African Americans Today
1) Law and Criminal Justice
• Discrimination has a long history in the American legal system. The U.S. constitution provided for the
return of escaped slaves and held that a slave should be counted as two-thirds of a person for
congressional apportionment and tax purposes.
• In 1857, the Supreme court ruled in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford that slaves remained slaves even
when living or traveling through states where slavery was illegal, and that constitutional rights and
privileges did not extend to African Americans: “We think . . . that they [African Americans] are not
included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizen” in the Constitution, and can
therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to the
citizens of the United States.”
• Although such racist ideas are no longer part of the law, numerous studies have shown that African
Americans are more likely than whites to be arrested, indicted, convicted, and committed to an
institution. The racial difference in incarceration rates is huge and growing. Today, about 1 in every 3
African American men is either in prison or on probation or parole.
• Racial prejudice is a significant part of this discrepancy. The expectations of police officers,
prosecutors, and judges that African Americans are more likely to be criminals become a self-fulfilling
prophesy: Because they are expected to commit more crimes, African Americans are watched more
closely, and therefore are arrested and prosecuted more often. Blacks are more that twice as likely to be
stopped by the police compared to whites, even when higher crime rates in minority neighborhoods are
taken into account. Although whites make up 75% of the drug users in the U.S., blacks account for 75%
of the inmates with drug charges.
• Data collected annually by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) show that Blacks account for 28
percent of arrests, even though they represent only about 12 percent of the nation’s population.
Conflict theorists point out that the higher arrest rate is not surprising for a group that is
disproportionately poor and therefore much less able to afford private attorneys, who might be able to
prevent formal arrests from taking place. Additionally, the UCR focuses on index crimes (mainly property
crimes) most often committed by low-income people.
• In contrast to popular misconceptions about crime, African Americans and the poor are especially
likely to be the victims of serious crimes. This fact is documented in victimization surveys, which are
systematic interviews of ordinary people carried out annually to reveal how much crime occurs. These
statistics show that African Americans are 28 percent more likely to be victims of violent crimes and are
22 percent more likely to be victims of property crimes than are Whites.
• The term differential justice refers to the tendency for Whites to be deal with more leniently than Blacks, whether at the time of arrest, indictment, conviction, sentencing, or parole.
• Several studies demonstrate that police often deal with African American youths more harshly than
with White youngsters. For example, sociologists George Bridges and Sara Stern found in 1998 that
probation officers were more likely to evaluate Black youth negatively and to describe them as
potentially dangerous in their recommendations to judges than White youths who committed
comparable violent offences and had similar records of prior convictions.
• Researchers on crime have used the term victim discounting to describe the tendency to view crimes
as less socially significant if the victim is viewed as less worthy.
• One of the most extreme forms of victim discounting takes place in homicide cases. Numerous studies
show that defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death if their victims were White rather than
Black. Additionally, about 83 percent of the victims in death penalty cases are white, even though only
50 percent of all murder victims are White.
• Also, when a schoolchild walk into a cafeteria or schoolyard with automatic weapons and kills a dozen
children and teachers it becomes a case of national alarm, but when children kill each other in drive-by
shootings it is viewed as a local concern and the need to clean-up a dysfunctional neighborhood. Many
note that the difference between these situations is not the death toll but who is being killed: middle-
class Whites in the schoolyard shootings and Black ghetto youth in the drive-bys.
- Several measures document the inadequate quantity and quality of education received by African
- The gap in educational attainment between Blacks and Whites has always been present. Despite
programs directed at the poor, such as Head Start, White children are still more likely to have formal
prekindergarten education than are African American children. Later, Black children are more likely to
drop out of school sooner and therefore are less likely to receive high school diplomas, let alone college
degrees. Although there has been some progress in reducing this gap in recent years, the gap remains
substantial—with nearly twice the proportion of Whites holding a college degree as Blacks in 2000.
- Many educators argue that many students would not drop out of school were it not for the combined
inadequacies of their education. Among the deficiencies noted include insensitive teachers, poor
counseling, unresponsive administrators, overcrowded classes, irrelevant curricula, and dilapidated
- Although several of these problems can be addressed with more adequate funding, some are
stalemated by disagreements over what changes would lead to the best outcome. For example, there is
a significant debate among educators and African Americans in general over the content of curriculum that is best for minority students. Some schools have developed academic programs that take an
Afrocentric perspective and immerse students in African American history and culture. However, a few
of these programs have been targeted as ignoring fundamentals, as in the debate in Oakland, California
over recognizing Ebonics as a language in the classroom.
- It has been more than 40 years since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its unanimous ruling in Brown v.
Board of Education of Topek