The Cold Hard Truth

The Cold Hard Truth

By J.L. Chestnut, Jr.

Vol. 11, No. 3, 1989, pp. 16, 15

With all the recent useless and stupid killings by blacks there is budding concern by some decisionmakers into the real causes of black crime and violence. Up to now, when that question was raised all we received was a racist wink and, “Well, you know how some blacks are!”

Black violence, like drugs, now threatens even white neighborhoods; hence a belated but urgent white concern in the genuine causes and effects of black criminality and violence.

For forty years I have been concerned with the outrageously disproportionate number of black people who end up in prison and on death row. Poverty, despair, rage, and hopelessness are only part of the problem. Racism in the criminal justice system and in the society at large are also problems.

Blacks comprise about 12 percent of the national population, but 46 percent of those incarcerated in jail are black and almost 41 percent of those on death row are black. These statistics are both true and misleading.

Black people account for 60.7 percent of those arrested for robbery. Caucasians account for 74.8 percent of the people arrested for embezzlement. Fewer than one percent of people convicted for robbery are given probation. More than 85 percent of all convicted embezzlers are placed on probation.

The crimes that are seen as most dangerous also have a racist twist. A lone black street robber is treated as more dangerous than corporations who violate plant safety laws and cause numerous deaths. Moreover, in certain predictable states the incarceration rate of blacks exceeds the national average.

In the same predictable states, far fewer blacks serve as top law enforcement people, lawyers, judges and even jurors. That procedure guarantees the predictable result. It always has. That was one of the reasons for political discrimination and the wholesale denial of the right to vote.

People of color have the fewest resources and are the most vulnerable to the consequences of poverty, disease, despair and rage. A consistent message made by the predominant white culture is that blacks are less than whites and are bad, ugly end generally “no account.” Self-hate and insecurity have been watchwords in black America for 350 years.

Self-worth, pride and dignity are lessons taught by many black families, some black leaders and so-called activists. These lessons, however, are often overshadowed by the awesome and overpowering gap between the “haves and have nots.” Blacks make up 32 percent of the homeless in the United States. Black unemployment is double that of whites.

This stifling poverty translates into poorer schools with a higher dropout rate. A primary method for raising school revenues is property taxes, but schools in poverty areas have a much smaller tax base. I can take you to schools with cockroaches crawling the walls and to classrooms where

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the ceilings are crumbling.

These conditions cannot be corrected by building more prisons. A plausible argument can be made that incarceration increases criminality. A thinking society should be developing alternatives to incarceration as punishment, especially for crimes merely against property and not against people.

After thirty years as a trial lawyer, I say without blinking that the United States’ criminal justice system is being used to destroy people of color, most notably black people and the poor. There must be a change in the part it plays in maintaining the current power relationships in the U.S.

Most of what politicians and public office holders say about crime is not worth listening to. The more they talk the worse the problem gets.


J. L. Chestnut is an Alabama trial lawyer and writer.