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Fear of criminal justice reform rooted in America’s racist past – Part II

criminal justice reform

Special to the Crusader – Part II

A Crusader analysis shows that criminal justice reform is mired in America’s racist past and its unwillingness to correct political narratives that spurn policies that have disproportionately impacted Blacks, Latinos, youth, and the poor.

As scores of Black leaders rallied, advocated, negotiated and fought for human and civil rights for newly freed people, coalitions of white lawmakers, civic, business and religious leaders organized and rallied to circumvent any economic or political gains African Americans achieved. For every one step forward Black feet took, white hands were there to push them three steps back.

It is akin, metaphorically speaking, to being ‘allowed’ to move into a house, and just as you enter the front door with keys in hand, the former homeowner is at the backdoor with a can of gasoline and a match. Black progress has always been met with organized resistance that has been sustained, justified and advanced by public policy. Just like in Vegas, the house always wins.

The Illinois SAFE-T Act has come under fire because of provisions that grant relief to mostly poor defendants who are herded into penal institutions because they are unable to afford bonds. The legislation came after a season of civil unrest as a result of the public lynching of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers in May, 2020, and national calls to “defund the police.”

Seen as a legislative win for progressives in Illinois, and especially Black and brown Chicago, where crime remains a constant focus on nightly news, some observers of history are warning that African American lawmakers and policy leaders must remain vigilant in ensuring the law is not misinterpreted, misapplied or used to cloak more punitive measures set to come.


In the Akan tradition of the country of Ghana, “sankofa” means examining the past in order to chart a path for the future. Symbolized by a mighty bird looking over its shoulder, “sankofa” involves critical examination, analysis and intelligent investigation. The concept teaches us that we must use history as evidence and a guide to what is current and may come.

As the federal government slowly granted “freedoms” to its new Black citizens, it also simultaneously put in place a system of punitive, draconian measures that sought to criminalize and punish Blacks, and especially poor Blacks, in a political sleight of hand.

Though the federal intent was to make all of America safer, stronger and more inclusive of all of its citizens, the impact of its policy decisions were detrimental to African Americans whose ancestors had been considered as little more than property just decades before.

By the time the second Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in 1955, most urban Blacks, who had the right to vote, had been confined to areas in their cities that lacked significant investment, employment, transportation and housing.

African Americans in the South, who continued to be disenfranchised, were trapped into an agricultural system that had only recognized them as workers. Black farmers and mill workers could barely feed their families.

According to the U.S. Census, in 1955 the median household white income was $4,400. The mean income of Blacks, particularly in the South, at that time was less than $130 a month. Innovation and technological advances in farming and crop production put both Blacks and whites out of work and on the breadline.

The welfare system, created in 1935 by President F.D. Roosevelt, did little to aid its most vulnerable citizens, even though most Black families learned to make due.

The Black Church carried the brunt of stabilizing families impacted by the economic hardship. Federal relief programs later worked to divide struggling Black households and boosted the creation of the child welfare system that today has caused thousands of Black infants and children to be placed into foster care or state homes.

Low wages combined with illiteracy, joblessness, access to weapons, the proliferation of narcotics and alcohol consumption in Black neighborhoods, on top of racial profiling and aggressive policing, led further to the destabilization of Black families.

So when President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” during his 1964 State of the Union Address, Black people hoped this was an answer to the pleas for assistance in addressing the nation’s reluctance to embrace Blacks as full citizens.

Few people realized the flip side of that coin was the president’s “War on Crime,” which only supported the lie that “Black criminality” was innate and sometimes predisposed.

President Johnson’s ongoing wars were primarily crusades against Black, poor white and immigrant communities, with African Americans bearing the brunt. This domestic campaign was couched under the hood of other Great Society laws, which the Texan claimed would eradicate American poverty and make the nation safer.

Both domestic policy initiatives came at the height of “the Movement” that saw Blacks destroying Jim Crow laws and asserting civil, human and constitutional rights.

But as the nation swayed under the weight of Black advocacy, political unity and global scrutiny, its lawmakers, policy leaders, and financial masterminds also shifted—into defense mode. Shortly after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and one week before Johnson sent the ’65 Voting Rights Act to Congress, the southern Democrat urged legislators to pass the Law Enforcement Assistance Act (LEAA) in March of that year—along with its $10 million budget.

It was not hard to convince Congress, thanks to national and sensational reports on televised news showcasing angry, Black youth throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails through store windows. Reverend Martin Luther King’s activist pastors and youth from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were characterized as troublemakers who broke the law and were attempting to disrupt America’s way of life. Under that framing, Congress felt it had no choice but to act.

LEAA was the administration’s direct response to civil unrest that had gripped cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York City’s Harlem, as Blacks and others rallied for human and civil rights relief.

The legislation gave the federal government more responsibility in how local police, courts and state prisons conducted their business. This act, followed by President Ronald Reagan’s subsequent “War on Drugs” and Bill Clinton’s eventual “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994,” has led to catastrophic inequity, racial disparity and the destabilization of predominantly Black families and neighborhoods throughout the country.

“My impression back then was that our criminal justice system was infected with racial bias, much in the same way that all institutions in our society are infected to some degree or another with racial and gender bias,” Professor Michelle Alexander told the New Yorker on the tenth anniversary of her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”

“But what I didn’t understand at that time was that a new system of racial and social control had been born again in America, a system eerily reminiscent of those that we had left behind.”

Alexander said that after tracing policing patterns she began to “see how the police were behaving in radically different ways in poor communities of color than they were in middle-class, white, or suburban communities,” she explained.

“I mean, this wasn’t a shock to me in any way, but the scale of it was astonishing: seeing rows of Black men lined up against walls being frisked and handcuffed and arrested for extremely minor crimes, like loitering, or vagrancy, or possession of tiny amounts of marijuana, and then being hauled off to jail and saddled with criminal records that authorized legal discrimination against them for the rest of their lives.”

What she and many other civil rights, prison reform and legal activists were witnessing was the strengthening of the racist Black Codes being cemented into U.S. criminal justice policy.

Prior to Johnson’s wars and Clinton’s move three decades later, President John F. Kennedy tackled adolescent delinquency and created the “Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act.” After its signing in 1961, the legislation started the nation’s slow descent into criminalizing certain segments of young people.

Passed both houses of Congress, the law authorized federal grants to develop techniques and train personnel to control or prevent juvenile delinquency. It was coordinated with police, courts, welfare agencies, health departments, schools, employment offices, business and civic groups and labor unions.

On the surface level and in theory, Kennedy’s aggressive policies would curtail youth delinquency and dropout rates. However, in practice the control act expanded policing and government supervision in Black and poor neighborhoods, though with a special focus on youth. It became ‘criminal’ not to go to school or to hang out on street corners or appear idle and without social constraints—and the parents of such youth could be equally criminalized.

According to Professor Elizabeth Hinton in “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime,” Kennedy’s “new legislation placed the label ‘potentially delinquent’ on any urban youth of color who had family members with arrest records, attended public schools, lived in public housing, or received welfare benefits.”

In the meantime, states were quick to decriminalize behaviors associated with white youth—only after noticing too many of them were being stigmatized as criminals.

Though it would take another two decades before American youth, Black and male, would be labeled as “super predators,” domestic policy combined with biased social science, data and social unrest, would be the fuel needed to justify the crime policies that were to come.

After the murder of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., President Johnson pushed for the Safe Streets Act of 1968, which placed $400 million in various states to strengthen local police departments and combat rising crime. The offenses most in the forefront of the minds of lawmakers and the general public were images of angry Black youth who had taken to the streets in anguish and rage when King was assassinated in Memphis.

The news was filled with sensational stories about threats to police officers, aided by the emerging image of militant Black youth, some of whom were clad in black leather jackets and gloves in Oakland, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.

THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE’S Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) labled many Black youth active in the civil rights movement as threats to the system and was the front needed to lead to the harsh policies of President Richard Nixon.

As the Justice Department’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) implemented covert campaigns against dissidents and others deemed as threats to the system, the carceral state ballooned. The U.S. Crime Commission, and the sister agencies it funded, spat statistic after statistic that justified these harsh policies.

But the fight for justice and equity for Black people continued, expanding to campaigns of farm workers, women’s rights groups, workers’ rights and gays decrying human rights abuses and discrimination. For every social win, there was a punitive, governmental response.

Next week: Part III:  From the War on Drugs to Rodney King to the Patriot Act.

Reporting made possible by the Inland Foundation.

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