Racism: Ghosts in the machine

Deborah San Angelo, Staff Writer

In many ways, justice is an ideal, a goal to be strived for. American justice is a game of working rules to their best advantage.

Mandatory minimum sentencing, stand your ground and three strikes laws change the stakes and the game plan for those who face criminal prosecutions. It’s often safer for an innocent person to plead guilty than roll the dice on the fairness and wisdom of the court.

Black America knows all too well the promise of equal justice for all is a hollow one. So-called justice works one way for whites and another way for blacks. The consequence is a system that has two separate realities.

Every verdict that fails to hold a killer accountable erodes confidence in the system. When justice doesn’t demand the same accountability of everyone, whatever race they happen to be, it’s not just.

Racial stereotypes can bias judgements and rationalize decisions. The most recent example is how George Zimmerman decided to be the judge, jury and executioner of a black teenager wearing a hoodie. Racial stereotypes have led many people, including police officers to evaluate ambiguous behavior as aggressive, to mistake harmless objects such as a cell phone or wallet as weapons, to shoot quickly and, at times inappropriately.

There’s a long list of African-American men and boys whose non-black killers escaped justice in America’s courts. Often, the killers aren’t even charged and brought to trial. If not for protests across the country, Zimmerman wouldn’t have been charged either.

When you’re not sure of what happened, you have reasonable doubt. So Zimmerman’s all-white jury seems to have made a reasonable decision. Right?

Though we can’t know what really happened that night, it’s clear that the actions that led to Trayvon Martin’s death were also influenced by racism. And we do realize that if the colors of Zimmerman and Martin were reversed, the outcome would have been extremely different.

President Obama talked about this discrepancy: “And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these ‘stand your ground’ laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?”

Instead of shooting Martin point blank through the heart, what if Zimmerman fired a warning shot? That didn’t help Marissa Alexander, a black woman who had a restraining order on her abusive husband. She’s currently serving a 20-year sentence for firing a warning shot at the wall to scare him off when he showed up at her apartment and threatened her. No one was hurt and Alexander’s husband admitted under oath to treating her violently. Yet she is in prison for defending herself from her attacker. The justice system sometimes has a hard time distinguishing victims from perpetrators.

Unfair sentences can result when laws strip judges of discretion. Each case has unique circumstances. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws deny judges the authority to decide what’s relative and appropriate.

As bias and racism are held in the hearts of individuals, it worms its way into our system of justice and creates two different realities. It demonstrates that some people matter more than others.

Kendrick Johnson, a black 17- year old, doesn’t appear to matter much to his school authorities or local law enforcement. His body was found rolled up in a gym mat propped behind some bleachers. Sheriff’s investigators concluded he fell headfirst into the upright mat and became trapped. What could be more logical?

Even though there was blood on a nearby wall, it was not tested. A Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner concluded he died from positional asphyxia and his death was ruled accidental. After fighting legal channels to get the body exhumed, Johnson’s parents hired a private pathologist to examine the body for a second opinion. The findings are nothing short of horrific.

The second autopsy revealed hemorrhaging on the right side of Johnson’s neck, concluding the teenager died from blunt force trauma. The fatal blow appeared to be non-accidental. Oh and another thing – most of his internal organs were missing and the body cavity was filled with newspaper.

The locals have not demanded an investigation from a competent law enforcement agency, so Johnson’s parents were left to appeal to the Department of Justice. Their official response was that the case was closed and further investigation was unwarranted.

Most white people form their impressions in a racial vacuum, as if unaware of the many sources of injustice blacks face on a regular basis. They know the system isn’t perfect, but basically believe it works on a level playing field. Their concept of the system is based on their own experience where travesties of justice are deviations from the norm. They look the other way, complacent in the misbelief that it really isn’t all that bad for African-Americans today.

Denial is a wonderous thing. It enabled practice of slavery to go on for 242 years. How long it will take to achieve equal justice under the law? No laws can change what’s in people’s hearts, but our judicial machine should not be allowed to be racist. Kendrick Johnson’s missing heart should not be allowed to stay a mystery.