When Justice Wasn't Blind


What are the experiences of African-Americans in the criminal justice system? And what forces led this community to be so intertwined with the justice system? African Americans and Criminal Justice: An Encyclopedia is a newly released effort to explore these questions.

The encyclopedia provides a unique overview of the wide range of African-American experiences with the law and justice system, starting with Colonial times. In addition to chronicling the racial origins of legislation enacted by many states and the federal government during the country's early years—and after— the volume highlights individual stories of courage exhibited by African-American lawyers advocates, and leaders who played critical roles in the long (and still unfinished) effort to fulfill the country's founding ideal of equality before the law.

Professor Delores Jones-Brown, director of the Center on Race, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and a former New Jersey prosecutor, who co-edited the book with Beverly D. Frazier and Marvie Brooks, spoke with Cara Tabachnick, managing editor of The Crime Report, about the connection between racial legislation and the criminal justice system, the story of Dollree Mapp from Mapp v. Ohio, and the first black serial killer.

The Crime Report: Why did you decide to become involved in this book?

Delores Jones-Brown: I was approached by Greenwood to do an Encyclopedia on African-Americans in Criminal Justice for a series they have called “American Mosaic.” The reason why there were doing an encyclopedia at all on this is because of the disproportionate relationship between African Americans and the criminal justice system.

TCR: Explain the process behind choosing the cases to illustrate these ideas.

DJB: It isn't about individual cases, but these cases illustrate how the criminal justice system has always been an intricate part of the history of African Americans. (Today) we are taught that because black people are involved in crime, the criminal justice system is such an intricate part of their lives. But for someone like myself who is a race and legal scholar, I understand that it was the crafting of laws, both criminal and civil, that introduced the system to the lives of African (slaves in the U.S.). It was a means of control; and that legacy continues.

TCR: Tell us about the early crafting of that legislation.

DJB: While the United States is philosophically dedicated to the liberty and justice narrative, the Federal Constitution allowed the importation of African slaves to continue to 1808. A section of the Constitution counts black people as 3/5 of a human being, and also required people to return a runaway slave to their masters or be subject to criminal penalties. That is the federal involvement at a very high level with a deprivation of liberty, not only for African-Americans but also for people who thought this was unfair and hoped to help and were penalized as a result.

Individual states also had laws that restricted the movement of people of African descent. Even free blacks were not allowed to live in some states. If they moved into those states they could be subject to arrest and incarceration. There was legislation that prohibited black people from certain kinds of employment; they couldn't work as clerks in stores, they couldn't do work that involved reading and writing. There were statutes that made it against the law for blacks to become educated or to attempt to educate blacks.

There were also laws that allowed white men to rape black women with impunity, but there were laws that subjected black men to the death penalty if they raped white women.

TCR: Was this throughout the country or mostly in the South?

DJB: Most of the laws I just described were in the South, but there were also plenty of restrictions in the North. In Boston, blacks had their education restricted. Ohio, while seen as liberal in some regards did have communities where (interracial) marriage was illegal, and black and white people were forbidden from to going to the same school or to socialize together. In both the north and south, there were (laws forbidding) blacks to own and carry firearms.

TCR: Were there cases or ideas that particularly engaged your attention while editing the book?

DJB: One of my favorite cases was Mapp v. Ohio, which created the exclusionary rule. I'm sure many readers didn't know that Dollree Mapp, was an incredibly attractive African-American woman, whose house was intruded on with the idea that they were looking for a terrorist. But the case actually centered on drawings that were found in her house when police entered without a warrant. The boxing promoter Don King is implicated as a person who told the police to go to Dollree Mapp's house (in Cleveland) because he said there was a terrorist there. The background of this case is not one that is not well-known.

We don't often think of a black serial killer. One story that really stuck out to me was the description of Kendall Francois, who was the first black serial killer. There were also little known victims of police violence, such as the stories of Margaret Mitchell and Anthony Dwayne Lee.

TCR: What do you want the takeaway for readers to be?

DJB: Readers should get caught up in the current discourse about the involvement of blacks and crime as the reason why the criminal justice system is such an intricate part of black life. The system is based on white supremacy in the U.S. By virtue of your black racial identity, you still have a great chance of having some contact with the criminal justice system.

We didn't make the book about just offenders and victims. We also have black lawyers, black judges, black families that have worked to try to make a fairer system. There is a broad view of the connection between race and criminal justice system-processing with elements of fairness and unfairness. This is from a long history of connection between race and crime, one that the government made, not one that was created by the behavior of black people.

Cara Tabachnick is managing editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes your comments.

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