Why Black and White Americans See the Justice System Differently

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Photo by Justin Baeder via Flickr

Is the criminal justice system fair?

The answer, it turns out, depends on whom you ask.

The latest episode in a Christian Science Monitor podcast series examining the criminal justice system interviews experts and justice-impacted people to explore the “disconnect” among white and Black Americans in perceptions of policing, courts, sentencing and parole.

A 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly nine in 10 Black adults say Black Americans are treated less fairly than their white counterparts. Only about 61 percent of white adults agreed.

Experts say the way we see the world is based largely on our experiences. And while there are exceptions, “the police act more as an oppressive force when dealing with Black people than in dealing with white people,” says Spencer Piston, assistant professor of political science at Boston University.

“That gap in perceptions of racial disparities is borne out. It’s driven by that experience.”

Reporters looked at how the color of our skin affects views of crime and punishment in America.

Christopher Scott. Photo by Ann Hermes/Christian Science Monitor

Christopher Scott, a Texas man freed in 2009 after being locked up for more than a decade on a wrongful conviction for murder, told interviewers that he was picked up on the basis of a police search for culprit described as a “tall black man.”

The jury “deliberated for only about an hour, [before convicting me],” said Scott, who noted that the judge, jury and attorneys in the courtroom were all white.

“They’re not prosecuting us as individuals—they are really doing it because of the color of our skin.”

Similar experiences are often hard for whites to understand, other experts said on the podcast.

“It’s hard for [people] to explore something they don’t experience,” said one.

“A lot of white people don’t want to acknowledge that they benefit from racial oppression,” said Piston.

Thaddeus Johnson

Thaddeus Johnson

Thaddeus Johnson, author of a landmark study showing that racial disparity in U.S. prisons has begun to decline, said his findings show that the problem of Black imprisonmentand vulnerability to the justice systemstill remains a challenge.

“Things are getting better but the disparities still exist,” a former Memphis police officer who now teaches at Georgia State University and serves as a Research Fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice.

Editor’s Note: Read Henry Gass’ story earlier story, “Innocence Detectives,” on Christopher Scott and Steven Phillips.

Episode 2 of the podcast can be downloaded here. To listen to the other episodes and sign up for the newsletter, please visit the “Perception Gaps: Locked Up” main page. Henry Gass is a staffer for the Christian Science Monitor and a Harry Frank Guggenheim 2020 Justice Reporting fellow at John Jay College. The podcast was part of his fellowship project. Samantha Laine Perfas was story Team Leader for the entire series. Jessica Mendoza was the multimedia reporter.

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