The Legacy of Jim Crow
by Tomia Lane and Kitaen Jones
In the spring of 2015, Robert, a young black male, stood outside of 201 Poplar Avenue, the location of the Shelby County jail, the City Court Clerk, and Criminal Justice Complex of Memphis. “I’m down here just for a ticket,” he said. “I’m really just trying to see how much I owe.”
Robert had been issued a ticket for failure to stop at a stop sign. “I stopped … but [the police officer] said I didn’t. But he’s the police so whatever he says is going to go. I didn’t argue with him because I didn’t want to have any more problems. I just accepted it and now I’m trying to do what I have to do to take care of it,” he said.
That incident wasn’t the first time that Robert had dealt with Memphis police. He feels as though he’s been targeted by the police. “My license is suspended in Memphis. They were pulling me over for little bitty stuff. At some point in time I do feel like I was being targeted because I am a young black man,” Robert said.
He isn’t the only one who feels as though he has been falsely ticketed.
According to the “Born Suspect” report done by the NAACP last fall, distrust is widespread, but especially pronounced among minorities:
Thirteen percent of African American drivers and 10 percent of white drivers reported having been pulled over by police in a traffic stop. Among those involved in street or traffic stops, African Americans were less likely than whites to believe the police behaved properly during the encounter. Roughly 3 percent of drivers in traffic stops and 19 percent of persons involved in street stops were searched or frisked by police. White drivers involved in traffic stops were searched at lower rates (2 percent) than African American (6 percent) drivers. During both traffic and street stops, the majority of persons who were searched or frisked did not believe the police had a legitimate reason for the search.
The targeting that Robert refers to might be racial profiling. But it’s often difficult to tell because, like many states, Tennessee doesn’t keep records of the race of officers and suspects involved in law enforcement activity. In 2003 the U.S. Justice Department issued “Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies.” The document describes racial profiling as “the invidious use of race or ethnicity as a criterion in conducting stops, searches and other law enforcement investigative procedures.” However, these guidelines, say Human Rights Watch, “only applies to federal agencies, not state law enforcement officers unless they are collaborating in an investigation.”
Racial profiling is a subject that has often been in the news and frequently surrounded by tragedy. After the 2014 death of Michael Brown, a black teenager who was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, the U.S. Department of Justice conducted a three-month investigation. The exhaustively detailed report drew two main conclusions: police and courts there seemed to exist primarily to raise revenue, and racist discrimination in law enforcement was entrenched and systemic:
Data collected by the Ferguson Police Department from 2012 to 2014 shows that African Americans account for 85% of vehicle stops, 90% of citations, and 93% of arrests made by FPD officers, despite comprising only 67% of Ferguson’s population.” Also, according to the report, “African Americans are 68% less likely than others to have their cases dismissed by the court, and are more likely to have their cases last longer and result in more required court encounters.” The Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department report also includes “substantial evidence of racial bias among police and court staff in Ferguson.
Books such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, published in 2010, also provide evidence of how black people (mostly black men) are targeted and “warehoused in prisons or trapped in a parallel social universe, denied basic civil and human rights.” In the nation with the largest prison population in the world, discrimination still abounds, she contends. “We have not ended racial caste in America,” Alexander writes; “we have merely redesigned it.”
The diagnosis is of little comfort to people going through difficult times. Yet, despite his circumstances, Robert for one remains optimistic. “I know I’m not a bad person. I don’t deal drugs. I go to work for my money every day. I shouldn’t have to be going through all this, but I’m blessed,” Robert said.
Another Memphian who is juggling life and fines is Donte Jones, 27. Married with two children, he is a maintenance worker at a local apartment complex in Memphis. Jones has been to jail between seven and 10 times for charges such as driving on a suspended license, theft under $500, criminal trespassing, disorderly conduct, and failure to appear in court.
Over time, he has accumulated about $1,300 in fines, court costs, and paying off lawyers. Jones admits that he doesn’t feel as though he received those charges because he’s a black man, but because he made poor decisions.
“My license has been suspended like four or five times. It could be because of child support, unpaid tickets, or I missed a payment for fines,” said Jones.
He explained how all those times build up. He said that his ticket and court costs may add up to $200 plus an extra $65 dollars for reinstatement. “I also had to pay for a lawyer with my theft of property charge. It was $200 upfront and $300 after the case settled,” said Jones.
On the other hand, he recalled one instance when he says he was arrested because of his race. The night of the 2008 presidential elections was a celebratory one for many in Jones’ apartment complex. Because President Barack Obama was elected into office, many African-Americans of the apartment celebrated together outside their buildings.
“That night it was like 50 people outside our complex, and we were doing absolutely nothing. [But] someone called the police and told them it was 300 black people outside of her window,” said Jones.
When the police arrived things quickly escalated. When officers began making random arrests, bottles were tossed in the air in protest. Jones explains, “The police were throwing people on the ground and arresting [them] for no reason.”
Jones then said that the situation was becoming too dangerous so he decided to go home. “While I’m walking a white police officer is following me saying, ‘Yeah, you better take your ass home.’ As soon as I got right in front of my door, he arrested me.”
Jones was charged with inciting a riot. Those charges were later reduced to disorderly conduct and ultimately dropped all together.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Jones is like many other black men in America, who have a disproportionate number of mishaps with law enforcement. The organization found that African-Americans and Hispanics are about three times more likely to be searched at a traffic stop than a white person, and African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested.
According to the 2010 U.S Census, African-Americans are sent to prison five times more than whites. Blacks make up 13 percent of the population, yet 40 percent of African-Americans are in jail.
Bridgett Stigger, assistant district attorney in the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office, witnesses the cycle of minorities and their dealings with fines often, and she recognizes what’s at stake down the road.
“It may be difficult to pay fees and fines associated with a criminal legal proceeding because of the difficulty in getting a job after having obtained a criminal record,” she said. “A lot of jobs will not hire a person with a felony on his or her record.”
In fact, according to a report by the National Employment Law project, “Nearly one in three adults in the United States–70 million people total–now have an arrest or conviction record. With increasing numbers of employers using background checks to screen out applicants, millions with records–particularly African-Americans and Latinos–are finding themselves locked out of the job market.”
The report also notes that African-American men without a conviction are 40 percent less likely than white men with a conviction to get a call back from a potential job.
Despite these findings, Stigger says people running the system do occasionally show mercy: “Some judges will waive jail fees because they are so high. It’s too onerous.”
To shed light on where high incarceration rates may possibly stem from, Dr. Gregory Washington explains that living conditions often play a vital part.
Washington, associate professor at the University of Memphis Department of Social Work, argues that schools with low funds and children living in low-income neighborhoods can produce unfortunate outcomes: “About 34 percent of the blacks in Memphis live in poverty and 44.8 percent of black children are poor.”
People who have any type of schooling are less likely to be unemployed and imprisoned. “Tennessee spends a little over $8,000 per year per student and almost $25,000 per year per inmate,” said Washington.
This is a difference of about $17,000 per individual per year. Washington suggests that this money could be put to better use and invested back into the community.