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Racism Effects on Criminal Justice System Research Paper

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Updated: May 12th, 2021


This paper will focus on the influence of racial biases on the functioning of the criminal justice system in the United States. In particular, much attention should be given to the way in which black people were treated by law enforcement agencies. It is critical to focus on the issue of the disproportionately large percentage of African Americans among individuals killed by police. One should discuss the way in which this problem can be explained by the racist rhetoric and attitudes of various officials and policy-makers.

There are several examples that can be useful in illustrating this problem. For instance, it is possible to consider Jim Crow laws enacted in Southern states after the Reconstruction. Moreover, one can discuss crime prevention policies implemented by the Clinton administration in the nineties. Overall, the reforms carried out by the government in the nineties bear some similarities to Jim Crow laws; firstly, both of them were partly premised on rhetoric that dehumanized African Americans; furthermore, in each case, the measures taken by the state resulted in the victimization of many black people.

The Racist Rhetoric Underlying Criminal Justice Policies

The Dehumanization of a Social Group

To compare Jim Crow laws and the reforms implemented by the Clinton administration, one should first identify the arguments that were used to justify these policies. In this case, it is vital to discuss the concept of dehumanization and its far-reaching implications. In his book, Eric Enge describes this notion as the strategy aimed at denying the humanity of an individual or a social group (3).

For example, one can refer to various statements emphasizing the idea that some people are completely devoid of the qualities essential for a human being. Any racist ideology is premised on the assumption that some people lack intelligence, empathy, or the ability to live in a society. In some cases, social elites can support this rhetoric because it may serve their political and economic purposes. For instance, it can ensure that the dispossessed classes are deprived of any opportunities to raise their status in society. Very often, this policy results in various atrocities committed against certain social groups.

Racism during the Jim Crow Era

Dehumanization of black people is one of the practices that helped to make Jim Crow laws more legitimate and acceptable. This rhetoric was widespread among advocates of racial segregation in the United States. In her book, Sonja Lanehart describes several ways in which official propaganda could deprive black people of their dignity. For instance, it is possible to mention various caricatures that described African Americans as docile and obedient servants who lacked intelligence (Lanehart 749). At the same time, they could be portrayed as violent and sexually aggressive (Lanehart 846). In this case, one can accept the common racial stereotype according to which black males were willing to attack white women.

Despite the overt differences between these two arguments, each of them was supposed to demonstrate that black people could not become full-fledged citizens. Furthermore, this was aimed at showing that African Americans were inferior human beings. Thus, the public and policy-makers did not attach much importance to the value of these people’s lives. Moreover, such a representation resulted in various forms of violence to which black people were exposed. Certainly, it is not the only reason that contributed to this outcome; however, the effect of racial propaganda cannot be disregarded.

Racist Representation of Black Youth during the Early Nineties

Unfortunately, the elements of racist rhetoric were adopted by later generations of American governmental officials. In particular, it is possible to mention the policies implemented by the Clinton administration since they were also based on racial biases, at least to some extent. This claim is particularly relevant to the description of young people who joined gangs operating in large cities like New York or Chicago.

For example, in her speech, Hilary Clinton referred to these individuals as “super-predators” who were completely devoid of empathy (“1996: Hillary Clinton on “Superpredators” (C-SPAN)”). Moreover, these people could often be called “thugs” (Cournoyer 123). On the whole, they were compared to aggressive animals that were completely unable to live in a civilized society.

Although these statements were not directly aimed against black youth, this argument can be called racist. Policy-makers, who expressed such opinions, knew that black teenagers, especially those living in inner cities, were significantly overrepresented in urban gangs. Furthermore, they were more likely to engage in different forms of illicit behaviors. The key issue is that government officials did not discuss why these young people were more likely to join gangs.

For example, they did not mention that these people were often deprived of educational opportunities. Thus, it was extremely difficult for them to find any gainful employment (Parenti 24). Additionally, they tended to live in impoverished communities in which crime was a widespread phenomenon. As a result, they could perceive crime as something habitual and even acceptable. The key problem is that these people were the victims of injustices created by social institutions. However, they were only portrayed as aggressive individuals who posed a threat to American society. This discussion indicates that the arguments of policy-makers were utterly flawed.

One has to acknowledge that in the case of the Clinton administration, racial biases were less noticeable. In the nineties, it was no longer possible for a government official and public figures to make explicit statements that could openly insult the representatives of ethnic or racial groups. Furthermore, these arguments can be partly explained by the inadequate understanding of the factors that contributed to the increased level of crime among some social groups.

Additionally, this rhetoric could be motivated by political considerations. According to Naomi Murakawa, Democrats were willing to show that they were ready to fight various forms of crime (qt. in Camp and Heatherton 191). To win voters’ trust, they often adopted an argument used by Republicans who wanted to take punitive measures against gangs. Nevertheless, such assertions portrayed black teenagers as aggressive and anti-social individuals who were completely incapable of living in society.

From the perspective of Justin Hansford, such arguments reflect the long tradition of various policies aimed at subjugating African Americans (qt. in Camp and Heatherton 181). To a great extent, they paved the way for various tendencies such as police brutality, increased incarceration, and excessive use of deadly force.

Repressive Policies of the State and Their Effects on African Americans

The Jim Crow Era

Racist ideology legitimized many repressive policies that marginalized African Americans; moreover, it had a strong effect on the functioning of the criminal justice system. The Jim Crow era fully demonstrates the dangers of a worldview in which some people are inferior to others. The laws enacted during the period from 1880 to 1950 created an environment in which African Americans were treated as second-class citizens.

In particular, they were denied economic and educational opportunities that could allow them to strengthen their position in society. For instance, they did not have the right to attend white schools (Brown and Stentiford 196). Furthermore, they often did not have access to appropriate medical services (Brown and Stentiford 196). In most cases, employers could safely discriminate against blacks. To a great extent, the laws adopted in many Southern states were aimed at demonstrating that African Americans would always be subjected to white control.

The functioning of the criminal justice system was also based on an assumption that black people were second-class citizens. One should mention that during the Jim Crow era, African Americans often became the victim of lynchings that were often orchestrated or supported by local officials (Kirchmeier 125). If a black person was suspected of any serious offense, he/she could be killed without any trial. It is estimated that 4,743 people were killed by the mob; at least 3,446 of these victims were African Americans (Kirchmeier 125). One has to acknowledge there were some efforts to stop these brutalities.

For instance, some legislators insisted on sending federal troops to the states where lynchings were widespread (Kirchmeier 125). Nevertheless, there was strong opposition to the policies that could empower or at least protect African Americans. People who took part in such killings were usually acquitted by white jurors. In turn, law enforcement agencies failed to take precautions that could prevent such incidents. In cases when black people were tried by courts, they were more likely to receive a death sentence.

On the whole, the example of the Jim Crow era shows that racism can lead to the creation of social institutions that orchestrate or facilitate violence against a social group. In this case, people who are discriminated against do not have any chance of protecting their interests. The ethical duty of government officials is to recognize the threat of this trend. Moreover, it is essential to minimize these risks before they can fully manifest themselves.

The Policies of the Clinton Administration and Their Negative Impacts

There are several examples of misguided policies implemented by the Clinton administration, and one of them is the adoption of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act (VCCLEA) in 1994 (Parenti 26). This law was supposed to provide additional financial resources to police departments and other law enforcement agencies. In particular, these organizations received $ 30.2 billion; as a result, they were able to recruit about 100.000 new officers (Parenti 26).

The key problem of this approach is that it did not address the underlying causes of crime in large metropolitan areas. Instead, this legislative act was mostly focused on punitive measures. To a large extent, this initiative was built on the assumption that the government should concentrate on the prosecution of criminals, rather than the elimination of inequalities resulting in deviant behaviors. This issue is completely overlooked by government officials who emphasized only the role of penal institutions.

There were other initiatives that marginalized black people as well as other minorities. For instance, one can refer to the broken windows policy that was supposed to increase public safety in large cities such as New York (Giuliani and Bratton 4).

This strategy was a response to the growing public concern about the insecurity of large metropolitan areas. This policy was based on the idea that by criminalizing different forms of deviance, the government could prevent more serious offenses (Giuliani and Bratton 4). Young African Americans living in inner cities were strongly affected by this strategy. Many of these people were put in prison; however, such measures did not impel them to become law-abiding citizens. Regular interactions with convicted offenders forced these people into the world of crime.

Many critics of such policies argued that the steps taken by the government could be explained by the desire to suppress the class struggle. The excessive focus on policing was an attempt to ensure that black people had no opportunities for taking part in protests that could threaten the power of the elites (Parenti 26). For instance, policy-makers were extremely concerned about the riots that broke out in Los Angeles (Parenti 26). It is essential to discuss how these policies contributed to the victimization of African Americans.

While examining the excessive use of deadly force by police officers against African Americans, one should first mention that, for a long time, there were almost no procedures for documenting and reporting such events. The VCCLEA included a requirement according to which law enforcement agencies were supposed to report such incidents; however, this provision was not adequately enforced (Bureau of Justice).

Nevertheless, there are some data that can highlight the extent of this problem. For instance, one can refer to the report published by the New York Police Department. According to this document, African Americans represent approximately 75 percent of the people who were unintentionally shot by police officers (New York Police Department 26). Thus, they were more exposed to the risk of police brutality.

Moreover, it is difficult to say that the VCCLEA led to a decrease in the use of deadly force. In 1994, when this bill was enacted, there were 29 people killed by police officers in New York; in 1996, 30 individuals were killed (New York Police Department 50). Thus, one can argue that the initiative undertaken by the Clinton administration did not immediately produce the expected results. Moreover, it did not create mechanisms that could help African Americans and other minorities living in impoverished communities.

It is also possible to consider the situation in Chicago, the city in which African Americans were strongly exposed to the risk of police brutality. In this case, the adoption of the VCCLEA did not introduce additional safeguards against the use of deadly force. Moreover, officers of the Chicago police department were more likely to resort to deadly force when they encountered young black males (Fyfe 98). Thus, it is possible to say that the policies implemented by the Clinton administration did not produce the expected improvements.

Researchers note that these problems affected many other communities; they existed at the national level. In particular, Hispanics and Blacks were shot much more often than whites (Fyfe 98). Additionally, they were more likely to be bitten by police dogs (Fyfe 98). On the whole, there was a bigger chance they would endure various forms of violence. Unfortunately, in many cases, these people lost their lives due to the biased attitudes of police officers. Such problems manifested themselves in large metropolitan areas and smaller neighborhoods.

One has to acknowledge that these racial disparities existed long before the Clinton administration. In the seventies and eighties, researchers recognized the problem of police brutality and excessive use of deadly force. Furthermore, they understood that African Americans were overrepresented among individuals killed by police officers (Fyfe 98). It is even possible to say that this problem was much more acute during previous decades.

The key issue is that the Clinton administration failed to understand the origins of the problem. For instance, they paid much attention to the mechanisms that could impel African Americans to engage in illegal behavior. More importantly, they tacitly accepted the racist rhetoric that marginalized and victimized black individuals. Certainly, some of these people could be guilty of serious crimes. Nevertheless, in many cases, law enforcement agencies treated African Americans as inferior citizens whose rights and interests could be disregarded. Overall, the reforms adopted by the government led only to increased incarceration and victimization of black individuals, but not to the creation of a safer society.

The Legacies of Racism

The problems that existed in the nineties have not been fully addressed by society. African Americans are still overrepresented in the prison population. Furthermore, they constitute a disproportionately large part of those people who are killed by police officers (Dempsey and Frost 151). This tendency can be observed in various parts of the United States. This situation points at two important issues that should not be overlooked by policy-makers.

Firstly, at present, many African American people are deprived of economic opportunities, and these hardships sometimes force them to commit crimes. However, it is also possible to speak about the impact of racial biases on the work of the criminal justice system (Dempsey and Frost 151).

In particular, one should draw attention to the role of police officers whose decisions can profoundly impact the experiences of individuals. Certainly, there are some improvements. At present, researchers and policy-makers are more aware of the factors that lead to crime. Additionally, at present, they attach more importance to prevention policies and social support that can prevent people from committing offenses. Nevertheless, the victimization of African Americans by the criminal justice system still remains a serious problem.


This discussion shows that the reforms implemented by the Clinton administration contributed to the victimization of black people. In part, these policies can be compared to the Jim Crow laws existing during the period from 1880 to 1920. The main similarity between them is that they were based on racist rhetoric that deprived African Americans of human qualities. In particular, they were often portrayed as aggressive, antisocial, and unintelligent.

These arguments were used to justify the policies that marginalized these individuals and made them more exposed to the risk of state or mob violence. As far as Jim Crow laws are concerned, one should primarily speak about lynching that denied many people the right to due process, fair trial, and justice, in general. The measures taken by the Clinton government failed to remedy social injustices that forced African Americans into crime. Moreover, they created an environment in which the lives of black people were perceived as something less valuable. Overall, government officials should understand that the problem of crime cannot be addressed only with the help of punitive measures.

Works Cited

Brown, Nikki, and Barry Stentiford. Jim Crow: A Historical Encyclopedia of the American Mosaic. ABC-CLIO, 2014.

Bureau of Justice. “BSG.gov. Web.

Camp, Jordan, and Christina Heatherton, editors. Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter. Verso, 2016.

Cournoyer, Barry. The Social Work Skills Workbook. 8th ed., Cengage Learning, 2014.

Dempsey, John, and Linda Forst. An Introduction to Policing. 8th ed., Cengage Learning, 2015.

Enge, Erik. Dehumanization as the Central Prerequisite for Slavery. GRIN Verlag, 2014.

Fyfe, James. “Too Many Missing Cases: Holes in Our Knowledge about Police Use of Force.” Justice Research and Policy, vol. 4, 2002, pp. 88-102

Giuliani, Rudolph, and William Bratton. Police Strategy No. 5: Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York. NYPD, 1994.

Kirchmeier, Jeffrey. Imprisoned by the Past: Warren McCleskey and the American Death Penalty. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Lanehart, Sonja, editor. The Oxford Handbook of African American Language. Oxford University Press, 2015.

New York Police Department. “NYC.gov. Web.

.” YouTube, uploaded by C-Span. 2016. Web.

Parenti, Christian. “The “New” Criminal Justice System: State Repression from 1968 to 2001.” Monthly Review, vol. 53, no. 3, 2001, pp. 19-28.

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