Racial justice

  • November 16, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Noah Zatz, Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s Symposium on Labor and Economic Inequality.

    Three vibrant movements of our time are Black Lives Matter, theDREAMers, and Fight for $15. For many progressives, only the last may seem directed at our topic of work and inequality. That intuition is wrong. Legalized state violence – incarceration, deportation, even killing – can and does depress labor standards and enable workplace exploitation (and vice versa).

    We too often separate struggles against racialized state violence from those challenging economic inequality. The former seem to be about the public exercises of government power, while the latter seem to be about private exercises of corporate power. This is both an analytical error and a missed political opportunity.

    Think of criminal justice, immigration, and labor as three points of a triangle. Activists and academics increasingly link mass incarceration and mass deportation, especially as immigration enforcement is criminalized. Likewise, the government’s threat to detain and deport has been linked to employer power. Guest workers face deportation if they exercise the most basic labor right, the right to quit, and undocumented workers labor under employer threats to call in immigration enforcement. Employers use this power to disrupt organizing, degrade working conditions, and depress wages.

    An incarceration-labor connection parallels this immigration-labor connection. This connection mirrors the thoroughly racialized ways that immigration policy produces workplace disadvantage. That historical pattern continues today as Latina/os and others treated as presumptively “foreign” face profiling by employers and government authorities. Similarly, racism has long structured criminal justice in the U.S. From defining what is a crime to the notorious cocaine sentencing disparities, from the frequency of police stops to searches to uses of force, the criminal justice system casts an especially dark shadow over communities of color, and not by coincidence.

  • November 6, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Christina Swarns, Director of Litigation, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

    In 1879, the United States Supreme Court declared that the singling out of qualified African Americans for removal from jury service “is practically a brand upon them, affixed by the law, an assertion of their inferiority, and a stimulant to that race prejudice which is an impediment to securing individuals of the race that equal justice which the law aims to secure all others.” Although, in the subsequent 136 years, the Supreme Court has repeatedly condemned the practice of racial discrimination in jury selection, today, African Americans are excluded from jury service in ways that “seem[] better organized and more systematized than ever before.” Case in point: Foster v. Chatman, the jury discrimination challenge that was argued to the Supreme Court on Monday, November 2, 2015.

    Foster challenges Georgia prosecutors’ use of peremptory challenges to exclude African-American prospective jurors from the 1987 trial of Timothy Foster, an African-American man with intellectual disabilities who was charged with the murder of a White woman. Peremptory challenges are lawful opportunities for both prosecutors and defense attorneys to excuse prospective jurors from service in a particular trial. But there are limits to their use: In 1986, the Supreme Court held that these challenges cannot be based on race. Nonetheless, in Mr. Foster’s case, the prosecutors struck every single African-American prospective juror. As a result, an all-White jury convicted Mr. Foster of murder and sentenced him to death.

    When challenged, the Foster prosecutors offered a literal laundry list of supposedly race-neutral reasons for each of the strikes they exercised against the African-American prospective jurors. But the prosecutors’ notes, which were uncovered by the defense team some 20 years after Mr. Foster’s conviction, tell a completely different story. A note indicated that green highlighting “represent[s] blacks,” and the names of all the African-American jurors, but none of the White jurors, were highlighted in green. In their notes, the prosecutors referred to the African-American prospective jurors as “B#1, B#2, B#3,” while none of the White jurors were referred to solely by reference to race. In the prosecutors’ list of prospective jurors to strike, the name of every single prospective African-American juror was at the very top. The prosecutors ranked the African-American potential jurors in case they might “have to” seat one of them, but there was no similar ranking of all of the White prospective jurors. And last but not least, the supposedly race-neutral reasons offered by the prosecutors simply do not hold up: For example, the prosecutors said they struck one 34-year-old African-American juror because she was too close to the defendant’s age of 18, even though they accepted multiple White jurors who were actually closer in age to 18.

  • October 14, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Sheila Bedi, Clinical Associate Professor of Law, Northwestern University School of Law; attorney, Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, Northwestern University School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic

    Prisons and jails are a revolving door of brutality where people held behind bars experience horrific abuse funded by taxpayers and meted out at the hands of the state. My practice is dedicated almost exclusively toworking with and for men, women and children who live behind bars, and most of the cases I’ve filed have to do with prison and jail conditions.

    The facts of some of my cases speak for themselves. A juvenile prison in Mississippi was notorious for subjecting the young women there to sexual abuse, and in the wake of a particularly horrific incident during which correctional officers sexually abused girls who were then left shackled together for over a month, the prison was permanently closed. In downstate Illinois, a young man whose only offense was a first-time drug possession endured over 12 hours of brutal rape. He joined the over 200,000 people who survive sexual abuse in our nation’s prisons. Another case involved a private prison company that raked in over $100 million in profits while subjecting men to abusive conditions. There, some prison staff exploited the youth by selling drugs inside the facility, and youths who were handcuffed and defenseless were kicked, punched and beaten. Other youths were stripped naked and held in isolation for weeks at a time. Young men with serious health needs languished without medical care, sometimes risking death or permanent injury. A federal court found that these conditions resulted in “a cesspool of unconstitutional and inhuman acts . . . The sum of these actions and inactions . . . paints a picture of such horror as should be unrealized anywhere in the civilized world.”

    My work is about transforming—and hopefully dismantling—the criminal injustice system and enforcing the constitutional rights of people who live in the shadows. The challenge is to help the courts understand and reckon with the humanity of the 2.2 million men, women and children this country holds behinds bars. One of the ways that happens is when lawyers recognize the agency, courage and resilience of their clients. I am humbled and often awestruck by the courage of my clients, and the fact that they are willing to trust me with the truth of what they endure behind bars is an incredible privilege. Most of my cases are class actions seeking only injunctive relief. That means my clients aren’t getting any money from being involved in this work and instead put themselves at great risk of retaliation by speaking up and telling their stories to the court, all to ensure that others are protected from the abuses they endure.

  • October 9, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Deuel Ross, Fried Frank Fellow, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

    On Friday, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), on behalf of our allies at Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama NAACP, wrote a letter to the state of Alabama about its decision to close 31 of its Department of Public Safety (DPS) driver’s license-issuing offices. The state’s decision shuttered DPS offices in eleven rural counties: Choctaw, Sumter, Hale, Greene, Perry, Wilcox, Lowndes, Butler, Crenshaw, Macon, and Bullock. These eleven counties make up most of Alabama’s “Black Belt”—a region with large concentrations of African Americans, incredibly high poverty rates, and almost no public transportation.

    In our letter, LDF noted that there is a strong likelihood that Alabama’s actions violate the protections provided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the United States Constitution. But what do driver’s license offices have to do with voting? A lot, actually.

    In 2014, Alabama began enforcing a strict photo ID law which requires voters to show a driver’s license or another form of photo ID in order to cast a ballot. Alabama did so despite the state’s own analysis, which found that at least  250,000 registered voters don’t have a driver’s license or other acceptable photo ID. One such voter was Willie Mims, a 93-year-old African American who was turned away from his usual polling place because he did not have a driver’s license. African Americans like Mr. Mims very likely account for a disproportionate share of those thousands of voters that the photo ID law may disenfranchise. In addition, the federal National Voter Registration Act requires Alabama’s DPS offices to provide voters with opportunities to register to vote. Alabama recently agreed to adopt measures designed to increase such opportunities for voter registration.

    In light of the close relationship between voting and driver’s license offices, and despite Alabama officials’ half-hearted denials, these closures will drastically reduce the number of locations where African-American voters can go to ensure their unfettered access to the ballot. These closings in the poorest, most rural parts of the state’s African-American community smack of the cavalier racism of the Jim Crow era and open yet another chapter in Alabama’s long and egregious history of suppressing the African-American vote.

  • September 17, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Atiba R. Ellis, Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law; Follow Prof. Ellis on Twitter @atibaellis

    *This post is part of ACSblog’s 2015 Constitution Day Symposium.

    On this Constitution Day, I have been drawn to thinking about violence against minorities in America and how our constitutional system fails to address this violence. We have seen numerous episodes of individual and community violence against neighborhoods of color from Ferguson to Baltimore. We are familiar with the long list of individuals who have died at the hands of the police under questionable grounds.  (I discussed both here previously.) This violence is so engrained and pervasive that it is systemic. In the words of a famous scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it is “violence inherent in the system.” 

    Yet this physical violence is but one manifestation of the long history of subordination of communities of color. This violence of white supremacy is also made manifest in the expressive violence of exclusion from the political process, as it dilutes and diminishes both minority individual and community political strength. And our constitutional mechanisms are not fully addressing it.

    Communities of color have been victims of this violence -- whether state-imposed or state-abetted -- for generations. This violence has taken various forms: slavery, Jim Crow, police brutality, and mass incarceration. That violence attacked their bodies, their property, and their status as members of the American democratic community.

    The ways that our constitutional system allows violence against vulnerable minorities represents an existential attack against minority communities and a continuation of the patterns of white supremacy (even if the intent of racial discrimination is absent).  This isn’t to say that the crises linked to the policing of minority communities, including police brutality and killings; racial profiling; mass incarceration; and racial disparities in the death penalty shouldn’t be thought of as less important—they are important and pervasive.  Yet these species of state-sanctioned violence are connected to the political exclusion that minorities suffer, and they are better seen as parts of a whole.