Racism in the Criminal Justice
Slavery has ended in America but racism in society has persisted, especially in the justice system. Despite all the progress made in America over the years, black people are still facing discrimination and injustice in 2018. None of the efforts made have been enough to end racism. The problem is that if we compare racism in the past with racism today, we can see many similarities in terms of how blacks in America are being treated. Almost every day we see black people not only facing discrimination but fighting for their rights just as back then. Along with fighting, they are scared and traumatized because many blacks are dying with no justice after. Police brutality has also dangerously increased over the years. The justice system has made progress over the years but when it comes to blacks in America, it seems we have not made much progress or at least the right progress.
The lack of progress is evident through the book Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Ward’s novel primarily focuses on racism and imprisonment and finding ways to survive from the injustice. In the novel, one of the main characters, Richie, a ghost, witnesses a tragic repeat of history when his friend JoJo, who is alive and can see Richie, is pulled over by the police. JoJo is simply in the car to pick someone up and doesn’t see the risk in just driving the car. However, Richie had warned him that “they going to chain you”. When the officer did ask JoJo to get out of the car, Richie continued, “I told you” (107). Richie’s warning is important because of his own experience of systemic racism when he was alive which caused his death. Moreover, his use of the word “chain” in reference to prison draws a direct correlation between prison and slavery.
In fact, many argue that prison is merely an institutionalized form of slavery today. The slavery-like nature of prison can be seen through Parchman Prison. Parchman shows the discrimination that prisoners face, specifically black prisoners. Often black people are imprisoned for no legitimate reason just like they were enslaved for no legitimate reason. In Sing Unburied Sing, the main character, Pop, was arrested because his brother, Stag got in trouble for defending himself against some white folks, and when Stag arrived home Pop happened to be there. “Stag got convicted for assault, I got convicted of harboring a fugitive” (19). In addition to entering prison In Parchman they made them worked in large fields, picking cottons from morning until night just like slaves. It’s as if they went back to the slavery time period, black people working long hours in heat and in horrible conditions. Just as back in the days, after slavery was said to be abolished in 1865, the black codes were created to enslaved blacks again. They passed other laws to keep blacks in prison and working. In a way it’s like they used the criminal Justice as a way to control blacks in America.
Controlling in a way that they cannot get out, Sheriff Steve Prator Shamelessly admitted to modern day slavery, he stated that he hates to see good black man release from prison because they are the “ones that can work, that’s the ones that can pick up trash and “wash cars”, “change oil in our cars and cook in the kitchen”. Many blacks are imprisoned disproportionately higher rates than their percentage in the total population. Once in prison, they are immediately free workers and this is a form of slavery. They have to work with no salary and bad conditions similar to the inmates in Parchman. Which is why prison is also representing the new form of slavery and how the justice system control lacks in America.
When we talk about slaves, we usually say that they were brought in chained and not cuffed. JoJo’s encounter basically summarizes what blacks go through in America on a daily basis. Today many blacks are being stopped and violently arrested by white cops, innocent or for petty reasons. Not too long ago, Johnnie Jermain Rush was shocked with a Taser and beaten by two police officers for supposedly jaywalking in Asheville. When Rush was pinned to the ground he cried “I can’t breathe” similar to JoJo and on the footage there’s “Mr. Rush crying in pain as he is shocked with a Taser” (New York Times). While this was a very disturbing video to watch, such situation is not new. Today we get to see these kinds of videos often because of social media but even back then these encounters happened, just behind the camera. I also feel that police brutality has gotten way out of control, that it is too late to change, I don’t know when that time was but the time for change has past.
The justice system today shouldn’t be that similar to the justice system back then, but it is. Many things have changed, but not the right changes. Which is why today Slavery is still happening, just in a different form because black men are not different from Stag, Richie, and pop. They’re also dealing with injustice from society, then the justice system. If anything, I think it is worse today because they are being killed for not doing anything or the smallest thing and not getting the justice that they deserve. Just like before but today, we act like things are better, when in fact, the ugly truth is veiled by ignorance and indifference. Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman because he felt that Trayvon was suspicious. Zimmerman at first was not charged because there was no evidence, and that is exactly what they do today, they kill the evidence.
They know that the system is protecting the lives that they value the most, which is the white lives. And this does not only hurt blacks physically but mentally because they live with fears everywhere they go. Black people has been free because the laws say so but the everyday actions says otherwise. For example, sometimes when a black person is looking for justice, they dig up their past instead of looking at the bigger picture and whenever there is a gathering of just blacks, it is considered a gang. Richie summarizes most people’s thought by saying “sometimes I think it done changed and then I sleep and wake up and it ain’t changed none” (108). All this shows that some things have changed but not everything, America still has a long way to go.
At the end of the book, even after Richie knew the answer to his question, the way he died, he says that he was not able to cross over and go home. The most heart-breaking part was when he told Jojo that there were many other ghosts waiting. And when JoJo sees the other ghosts, he too can see their unresolved pain, painful deaths, and their demands for justice in their eyes. “He raped me and suffocated me until I died and put my hands up and he shot me eight times _They hung me they found I could read _and I couldn’t breathe” (176). All of the ghost died painful deaths with no justice for them, which is why they could not go home/their afterlife. And the saddest part is that they cannot do anything about it, the damages are already done and their voices cannot be heard, which summarizes the big similarity of today and the past. They could not do anything about it in the past as well as today. As mentioned before about Trayvon Martin, He died with his side of the story, therefore there is no evidence, similar to these ghosts. Today many blacks have lost their lives and their voices and even the people that have gotten out of prison has lived with a history that they cannot erase.
All three of them can only tell their stories now, they can never get compensated. Ta-Nehisi Coates Essay about “Reparation” will really work with this story because Coates believes that blacks should get compensated for their injustice and only America can do it. And I agree with him because all three individuals should get compensated for their imprisonment because they were not only physically hurt but also mentally. However, I don’t believe that American can resolve these conflicts. They have passed laws like the 13th amendment to end slavery and the 14th, 15th amendments, civil right act etc., but none of them has ended our problems completely. We today have the Black Lives Matter movement but that has not stopped police brutality yet, I can’t think of anything that will change our conflicts today. I truly believe there is nothing that can be done, it’s too late and even if something was to be done, it will only last for a while and history will repeat.
Having read Sing Unburied Sing, I now understand America is the way it is today not because new conflicts are emerging, history is merely repeating itself. The book focusing on Parchman is to symbolize the racism and discrimination that blacks go through and that racism comes in different forms. Being in prison is like being thrown into slavery all over again but in jail style. Also, that the justice system still and has always favors white lives over black lives. Looking at current events shows that the racism is very much alive and has never ended some things are merely disguises with the same meaning and that we are not moving forward.
Coates Ta-Nehisi, “The case for reparation”, The Atlantic (21 may 2014)
Bromwich Engel Jonah, “Former North Carolina Police Officer Who Beat Black Man Is Charged With Assault”, The New York Times, (March 9, 2018)
Bromwich Engel Jonah, “Louisiana Sheriff’s Remarks Evoke Slavery, Critics Say”, The New York Times (oct 12, 2017),