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“I went down to the courtroom looking for justice, and that’s what I found—just us.” – Richard Pryor.
In Ferguson, Missouri, the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown sparked a predictably violent reaction. Rage poured out of people. Buildings burned, weapons blazed, tempers boiled over. The news media covered this most recent volcano of violence, like they often do, without much meaningful reflection on the long-simmering lava underneath it.
So let’s step back from the spectacle for a minute and consider those root causes.
The American justice system, starting at the very origin of America itself, has traditionally viewed people of color as second- and third-class citizens. The Constitution famously declared people of African origin as three-fifths of a person. After the Civil War, the American South had disproportionate representation in Congress because of its large black ex-slave populations, but those populations were systematically refused the right to vote—giving the lion’s share of the nation’s legislative power to Southern segregationist politicians. Even today, long after the eras of slavery and Jim Crow have officially passed, we still see systematic efforts to disenfranchise and deny the vote to minorities.
This endemic race-based injustice—which stems from the underlying idea that a black or brown life is somehow worth less than a white one—pervades the American justice system to this day.
If you don’t believe it, just take a look at the numbers.
Almost every study shows that whites and people of color commit crimes at approximately the same rates, but America’s prison populations don’t reflect that fact. People of color, who make up approximately 30% of America, represent 60% of America’s prison population. American prisons and jails currently incarcerate one in every 15 African American men and one in every 36 Hispanic men–in comparison to one in every 106 white men. Multiple research projects, many conducted by the United States government itself, show that people of color are disproportionately policed, arrested, jailed, imprisoned and sentenced to death. They are three times more likely to be searched when stopped by police. They often face the threat of police violence, as well—African Americans are almost four times as likely as whites to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.
In fact, the FBI reports that during the years 2010-2012, young black men were 21 times as likely as their white peers to be killed by police.
Those stark realities, along with the ongoing mass incarceration of people of color across the country, have spread an enormous awareness of injustice and bias throughout the African American and Hispanic communities. People in those communities have the very strong sense, backed up by what they see every day, that despite the progress made in civil rights, equal justice continues to elude them.
Without attempting to weigh in on this grand jury’s specific no-indictment decision in Missouri, let’s contemplate what might need to happen in America to begin bringing about a change in the endemic racial bias that plagues our justice system and our entire society.
First, from a Baha’i perspective, the justice system has to rid itself of all racial prejudice, or risk tearing apart our entire culture:
We must banish prejudice. …racial prejudices must disappear, for they are the destroyers of human society. We must become the cause of the unity of the human race. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 25.
Second, every governmental body needs to focus its attention, its budgetary power and its reformative intent on rooting out every trace of racial disparity from its midst:
Third, because our justice systems are only as good, as unbiased and as fair as we are, our entire society itself has to confront the problem of racial injustice. People of color can’t be the only ones who act to breach and break down the racial divide—we all need to own the issue:
According to the teachings of Baha’u’llah all religious, racial, patriotic and political prejudice must be abandoned, for these are the destroyers of the real foundation of humanity… All prejudices are against the will and plan of God. Consider, for instance, racial distinction and enmity. All humanity are the children of God; they belong to the same family, to the same original race. There can be no multiplicity of races, since all are the descendants of Adam. This signifies that racial assumption and distinction are nothing but superstition… All these in the presence of God are equal; they are of one race and creation; God did not make these divisions. These distinctions have had their origin in man himself. Therefore, as they are against the plan and purpose of reality, they are false and imaginary. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 299.
Finally, we need a unified vision of the future to work toward:
The unity of the human race, as envisaged by Baha’u’llah, implies the establishment of a world commonwealth in which all nations, races, creeds and classes are closely and permanently united, and in which the autonomy of its state members and personal freedom and initiative of the individuals that compose them are definitely and completely safeguarded… National rivalries, hatreds and intrigues will cease, and racial animosity and prejudice will be replaced by racial amity, understanding and co-operation. The causes of religious strife will be permanently removed, economic barriers and restrictions will be completely abolished, and the inordinate distinction between classes will be obliterated. Destitution on the one hand, and gross accumulation of ownership on the other, will disappear. – Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 203.