by Taylor Feher
It’s 2019 and we often hear statements such as, “Come on guys it’s 2019, we shouldn’t be doing (insert racist action) anymore! Haven’t we moved past this?” Our society desperately wants to believe we are so far past the 1950’s racial violence inflicted by the third manifestation of the KKK. However, we are not living in a “post-racial” society.
The deep systematic oppression which exists within the criminal justice system is one of the many demonstrations of how racial bias and hatred still attacks and marginalizes people of color. This is demonstrated through the lethal violence against Black/African Americans by police forces and the legal system. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter gained traction in 2013 when citizen George Zimmerman was acquitted of killing a black teenager named Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was a “neighborhood watch” member in Florida who shot Trayvon when he was walking back to his father’s fiancé’s house from a convenience store. Zimmerman claims he was defending himself and, without Trayvon being able to account with what happened that night, it was determined by the court and DOJ that Zimmerman was able to use lethal force to defend himself. This tragedy and the subsequent movement shined a light on the inherent bias and discrimination which people of color, particularly Black/African Americans, experience because of the criminal justice system.
Another example of this systemic oppression is the statistically high rate of Black/African American persons involved in the criminal justice system when compared to whites or even other people of color. Vera is a website which tracks data trends of incarceration rates within each state based on a sample of 100,000 residents of each state from ages 15 to 64. The site also allows you to compare different races and ethnicities incarceration rates per state. California in 2015, like many other states, shows the incarcerations rate of Black/African American individuals to be almost five times higher than of white individuals. Native Americans and Latinos have the second and third highest rate of incarceration, however whites are incarcerated at a far lower rate.
Police disproportionately target Black/African Americans as suspects through specific tactics such as stop and frisk. The Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio allowed police to stop and frisk an individual if they have reasonable suspicion to believe the person is involved criminal activity. However, police often conduct stop and frisks on people of color on Black/African Americans even though they do not meet the standard of reasonable suspicion. Instead, factors such as race take precedent over constitutional standards.
According to the ACLU, Milwaukee Wisconsin’s police department between 2007 and 2015 tripled their pedestrian and traffic stops after the launch of a new program in 2008 which permits stops and frisks without reasonable suspicion. The ACLU reports that members of Black and Latino communities in Milwaukee feel disproportionately impacted by police racial profiling as they are stopped and frisked at random at alarmingly high rates. The Milwaukee ACLU has launched a class action law suit against the Milwaukee police department to combat these occurrences as recently as July 2019.
This is only a small glimpse of the violence which still exists as a result of racism. Trayvon, who was unarmed as he walked down a residential street, was shot by a neighbor that still claims he only shot Trayvon for his own protection. The police department similarly believes that they are targeting “high crime” areas for public safety. Yet, this is a fallacy. Although racism in 2019 does not typically look like racial slurs or lynching those sentiments still exist but have evolved and metastasized into shootings or imprisonment. Hiding behind the masked excuse of “safety” doesn’t change that the motivation is to take violent action against people of color.