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Inside ‘post-racial’ America

By Andrew M. Mwenda

A teenager is killed. The killer is acquitted. The country is USA. The teenager was black. Sounds familiar? Yes! Here is why.

Preamble from the Huffington Post: In March 2013, 16-year old unarmed Kimani Gray was shot seven times, including three times in his back by the New York City police as he left his friend’s birthday party. In March 2012 in Pasadena California, a 19-year college student Kendrec McDade was shot and killed by police.

In Las Vegas, 28-year old Orland Barlaw was surrendering on his knees when police shot him in 2003. And in 2009, 22-year old Oscar Grant was killed by Oakland police who said they accidentally used a gun instead of a Taser. Despite video showing the young man being shot as he was handcuffed and lying face-down on the platform, the official was convicted of manslaughter and served less than one year.


All of these young victims of American police were African American and unarmed. And in all these cases the officials were exonerated and returned to their jobs. Sadly the saga of the police beatings and killings of unarmed black youth is the story that forms a part of the fabric of everyday life of most American black men.

That is the tragic world of young African American males in which George Zimmerman was acquitted on July 14 after killing an unarmed 17-year old black kid, Trayvon Martin, in February 2012.

Many pundits agued with convincing detail that the prosecution failed to make a good case; that the defense was able to demonstrate reasonable doubt. Previously, I would have been inclined to believe this line of argument. Having spent the last few years reading about the criminal justice system in America, my views are more nuanced.

I now believe the verdict could have gone either way. Facts and arguments were critical in court. However, the mindset of jurors had the ultimate say on the final verdict.

Background: In 2005, the U.S. with 5% of the world’s population housed 25% of the world’s inmates. Its incarceration rate of 714 prisoners for every 100,000 residents is almost 40 percent greater than that of its nearest competitors – Bahamas, Belarus and Russia. The U.S. incarceration rate is 6.2 times that of Canada, 7.8 times that of France and 12.3 times that of Japan.

US prisons employ more people than the combined workforce of General Motors, Ford and Wal-Mart – the three largest employers. The US spends $200 billion a year on law enforcement and prisons – almost as large as the combined budgets of all Sub-Sahara African countries minus Angola, South Africa, and Nigeria.

Those bearing the brunt of prison life come largely from racial minorities, especially blacks and Hispanics. A 2006 study found that the extent of racial disparity in imprisonment rates is greater than in any major arena of American social life: at 8-1, the black to white ratio of incarceration rates dwarfs the 2-1 ratio of unemployment rates, the 3-1 ratio of non-marital child bearing the 2-1 ratio of infant mortality rates and the 1-5 ratio of net worth.

Another 2006 study found that one out of 200 young whites were incarcerated; the rate for blacks was one out of nine. Today, one in every three African American males can expect to go to jail during their lifetime. For white males it is one in 106.

In one of the most liberal states of America, California, a black male resident is more likely to go to a state prison than a state college. In America, among black male school dropouts aged 20-40, a third are locked up on any given day. The police and the penal apparatus are the primary contact between black American males and the American state.

According to Michele Alexander’s great book, The New Jim Crow, more African American adults are in jail, parole or probation today than were enslaved in 1850. More black males are disenfranchised in America today than in 1870 when the 15th amendment was passed barring discrimination from voting based on race.

Although many studies show that white male youth are more likely to take drugs than black male youths (in some cases seven times more), the vast majority of those arrested and convicted for drug-related offenses are black. Other studies show that blacks are admitted to prisons 13 times more frequently than whites; 80-90% of all those convicted of drug offenses are African American.

Even in the state of Illinois where America’s first “black president”, Barak Obama, comes from, 90% of those sent to prison for drug offenses are black. In 2001, there were 20,000 more black men in jail than were enrolled in Illinois’ state universities. There were more black men in Illinois prisons for drug-related crimes than were in undergraduate programs in its state universities.

In 1999 alone, 992 black men received their degrees from Illinois state universities compared to 7,000 black men who “graduated” from its state prisons over drug-offenses. The total population of black males with a felony record in Chicago is 80% of the adult black male workforce.

How did America come to this? Many believe it was white America’s response to the success of the civil rights movement. Having lost the initiative on segregation, white supremacists resorted to the criminal justice system. They launched a “war on crime” whose center-pin is a “war on drugs” to keep black people “in their place”. The prison became the quarantine in which purportedly dangerous people (read blacks) are segregated in the name of public safety.

Zimmerman’s acquittal therefore needs to be understood in this context. This tragedy and the institutional arrangements that have emerged to underpin it have evolved to serve expressive as well as instrumental ends. A narrative has been constructed in American media, popular culture and academia that their society is under the threat of crime and the perpetrator is a black male.

By using black people as scapegoats for the ills that bedevil America, white society relieves itself of its own fears and anxieties and also allows itself to feel virtuous.

But it has also allowed police to routinely stop and search black people; arrest, beat and often kill them with impunity, and also facilitated a mindset that allows juries – even those composed of a sizeable number of blacks – to easily convict black people or acquit those who violate them. This is the reality of the American criminal justice system that found Zimmerman not guilty.

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