What Does Justice Look Like in the US?: A Few Scattered Thoughts

Growing up as an African-American girl, I was always somewhat aware of the racialized nature of policing in the US. As young as 5 or 6, I was taught not to touch items in the store unless I intended to buy them. I was chided for putting my hands in my pockets, for fear of being accused of theft by the ubiquitous store employees. I heard my father’s stories of his encounters, as a law-abiding Black man, with the United State’s legal system. (Not justice system. It is far too subjective, biased and discriminatory to be called “just.”) I remember, particularly, my father’s spelling of “justice.” He dissected the word with the certainty of a sage- JUST-US. Now, I know he wasn’t the first to do that, but in my mind, he was always first.

A Brief History of Lynching in the US: 1790-1960

Lynching is defined as the extra-legal killing of people by mobs. In the US, lynching stood in for an absent court system. In the 19th century, especially, the US expanded westward at a rapid pace (keywords: Homestead Act, genocide, reservations, etc). Because the US’ national borders & population was expanding west so quickly, the courts were concentrated on the East Coast. So, as a temporary remedy, there was a “circuit court” or basically, traveling judges. HOWEVER, in their absence, lynchings occurred.

Lynchings didn’t stop in the 60s though. Here‘s a good source on the history of lynching in the US. The photographs are telling. Basically, lynching was extra-legal mob violence intended to terrorize communities of color into silence. The reasons cited for lynchings were arbitrary & rooted in the fear of the “other.” There are cases of people of color(POC), especially Black men, who were lynched for testifying against white men in court, or for looking at a white woman. Accusations of raping a white woman were one of the most common reasons cited for lynching men of color- sometimes entire families or communities. Lest I forget- women were also lynched. Here’s a list of Black female lynching victims btwn the years 1886-1957. Between 1882 and 1968, an estimated 4,743 people were lynched in the United States, 3,446 of whom were Black.

Laura Nelson, lynched May 25, 1911, Okemah, Oklahoma, she died trying to protect her son, who was lynched w/ her

The historical record (& sociology, etc) shows that mobs tend to be homogeneous, trigger-happy & jingoistic. Hence, xenophobic lynchings. Now, Blacks, Hispanics & Asians weren’t the only people that were lynched across the US (yes, there were lynchings out West). Immigrants & indigenous people were also targetted by this extra-legal mob “justice” we call “lynching.” Now, the most fascinating & scary part, is this- lynching was a communal activity. Entire communities (of whites) bonded over lynchings. Look at the old pictures of white women & children watching the gory spectacle, intended to send a message to POC- “You are not welcome.”

A notable anti-lynching activist was Ida B. Wells. In 1892, she published a pamphlet and a book on lynchings in the US respectively entitled “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases” and “A Red Record, 1892–1894.” That was in the late 19th & early 20th century. Fast forward to 1951- lynchings are STILL common, in spite of a present justice system. In 1951, Paul Robeson and other prominent activists signed a petition entitled “We Charge Genocide: The Historical Petition to the UN for Relief from a Crime of the United States Government Against the Negro People.” This petition drew on lessons from past genocides. The petition appealed to UN Article II: Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (adopted December 1948). Primarily authored by the Civil Rights Congress, the petition outlined procedures for punishing lynching, asserting that it was genocide. Drawing upon Nazi Germany, the petition argued that genocide leads to fascism, which leads to war- making lynching in the US an int’l issue. Paul Robeson, then-Chariman of the Council on African Affairs & Willian L Patterson, exec. direcor of the Civil Rights Congress delivered the petition to the General assembly of the UN. Among the petition’s signatories were WEB DuBois, George Crockett Jr., Benjamin J. Davis. Also among the petition’s signatories were family members (wives, mothers) of lynching victims. The US delegate voted NO, & Eleanor Roosevelt, US delegate to UN Comission on Human Rights called the petition “an embarrassment.”

“It would be an embarrassment to the US to have its racial practices discussed in an international forum,”

was Eleanor Roosevelt’s response. The petition (“We Charge Genocide…”) posed a direct challenge to the US’ standing as a nation w/ political/moral standing on human rights. Mind you, this was in 1951, in the beginning of the Cold War, when the US was fortifying its position as a world power, post-WW2.

Death Penalty in the US: Racial Discrimination in Sentencing

I’m not in any place to write at length about Troy Anthony Davis, a Black man who was accused & convicted of shooting and killing a cop, Mark McPhail in 1989. I don’t claim to know all of the details about the case, but I do know that he was incarcerated for over 16 years, in spite of the fact that there was no DNA evidence, no weapon, and 7 out of 9 witnesses who testified against him recanted their testimonies. This, among confessions of regret from jurors, the then-District Attorney, and moral pleas from former wardens and medical personnel, seals my conviction that the state of Georgia killed a man in spite of reasonable doubt regarding his guilt. Here is a link to his letter, oublicized just hours before his execution. Though he spent his last hours strapped onto a gurney, while the McPhail family looked on in their bloodlust, his last words were:

“I’d like to address the MacPhail family. Let you know, despite the situation you are in, I’m not the one who personally killed your son, your father, your brother. I am innocent.

The incident that happened that night is not my fault. I did not have a gun. All I can ask … is that you look deeper into this case so that you really can finally see the truth.

I ask my family and friends to continue to fight this fight.

For those about to take my life, God have mercy on your souls. And may God bless your souls.”

Troy Davis, who was executed on the 21st of September 2011, at 11:08pm EST, was not the only death row inmate. There are 3,250 others. Here’s a link on death penalty in the US (Death Penalty Information Center). This fact sheet on the death penalty in the US is very informative. It is interesting that New Mexico doesn’t have the death penalty, but 2 inmates remain on death row there.

76% of murder victims w/ cases resulting in executions were white, although only 50% of total murder victims are white. A study in North Carolina showed that odds of death sentence rose 3.5X among defendants whose victims were white. Racial composition of death row inmates:

  • 44% White (63.7% of the US population)
  • 42% Black (12.2% of US the population)
  • 12% Hispanic (16.3% of the US population)
  • 2% “other” (7.8% of the population)

In California, each execution costs taxpayers $250 MILLION- & that’s beyond the cost of keeping inmates locked up for life. As of January 1, 2011, the state w/ the most death row inmates was the oh-so-liberal state of California w/ 721 death row inmates. Florida had the 2nd largest number of death row inmates w/ 398. Texas came in 3rd place w/ 321 death row inmates. But, Texas is #1 in terms of number of executions. 

Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection:

A few months ago, I was doing research on the color of justice in the US. Looked at how POC are systematically stricken from juries. Racial discrimination in jury selection continues 25 years after Batson v. Kennedy (1986). Check out, U.S. Constitution: Fourteenth Amendment: Juries,“ a legal explanation of racial discrimination in jury selection.

Black jurors are struck out 3X more than whites. And this trend is particularly pronounced in the southern states- which also have disproportionate numbers of People of Color on death row. The 6th Amendment states that defendants in criminal proceedings have a right to speedy, public trial w/ a jury of impartial jurors. A “jury of peers” is not guaranteed in the 6th Amendment, but an impartial jury is- & in this racist nation- folks are all but that. For example, in North Carolina, in 2010, 26 Black death row defendants were sentenced by all-white juries. In South Carolina, one prosecutor struck a Black potential juror b/c he “shucked & jived” as he walked. Studies show that racially diverse juries take longer to deliberate, considering more viewpoints & making fewer factual errors.

But then, the color (and gender) or justice is disproportionately white & male in the US. Look no further than the Supreme Court- Of 112 SCOTUS justices, 4 are women, 2 are Blacks, 1 Hispanic, 2 Catholics, 1 Jew, 106 white men. I point to the judges b/c the application of the law & interpretations of the Constitution depend on the enforcement of judges.

They say that POC can’t be objective b/c they empathize w/ the person being tried (y’know, POC are criminalized…) It irks me that these (disproportionately white) prosecutors claim to be objective when they reap of privilege borne in injustice.

I will not go into the racial make-up of the legal profession in general, but ~3% of attorneys in the US are Black. What is it telling of? It’s telling of a nation that is built upon stolen wealth, labor, where socio-economic inequality is the norm. It’s telling of a nation where education is separate & unequal in terms of race/class (look up bussing, tax-based funding). And then when you get to the post-secondary level, you see that college is not w/n reach for most- esp POC. Student loan debt loads, etc. Then you get to law school. Well… law schools are overwhelmingly white. They are also quite expensive. $150K+ for 3 years. Even after you finish law school, you face an oversaturated legal market, where there are ~15,000 law degree holders than legal positions. That, in a nutshell, is why ~3% of lawyers in the US are Black. It’s not some innate anti-intellectualism or some inferiority.


  1. “As young as 5 or 6, I was taught not to touch items in the store unless I intended to buy them. I was chided for putting my hands in my pockets, for fear of being accused of theft by the ubiquitous store employees.” Heartbreaking. Awesome post, thanks for the facts as heinous as some of them are.

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