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Chapter 6

SOSC 2350 Chapter Notes - Chapter 6: Racialization, Precedent

Social Science
Course Code
SOSC 2350
Annie Bunting

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13 January 2015
10. November 14: Marx
Calavita – Chapter 6, “The Talk versus the Walk of Law” pp 94-115
- Gaps between the “law-on-the-books” (the sign indicating no access) and the “law-in-
action” (the de facto policy of granting access) are a central concern in law and society
research, and the pervasiveness of these gaps is one of the field’s founding ideas
- For a contemporary example, consider the sharing of copyrighted files on the internet. A
1997 law in the United States makes peer-to-peer (P2P) swapping of any copyrighted
Internet files, not just music, a federal felony punishable with fines of up to $250000 and
a three-year prison term.
There is a reason why you may not have heard of this law that was signed by
President Clinton over a decade ago: There have been almost no P2P prosecutions
- The ability to enforce the law against some people and not others is the logic behind the
enactment of some laws. Certainly, the vagrancy laws were useful to those who wished
to reinstate slavery after the Civil war
- This kind-of-people targeting is also clear in the case of drug laws
There is a notorious discrepancy in the US drug laws: people convicted of
possessing five grams of crack cocaine with intent to distribute get a mandatory five-
year prison sentence, while it takes five hundred grams of powder cocaine to receive
a comparable sentence.
The disparity has profoundly discriminatory effects since blacks and Latinos are
more likely to possess crack cocaine, and white are more likely to use and deal the
powder variant
This racial difference is apparent in federal court statistics on drug-dealing
prosecutions showing that 82% of defendants prosecuted for dealing crack are
African Americans, while they make up only 27% of those prosecuted for dealing
powder cocaine
- Across the United States in New York City, 54% of the people arrested for marijuana
possession from 1997 to 2006 were black and only 14% were white. This despite the
fact that 36% of New York’s population is white (and only 27% is black), and that a larger
percentage of whites report using marijuana
What we learn from these various statistics and patterns is that laws that are neutral
on their face are applied disparately. It may even be the main virtue of certain laws –
vagrancy and loitering being conspicuous examples – that they are pliable and in
practice can be bent toward certain populations
Some laws are so vague and the offending behaviors so relatively trivial (what is
loitering?) that their principal merit is that they lend themselves to this bending and
so achieve what is otherwise impermissible under the constitutions of most Western
democracies – the criminalization of certain kinds of people
- The disparate treatment implicit in vagrancy, loitering, and anti-camping laws reflects the
economic interests and biases of class societies, joined in the United States and other
racialized societies by racial stereotypes
- The term “symbolic law” is used to refer to policies that have little impact on objective
conditions but serve the purposes of placating the public.
They are, in other words, empty political gestures
In the case of employer sanctions, lawmakers confronted the economic reality of
cheap immigrant labor and pressure from the employers and industries profiting from
it, versus the political pressure exerted by public demands that Congress regain
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