Black Americans aren't just upset about the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breanna Taylor. Decades of scientific research convincingly show that black Americans are faced not only with inequalities in the legal system, but at almost all levels of society.
Legal inequality between races is ingrained in the system
In 2018, journalist Radley Balko published an overview of more than a hundred studies of racial inequality in the U.S. legal system in The Washington Post. That system was largely designed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when racial segregation in the southern states was still enshrined in the so-called Jim Crow laws.
Discussions about inequality are not easy. The term "systematic racism" is often interpreted by conservative Americans as an accusation that everyone within that system is a racist, Balko wrote. "In reality it means almost the opposite. It means that we have systems and institutions that produce race-unequal outcomes, regardless of the intentions of the people who work within them."
An important side note is that many of the studies have a limited scale. Take, for example, a study of traffic controls in Bloomfield, New Jersey. The conclusions cannot simply be extended to the rest of the country. But if the results from Bloomington match those of many comparable studies elsewhere (such as Rhode Island or San Diego), a picture of broader trends emerges.
Cases of police brutality and complaints about police actions are not centrally tracked or kept publicly available in many U.S. cities and states. Researchers therefore often maintain their own databases.
Despite that limitation, decades of research on several fronts convincingly demonstrate that race-based inequality is ingrained at every level of the U.S. legal system, particularly in the criminal justice system: from traffic checks to the use of the death penalty.
From minor offenses ...
Black Americans are arrested nationally for traffic checks nearly twice as often as their white countrymen, while the latter are more likely to be found on the road, several studies concluded. At such a check, black people are two to five times more likely to be searched and searched for their vehicles than white people, despite the fact that they more often carry prohibited goods.
Black Americans who put up a joint in New York are arrested eight times more often than white city mates. In the predominantly white borough of Manhattan, this is even fifteen times. Most arrests are in neighborhoods where a majority of residents are black, although police do not complain significantly more often about marijuana use.
Nationally, according to the ACLU, blacks are arrested 3.73 times more often for soft drug offenses, while the use of those drugs is roughly the same among black and white Americans. 88 percent of the arrests involved possession of soft drugs for personal use.
… To the most serious crimes
Murders of white Americans are solved more often than those of black Americans, according to several studies. Those numbers are lowest in poor neighborhoods where a majority of the residents are black.
Murderers who make black victims rarely receive the death penalty for this. A 2003 survey by Amnesty International found that about 80 percent of death row prisoners were there for murdering a white person. A black man who murders a white woman is by far the most at risk of the most severe punishment.
A black American is seven times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of murder, according to a 2017 study of 1,900 cases in which a conviction was later reversed. This is twelve times for drug crimes and 3.5 times for sexual assault or rape.
A protest sticker depicting George Floyd on a lamppost in Seattle. (Photo: ProShots)
Police show less respect and act harder against black Americans
A 2017 study of police-citizen interactions based on the officers' body cam images concluded that "agents consistently treat black members of the community with less respect than white members, even when correcting for the agent's race in question, the severity of the offense, the location of the interaction and the outcome thereof ".
A comprehensive statistical analysis of fatal shooting incidents involving the police from 2015 concluded that an unarmed black American is 3.49 times more likely to be shot by the police than an unarmed white American. The researchers found no relationship between those shooting incidents and the crime rates in the different regions investigated, even if they were broken down by race by region.
Other researchers looked at other periods or arrive at a different ratio, but the overall picture does not change significantly. For example, early this month, The Washington Post calculated that since January 2015, black suspects were shot and killed by police more than twice as often as white suspects, based on data from news and social media reports and police reports.
'We against them': the police often handle complaints procedures themselves
In many places in the US, it is not easy to fire or prosecute agents if they misbehave at work. National and local laws and agreements with powerful police unions provide law enforcement officers with significant legal backing.
A Supreme Court decision in 1967 set a high bar for the burden of proof in police-related cases: not only must complainants demonstrate that a police officer was not acting in good faith, but in order to circumvent the immunity of law enforcement officers, a precedent must also be found - an earlier ruling in a case about the same offense with a similar context, in which that immunity was waived. In practice, this means that agents are very rarely prosecuted.
"Surveillance and complaints procedures are handled internally by the police themselves in most cities and regions," said Suzanne Luban, a law professor at Stanford University, Thursday. "The police are protecting their own people. That is part of a deep-rooted culture of 'us against them' and leads to unwillingness to punish agents for violating the civil rights of those they are supposed to protect."
Complaints about racist police actions are, even in that context, remarkably often dismissed, and complainants belonging to minorities are much less likely to be right. In two years, from 2012 to 214, 1,350 complaints about ethnic profiling were received in Los Angeles. None of those complainants were successful. White citizens who complained of police brutality in North Charleston, South Carolina between 2006 and 2016 were found to be successful seven times more often than black citizens.
There is an "we against them" culture within the US police, experts say. (Photo: ProShots)
Black Americans are not only unequal within the legal system
The inequality of black Americans in the legal system is inseparable from their position in society. They earn less on average, are less educated and have poorer health. These vulnerabilities make them more affected by crises such as the coronavirus (black Americans are three times more likely to die than white compatriots) and the economic problems that this entails.
Sara Polak, a lecturer in American Studies at Leiden University, thinks that the Dutch often don't know how deep the roots of racial inequality are in the US. "It is something - also here, but certainly there - that is very much related to poverty, for example. The American wealth inequality between ethnic groups is enormous. That is hit extra hard there, because education is more expensive and there is no large social safety net."
Think Tank Economic Policy Institute calculated that a black American earns an average of 73 cents for every dollar paid to a white American. The poverty rate is 2.5 times higher among blacks.
According to the latest figures from the US Central Bank (from 2016), the net wealth of an average black household is $ 17,000. For an average white household, that is $ 171,000: more than ten times as much. Static outliers, such as the assets of predominantly white multi-billionaires, have already been taken out of the numbers.
If the income figures are adjusted for education level, it appears that black Americans with a university degree have on average about the same wealth as white Americans without a high school diploma ($ 68,000 versus $ 62,000).
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Poverty gap does not shrink and strengthens itself
The economic gap between white and black has not narrowed in the past half century. It's the size of the wave of protests following the assassination of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, The Washington Post wrote this week.
Poverty affects all kinds of areas and strengthens itself, says Polak. She cites the link between housing and education as an example. "It is more difficult for black Americans to buy a home in certain white neighborhoods, partly because they are generations behind economically and educationally. Public education is largely funded by the university tax where the school is located, which means that it is much better in an area where the houses are more expensive. That drives inequality. "
The current wave of BLM demonstrations started in response to police brutality, but the solutions put forward by the demonstrators also bridge the broader social position of black Americans. They argue for divestment : less public money to the police and more money to reduce the large inequality in the community itself, in the areas of housing, care and education.