-educated to settled white American values, while their lands were disposed of in a division of false land promises, exploited on a massive scale and victimized. Similar fates were faced by Asians, the Irish and any foreigners after the influx of immigration in the early 1900s, including the Polish and the Italians.

Population breakdown and some statistics concerning crime rates:

The following figures, gathered by the prison activist resource center during December 2008, indicate that racism is a possibility when it comes to arresting non - whites. African Americans represent 12.4% of the US population [] and are considered 15% of the US drug users, against 72% of whites. Taking these figures into mind, 36.8% of those arrested for a drug- abuse violation and 48.2% of American Adults in State of Federal prisons and local jails are colored. A massive 42.5% of prisoners under the sentence of death are also African Americans.

Latinos represent 11.1 of the US population and 10% of the US drug users. Approximately 22.5% of sentenced State prisoners convicted of a drug offense and 18.6% of American Adults in State of Federal prisons and local jails are from Latin countries.

American Indians make up less than 1% of the US population while 4% of Native Americans are under correctional supervision compared to 2% of whites. Native Americans are the victims of violent crimes at twice the rate of the general population. More than 60% of American Indian victims of violent crimes described the offender as white. [] 

In terms of statistics, [] police are 7.5 times more likely to stop and search colored people rather than white. In the war on drugs, 62.7% of the drug offenders sent to state prison was black in comparison to 13.4% of whites. The death penalty in the penal system is more likely to be imposed for a black killing a white person than vice versa. Furthermore police have been accused of ignoring violence by individuals against racial minorities.

It is widely acclaimed by the majority of white Americans that the long tradition of racism in the United States ended with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The legacies of slavery and segregation however, continue to affect Americans on all levels of society. Prevailing arguments suggest that African-Americans are disproportionately incarcerated by racist sentencing and are subsequently denied access to the economic and educational benefits of Anglo-Americans. They are robbed of their civil rights and human dignity by a pervasive white supremacy, in an otherwise democratic society. It concludes, that the criminal justice system of the US is influenced by racism and that the criminal justice system facilitates a situation in which, African-American males have a greater than 1 in 4 chance of being sent to prison. This compares to a 1 in 23 for white males). [] In continuation, the former violence and horror of lynching has been subsequently altered and institutionalized into a new form, initiating the racist death penalty.

The effects of injustice:

In the administration of justice in any society extraordinary harm can be done to all individuals while invoking lasting consequences for future generations. Members of vulnerable groups such as racial, ethnic and other minorities often face victimization, harassment, arbitrary detention and abusive treatment because of unjust policing, criminal prosecution, sentencing or imprisonment. Race or descent-neutral laws in practice in the US suggest that the US Penal system is racist using unfair trials, humiliating treatment, beatings and, sexual abuse. These actions can have a detrementory effect on these groups who have little recourse to legal remedies regarding abusive behaviour. Human Rights are invaded while political rights are denied to these socially vulnerable groups. Especially devastating is the application of the death penalty where more colored people are executed than white people. This is regarded as direct discrimination abuse, when the administration of justice is concerned and the underlying argument of who should live or die. Discrimination in the enforcement of justice and its system has become a vicious circle, whether it is based on social, economic, political or race bias. It has deepened social divisions and increased marginalization, while the fact that they are abused confirms their subordination. Racial profiling, where an individual's presumed race is a determining factor for placing them under suspicion, results in a mechanism of justice that although claims to be objective is in fact deeply subjective.

The relationship between race and crime:

The tie between race and crime has been a study area for criminologists since the late 19th century. Reliable statistics to measure exact growth of crime among freed slaves is unavailable. However, seventy per cent of all prisoners in the South are black [] , the fact being based in part because the accused coloreds are readily convicted and sentenced to lengthy stays in prisons. In stark contrast whites continue to evade the penalty of many crimes on the whole. Race crimes became a recognized field of specialized study in criminology in the late 20th century and have recently been published in an Encyclopedia of Race and Crime conducted by the Pennsylvania University. [] In the discussion of crime statistics and their historical leading role between race and crime in the US penal system, the reader is provided with information about the crimes committed. Moreover, the discussion puts emphasis on the individuals, by providing the racial demographics of crime-related-phenomena including victimization, arrest history, prosecutions, convictions and imprisonment. Facts are presented taking into consideration that some racial and ethnic minorities are indeed misrepresented in terms of proportion. The problem lies in the debate regarding the cause of the alleged misrepresentation. Victimization surveys and data used in the calculation of serious crime status such as murder , homicide and rape, going on to minor offences categorized as illegal substance use, petty theft, assault and burglary, to name a few, provide statistical information utilized by criminologists and sociologists in their analysis of crime and it's relationship to race.

Their findings show that African Americans, who constitute approximately 12% of the general population, were significantly overrepresented in the total arrests made. The same data concedes in victimization, murder and in non-negligible homicide cases, in which American and African American populations were overwhelmingly interracially convicted. While white Americans constitute 79% of the total population, their arrest representation is low in comparison to Asian Americans and it skyrockets to a significant overrepresentation in comparison to African Americans being actually convicted and incarcerated for non-lethal crimes, according to American ethnic demographics.

Multiracial Americans complain in reports of being victimized for non lethal crimes two to three times higher than white Americans. Hispanic Americans voice similar brutality reports. African Americans regularly report victimization for racially motivated hate crimes more frequently than any other race.Racial demographics of crime suggest personal bias or prejudice as being tainted and therefore are unreliable statistics. Resultant findings in the determining factor in criminal behaviour risk public repudiation, professional exile and even suggest career death.

Criticism of the American penal system in the Media:

In an article by Christian Parenti, dated October 2000 titled "Crimes of Punishment" published in the "Sun" newspaper there is a prime example of this unsaid factor. Mr. Parenti is a prison teacher of creative writing who denies the fact that the penal system is racist, while stating that he is not allowed to comment on subjects he is not an expert in. His interview therefore contradicts his outspoken viewpoint and cleverly incites controversy. Moreover, he denies to describe the penal system as racial but he mentions that nearly all his minimum security students are white while nearly all his maximum security students were black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian or other. He goes on to point out that the security housing units as being windowless concrete buildings with the prisoners in solitary confinement subjected to complete isolation other than the guards for years. The setting up of prisoners against one another in order to create a lock down was common practice, using a deliberate argument, while utter disrespect for human life pervades the prison system. Incidents were described as assuring no injury in the yard to the staff subsequently no injury to the staff was incurred. On the other hand, nine inmates were shot and killed but the staff was unharmed so everything was said to be ok. [] 

Another critic of the American Penal System is Bill Quigley who wrote a recent article on Rampant Racism in the Criminal Justice System [] . He vehemently describes the justice system in the US as being race-based where African Americans are targeted and subsequently punished in a far more aggressive manner than whites. He mentions that the facts are overwhelming and although undeniably politically controversial he sets out to categorize his findings.

Quigley questions the idea that the facts themselves are probably mistakes of a somewhat successful system or contradicts this by indicating that they could simply be hard evidence that the system is working to plan; the intention being to control and marginalize the millions of African Americans.

His information is rationalized into a fact finding list of various judicious steps, stating the use of drugs, police stopping tactics, arrest records, bail, legal representation, jury selection, trial procedures, offense sentencing, parole practice, probation and finally the freedom aspect. He initially targets the war on drugs, mentioning that in the US there has been a massive arrest surge and incarceration over the past forty years.

In continence, he provides us factual evidence of the police stopping, badgering of blacks and Latinos at rates much higher than whites. Producing figures in New York City where colored people make up 50% of the population, 80% of New York Police Department stops are typically of blacks and Latinos. He suggests that only 8% of whites stopped were actually bodily checked in comparison to 85% of blacks and Latinos. In other states, cities and towns the story was the same. He goes on to outrage the reader by disclosing that since 1970 drug arrests have risen to a staggering level from 320,000 to almost 1.6 million according to data available. A report from May 2009 states that African American arrest rates are 2-11 times higher than whites. He elaborates on this subject by talking about the fact that black detainees are more likely to remain incarcerated waiting due trial than whites. In arguing his case he illustrates that in a 1995 review of disparities of the system of processing felons he discovered that in some parts of New York blacks have a 33% likelihood of being detained for trial than whites facing similar crimes.

Race plays a huge role in the arrest system to validate this Mr. Quigley criticizes the fact that 80% of the offenders get a public defender as their lawyer. Contrary to the facts, he tips the legal scale and suggests that the increased number of convictions could be attributed to the poor financial state of the black and Latino population, who cannot hire decent lawyers. They therefore are provided with a public defender, who is overworked and underpaid and no match for the sophisticated prosecution in most cases. Many defendants plead guilty despite their innocence without really understanding their legal rights or the consequences. Commenting on jury service 8 out of 10 African Americans who qualify to sit on a death penalty case are relieved of duty by prosecutors as being unsuitable.

In the American Trial System Bill Quigley points out that trials are rare, only 3-5% of criminal cases actually stand trial; the rest are plea bargained. The reason being that a longer sentence is envisaged if their case goes to trial under their constitutional right. Most African Americans wary of the outcome, knowing that it probably won't be beneficial opt for a plea bargain. A say three year sentence in jail for something you didn't commit is much better than a 25 year sentence for something you didn't commit. The golden rule seems to be, plea guilty even though you are innocent!

In a recent report dated March 2010 arising from the US Sentencing Commission [] it has been documented, according to Mr. Quigley, that in the federal system black offenders are sentenced to imprisonment 10% longer than whites for the same crime. African Americans are 21% more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than their fellow white defendants and ultimately have 20% more likelihood to be incarcerated than white drug offenders.

African-Americans are also typically given longer sentences, indicating the figures that two thirds of the people in US serving life sentences are black.

Statistics are no better for the new generation of Blacks, concluding that a male born in 2001 has a 32% chance of going to jail, while Latinos a 17% chance against a white male only 6%. So, black boys are five times more likely to end up in jail, compared to a Latino boy. He suggests that further down the generation line the African American and Latino juvenile is ill fated. In conclusion, he reminds the reader that the US criminal justice system is from start to finish seriously racist.


After researching the racial issue in the US penal system, I have come to the conclusion that the Land of Hope and Opportunity presents itself as a place of many problematic racial obstacles. White supremacy appears predominant and many social problems have resulted therefrom. In order to discuss the black-white relations, a deep understanding of the racial situations of non coloreds, non-European groups, requires research into the history of the US.

It is obvious that this cruel oppression of white-on blacks has been well institutionalized into a racist ideology lasting for almost 400 years. It is a comprehensive system of manipulation and exploitation, of deliberate segregation which has penetrated all American areas of society and hence molded their lives. It goes back to the very foundation of legal and illegal migration of skilled and non-skilled workers. To mention a few, the welcomed Asians used to build the railway system, the Africans brought in as slaves to work on the plantations and home chores, the accumulation of

various ethnics to build the US into greatness. This plan has backfired, boomeranged into a man-made prejudicial society simply because the acceptance factor, religious beliefs and skin color were never taken into the account of the equation of equality.

Articles and books written in an attempt to rationalize slavery, segregation and discrimination overwhelmingly focus on the subject of logically explaining the phenomena of the inferior treatment of black Americans.

Such extremist groups as the Ku Klux Klan still attack races both verbally and bodily, calling them underdogs and condoning hate crimes, targeting them violently even

over the recent decades. Especially prevailing is anti-black orientation in this deeply imbedded oppression which interestingly is not so apparent however against Asians or

Latinos. These racial groups have been afforded a better category of treatment owing to their lighter colored skins which are closer to the European-American culture defining

them as nearer to whites. It has awakened a disturbing awareness of a social issue which questions the very foundations of the American society. [] 

Article name: The American Penal System Racist Criminology essay, research paper, dissertation