Growing up in North Dakota, the first African-American I saw was among a group of airmen in Minot who had come into town from the Air Force Base north of the city to do some shopping.
Fast-forward several years and I find myself as a juvenile probation officer assigned to the southwest part of San Antonio, where Air Force officers begin their service in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base. Children of the officers often acted out in school and the community, bringing them to the attention of the Juvenile Court. Attending six or more different schools by the age of 13 might explain their difficulty in adjusting!
My caseload included Hispanic, White, and African-American youth from the south and east sides of San Antonio who were facing a juvenile court appearance. Talking with my probation officer friends over coffee one day I asked them about the differential treatment I observed among youth of different economic and racial backgrounds.
After listening politely to my accusations of racial disparity “down here” they asked me about my Native-American neighbors up in North Dakota. “Oh, they have it pretty good. The government provides good schools for them there on the reservation, and they get some financial assistance.” To which my friends responded: “Oh, so they’re fine on their Indian Reservations, as long as they don’t mess with ya’ll in your white communities, is that it?!”
Well, I assured my friends I didn’t exactly say that, and certainly didn’t mean that. But on reflecting further, then and the years since then, my friends had a point. No place in America is free of racial disparity and the effects and consequences of “white privilege.” Our nation was settled on the lands of Native Americans. Our economy was built on the backs of African-American slaves. White privilege has been a part of America since its development and continues today.
We usually think of the South when we think of racial discrimination. In reality the “race problem” is not restricted to the southern U.S. My home state of Minnesota offers an example of racial disparity in criminal sentencing.
Black residents make up about 6 percent of Minnesota’s general population, but 37 percent of the state’s prison population is black. American Indians and blacks together made up nearly half of Minnesota’s prison population but comprise only 7 percent of the state’s population. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune used data from the Minnesota Dept. of Corrections to show this is not a new problem. In 1990, black people made up about 2 percent of the state’s population and 20 percent of people in Minnesota convicted of felonies. The black population increased by the 2000 census to nearly 4 percent of Minnesotans but were then 28 percent of the state’s convicted felons and 36 percent of prisoners. American Indians made up 1 percent of the state population in 2000 but comprised 6 percent of felons and almost 7 percent of state inmates.
Justice officials are quick to note that several factors account for these disparities. Racial and ethnic minorities comprise a disproportionate number of police arrests, and prosecuting attorneys are more likely to forward their cases on to court. This is not to say that either police or prosecutors engage in racially-biased decision-making. They are acting on police calls, observed behavior, and official reports. Crimes committed in public places in high-crime neighborhoods are more likely to get police attention and official action because police patrols are more concentrated in high-crime areas.
Persons who are lower income, under-employed, and racial minorities do commit a slightly higher proportion of index crimes—but not in the same disproportionate rates as those reflected in prison populations. State and federal prisons hold a large number of drug offenders who are racial and ethnic minorities. Based on self-report and related evidence the majority of drug buyers and users are Whites, many of whom are from middle and upper-class backgrounds.
“White privilege” clearly explains many of the disparities in arrests, court cases, and prison commitments of African-Americans and Native Americans.
In a country that calls itself “one nation under God” and that aspires to “do the right thing” in upholding high standards of criminal justice, what are we to do with the glaring realities of racial disparity in sentencing and the evidence of white privilege?
Michelle Alexander refers to the black incarceration rate as “The New Jim Crow.”
“It was the white men who dominated politics, controlled the nation’s wealth, and wrote the rules by which everyone else was forced to live. No group in the United States can be said to have experienced more privilege, and gone to greater lengths to protect it, than ‘the white man’. …. (I)f meaningful progress is to be made, whites must…be willing to sacrifice their racial privilege.” (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. (The New Press, 2011, pp. 255, 257).
As a white man who has been complicit in enforcing laws, court orders, and probation conditions for young offenders from diverse racial and economic backgrounds, it is not easy to recognize and accept my privileged status. I do not personally feel and experience the effects of racial disparities in sentencing; but I see them each week as I enter a prison to work with offenders preparing to reenter society. The disparate prison sentences for Blacks and Native Americans is not just their problem. It is an American problem, and it affects all of us.