Racial Disparities Reveal a Juvenile "Justice" System that Isn’t All That Just

A recent episode of This American Life examined different aspects of disciplinary systems in schools, asking the question – are they working? It began with the story of Tunette Powell, a black mother from Nebraska whose son was suspended multiple times from his preschool.

Concerned by her son’s behavior, she mentioned the recurring issue to several other mothers whose kids were in her son’s class, all of them white. They were surprised at the drastic disciplinary measures taken by the preschool, telling Tunette that their children acted out in similar ways, but were never disciplined in such a manner.

After writing a blog post about her situation entitled “Is My Black Preschooler Just Another Statistic?” she began to receive messages from mothers of color from across the country sharing similar accounts. It turns out that Tunette’s story is not uncommon but rather a nationwide trend in pre-schools.

A 2014 report from the Department of Education shows that although black preschoolers comprised only 18% of enrolled students, they make up almost 50% of students who received out of school suspensions. This disparity in disciplinary measures only continues as students enter elementary, middle and high school. The report showed that across age groups, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.

How do we understand these disturbing trends?

As striking as they might be, in some ways, these numbers aren’t really surprising. Stories and statistics continue to show that as a society we systematically treat black people differently than we treat white people. The immediate presumption of guilt, of associating blackness with criminality, is nothing new to the American consciousness, but its pervasiveness is becoming more difficult to collectively brush under the public rug.

The criminal justice system is one area often pointed to as demonstrative of the racial inequality that exists in our country today. Without diving into the details, the simple fact that 1 in 15 adult black males are incarcerated while only 1 in 106 adult white males are incarcerated suggests that there might be a problem with the way our system functions.

However, what receives less attention is that the juvenile justice system has similarly striking racial disparities. According to the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, “Disparities are immediately evident at the earliest stages of the system… The disparities then progressively increase as youth move deeper into the system.” While black youth only make up about 17% of the overall youth population, they make up around 30% of those who are arrested. Black youth are then almost five times as likely to be confined than their white peers. And most severely, black youth are nine times more likely to receive an adult prison sentence than their white peers.

Given the amount of research and circumstantial evidence, these statistical disparities cannot be explained away – race is a direct factor. It is an unavoidable reality that an underlying belief that blacks, especially black males, are more dangerous than their white peers, is ingrained into the consciousness of our culture.

This more severe judgment of black youth is a documented phenomenon. A recent study published by the American Psychological Association concluded, “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”

The criminal justice system is one area often pointed to as demonstrative of the racial inequality that exists in our country today.

We have seen this conclusion play out recently in Cleveland with the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. After seeing Rice playing with what looked like a gun in a park, someone called the police. Although the caller was at a distance and reported that he could not determine whether the gun was real or not, upon arriving on the scene an officer fatally shot the 12-year-old boy. A key to understanding such a rapid decision to use deadly force might be found in the officer’s initial call-in of the shooting, saying “Shots fired, male down, black male, maybe 20.” The officer assumes Rice to be much older than he actually is, judging his actions as those of a man rather than a boy.

The judgment that black males have exaggerated characteristics is not limited to age. There is a long-recognizedstereotype of super human qualities that dehumanizes black males, creating a false mystique of animalistic danger such as in the movie The Green Mile. A less malicious version of this trope can be found in movies like The Legend of Bagger Vance where the black character has some sort of mysterious superhuman power or magic wisdom that he imparts on the white characters.

In both the superhuman savage and magical sage tropes that pervade our culture, black men are viewed as something other than fully human. A study recently published in Social Psychological and Personality Sciencefound that at both an implicit and explicit level, whites had a “superhumanization bias” towards blacks.

While this study’s relevance might at first seem a stretch, according to the authors, “these studies demonstrate a novel and potentially detrimental process through which Whites perceive Blacks.” We only have to look as far as recent events in Ferguson, MO to see this played out in reality. In a recent article, Lauren Williams examines the testimony of officer Darren Wilson in the context of this narrative. She finds Wilson’s testimony is laced with comments that dehumanize Brown and match the narrative of the “superhuman” black man, at one point even saying that Brown looked like a “demon.” Although Wilson was eventually deemed justified in his actions, the fact still remains that Michael Brown was something other than human to him.

Culturally, we have been programmed to assume worse of black males, starting in their preschool years, than their white peers and act accordingly. Looking back again to the juvenile justice system, it would be naïve to think that it somehow operates outside of this paradigm. When asked about the racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, long time California state court judge La Doris Cordell commented that “stereotypes are so embedded in the psyche of human beings, that those stereotypes come to play…The numbers are astounding, shocking, and they are indeed a reflection of what's going on in the system.”

How do we begin to address these painful truths about our society?

First, we must ask honest and complex questions about what the current reality is and what it should be. The questions at hand are more than those of numbers and statistics. They are questions that cut straight to our personal, cultural, and racial identities. They are questions about how we view our neighbors.

Do we assume the best or do we assume the worst in people, especially of those on whom we have placed a cultural burden of assumed guilt? Do we create systems designed to maximize a false sense of security through a “tough on crime” attitude that has proven unsuccessful and minimize responsibility, or de we create systems in which we are implicated in the lives and well being of our neighbors?

In the public square, rhetoric about investing in the youth of our communities is as common of talking point as any, and rightly so. Yet we remain ignorant of and satisfied with a judicial system that consistently works in opposition to this principle, especially in the cases of people of color. Of course, personal racial bias is not the exclusive cause of these numbers. Nothing is that simple. Conversations about public institutions are always significantly more complex because they are made up of people, cultures, and communities, which are far more complex entities.

However, to allow these complexities to fog our vision of a system that is discriminatory in policy and practice, is to shirk our responsibility as citizens. It is to continue to bury our heads in the sand and allow yet another generation of Americans of color to grow up knowing that their lives are systematically deemed less valuable than their white counterparts.

 -Andrew Whitworth is a senior political science major at Taylor University. He is fascinated by conversations surrounding good food, politics, being from Kentucky, the U.S. men’s national soccer team and what Jesus has to do with all of them.