Chapter 3: "The Color of Justice" Summary

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Last Reviewed on March 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1236

Using the example of two victims of a Hearne, Texas, drug raid that was predicated on false testimony from a police informant, Alexander discusses how people of color are disproportionately arrested for and convicted of drug crimes—despite copious evidence that proves whites use drugs at the same or higher rate as black citizens. To understand how a system can have racist results without explicitly racist motives, Alexander says the law enforcement’s unfettered discretion on who or where to search for drugs allows implicit personal bias to influence the demographics of who is labeled as criminals. In addition, the court system makes it nearly impossible for anyone to allege that the system is racist, since explicit evidence that supports this analysis does not exist.

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To explain how the system is racist, Alexander distinguishes drug law-enforcement from other types of police activity. While traditional crimes usually begin with a lead or a tip that directs police toward a specific person, drug crimes are often sought out by the police themselves. This means that law enforcement have total control over whom they select as part of their search for drug crime. Alexander blames the media’s sensationalized coverage of crack cocaine in the 1980s for influencing the average person’s ideas about what a drug abuser looks like. As a result, many people—including law enforcement—target African Americans as potential drug criminals.

However, most people do not consider themselves biased against African Americans, often citing their black relatives and friends as proof. Alexander argues that implicit biases, or those that operate on a subconscious level, can override our conscious desire not to be racist. To explain this, Alexander notes numerous research studies that have confirmed that most white participants harbor unconscious stereotypes about black people. Despite this, most law enforcement and civilians do not accept that they could be making racist assumptions or decisions, making this problem invisible.

To illustrate how the court system protects law enforcement from claims of bias, Alexander details the Supreme Court Case McCleskey v. Kemp. A death-row inmate named Warren McCleskey challenged his death sentence on the grounds that the state of Georgia disproportionately sought the death penalty for black individuals. Despite using statistical analyses to support the validity of his claim, McCleskey did not prevail: the Court said that despite the statistical evidence of bias, there was no proof that the prosecutor in McCleskey’s case was intentionally racially biased. Alexander asserts that the judgement in McCleskey v. Kemp effectively protected the entire justice system from accusations of racial bias.

To further illustrate the racial bias of mass incarceration, Alexander discusses the differences in mandatory minimum sentences among various illegal drugs. Defendants who are in possession of crack cocaine receive far harsher punishments than those in possession of powder cocaine, though these are two different forms of the same substance. This “hundred-to-one” sentencing disparity has profound racial implications, as inner-city black men are more likely to possess crack than powder cocaine, due to its lower sale price. These sentencing rules mean that first-time defendants with small amounts of crack, as in the case of Edward Clary, are given disproportionately long sentences compared to users of cocaine (who are predominantly white). 

Alexander then discusses several court cases challenging racially discriminatory sentencing that were successfully dismissed based on the ruling in McCleskey v. Kemp. In the case of Armstrong v. United States , the Supreme Court ruled that defendants who allege racial bias from prosecutors must...

(The entire section contains 1236 words.)

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