The late comedian and griot Richard Pryor once joked that there is no justice in America for Blacks but ‘just us.’ Pryor’s comedic brilliance exposed the ugly truth of the Black experience in America and the fallacy of justice in this nation. We saw that on display this past week with the sentencing of teachers and staff in Atlanta to jail time for altering student outcomes on standardized tests. The fact that the teachers were prosecuted on the grounds of racketeering, a charge usually reserved for organized crime figures and drug dealers, and sentenced to significant jail time is indicative of the abject arrogance and bias embedded in the American judicial system.
Justice is not blind. She is, in fact, possessing 20/20 vision and fully sees the degree to which Black Americans are trampled under her feet. The blindfold is only present to give the appearance of impartiality but we all know she can see clearly through the thin veil.
The Atlanta teachers were subjected to that unique brand of ‘because I can’ arrogance from Judge Jerry Baxter that reeks under the robes of justices who dispense injustice with regularity. It is the same odorous and obnoxious behavior that puts innocent Black people, mostly men, behind bars for decades on the basis of weak evidence, tainted testimony, corrupt prosecutions and biased jurors. The ‘because I can’ privilege bullies public defenders and defense lawyers, and further confirms the opinions of jurors, already predisposed to discount Black defendants, that the declaration of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the Dred Scott decision was right – Blacks have no rights which the white man is bound to respect. Taney’s spirit still infests hundreds of courtrooms and jury boxes throughout this nation.
I doubt if you can find anyone who will defend outright the actions of the teachers in Atlanta or suggest that they are not deserving of some reasonable punishment. What is clear to me is that had these been white teachers, and particularly if they were from a suburban school district, we would have witnessed a much different posture from the sentencing judge. How can I be so sure? Well, just look within school districts and see the disparate treatment of Black children as compared to their white peers for similar offenses. Injustice in America starts early and it flows upward, ruining Black lives along the way.
Black students in Atlanta were cheated long before the 10 Atlanta educators were accused of corrupting the standardized test scores. They were cheated by the collusion of test providers and politicians who under the guise of raising academic achievement have set up a system to defame teachers and erode public confidence in public education for the sake of privatizing a public good. These children are cheated by a politically driven agenda that seeks to replicate the pre-Brown inequities that were uprooted by the civil rights movement but have been seeded again, hidden behind the language of ‘no child left behind’ and ‘market-driven’ education.
The example of injustice cited by most Blacks is the treatment of professional football star Michael Vick on animal cruelty charges for his mistreatment of dogs. Vick was demonized, publicly humiliated and portrayed as the epitome of evil. Yet, when Black children are killed or Black women murdered, there is no sense of national remorse or fervent calls for justice; simply a collective shrug of the shoulders. And on those rare occasions when white police officers who kill Black civilians are indicted and face trial; suddenly the machinery of justice works overtime to exonerate and vindicate. The Atlanta teachers were given no such concessions, even in their plea deals. The only interest of the state was seeing these teachers imprisoned with little regard to whether the victims of this ‘crime’ – students – would fare better if these adults were ordered to perform some act of restorative justice. Their sentences were the ultimate expression of ‘because I can’ delivered on a f*ck you verdict sheet.
During Jim Crow there was the existence of a particular brand of ‘southern justice’ in which the real objective of trial by jury was to legitimize the abuse of Blacks and to intimidate Blacks to preserve white privilege. Blacks then, as the Atlanta teachers did this past week, served as props to send the message of who is in control and who can dispense punishment at will. It is an attitude that runs rampant in local jurisdictions to state courts and right up to the United States Supreme Court. It is why innocent Blacks can be sent to prison, sentences disproportionate to the crime can be meted out to Blacks, and those who violate the rights of Blacks face good odds in receiving minimal punishment or escape any responsibility for their misdeeds.
We have given judges incredible discretion that is often corrupted as we witnessed with the case of Pennsylvania judge Mark Ciaverella who was sentencing mostly minority juvenile offenders to a private detention center in a “Kids for Cash’ arrangement with the center operator. In the name of some mythic ‘rule of law’ we have placed judges on pedestals that we are long overdue in tearing down. Judges deserve no special treatment nor should they be given carte blanche discretion over the lives of individuals. Just as the non-robed can harbor bias, men and women behind the bench do not leave their bias in the chamber or their arrogance in the cloakroom.
The sentences rendered in the trial of the Atlanta teachers remind us once again, as if we need a reminder, of just how deeply flawed we are as a nation. Racial animus is so deeply ingrained in American institutions that our only hope, our only recourse is to fight like hell for the total reformation of the machinery of American democracy. There is still white justice in America for which Blacks pay an unconscionable cost.
Walter Fields is the Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.