The Political Roots of Racial Tracking in American Criminal Justice

Author: Nina M. Moore
Publisher: New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 379p.
Reviewer: David Schultz | March 2016

Two facts connect the recent deaths of Samuel DuBose, Michael Brown, and Sandra Bland. All three victims were Black, and all three involved police officers. The protests in Ferguson, Missouri and across America by Black Lives Matters aims to highlight the racial disparities in policing in the United States, describing a world where African-Americans are treated differently than Whites, making them victims of a racially discriminatory criminal justice system. Yet despite repeated stories regarding excessive force by police against Blacks, evidence of racial profiling, and a War on Drugs that has led to the mass incarceration of African-Americans, there is little momentum to confront the racism at the center of the American criminal justice system. Explaining why is the subject of Nina Moore’s comprehensive and compelling book.

Moore’s starting point in chapter one is arguing that there exist two criminal justice systems in the United States. There is the system that Caucasians experience and then there is the one that Black America confronts. For Caucasians, police are there to serve and protect. Police are generally friendly, courteous, and more often than not, respond to Whites as victims of crime. But in cases where Caucasians are suspects, defendants, or convicted of crimes, they are treated differently than Blacks. Blacks live in a criminal justice system where they have good reason to fear it. Police target them in stops, detain them longer, are more likely to search them, and/or use excessive force against them. Prosecutors charge them more heavily, ask for larger bail, and judges and juries are more likely to convict and incarcerate. Jails and prisons are more populated with Blacks as a proportion of the population than Caucasians. Moore provides compelling and overwhelming statistics to support all these claims, substantiating a huge racial divide in the American criminal justice system.

That said, the more important question is not to prove the racial divide but instead to explain it. This is the real strength of Moore’s book. Chapter two develops a public policy model to explain the racial bias. While it is easy to argue that the existence of a distinct criminal justice system for Blacks is the product of individual discrimination – namely racist cops, prosecutors, or judges – Moore takes the argument deeper. She contends that public support and acquiescence in this racial disparity sustains it, despite wide-spread knowledge in many cases that racism exists. In effect, in the interest of supporting law and order, racial justice has taken a backseat.

Chapters three through eight successively examine various theories seeking to explain the bifurcated American criminal justice system. Chapter three looks at US Supreme Court opinions, indicating how generally those overlooked race when came to major criminal justice opinions regarding search and seizures, police stops, questioning, punishment, and the death penalty. This was not just true in the Chief Justice Rehnquist and Burger Courts, but even during the tenure of Chief Justice Earl Warren.  Chapter four looks at attempts to address race in Congress. While some members have sought fixes, for the most part Congress has ignored or underplayed race as an issue.

Chapters six and seven provide the policy rationale for why race has been ignored. Moore argues that up until the mid-1960s, both the Democrats and Republicans were willing to support a civil rights agenda within the criminal justice system. But the race riots of the 1960s, and then the Nixon and the Reagan war on drugs played on the fears of white America. Nixon’s 1968 election is the starting point where Republicans began the use of a southern and suburban strategy to appeal to these white fears of crime. First Republicans mostly alone, and then with the support of Democrats including President Clinton, found it to their electoral advantage to get tough on crime and to ignore the racial roots of crime in America. Contrary to the recommendations of the Kerner Commission (appointed by President Lyndon Johnson after the riots of the late 1960s) which saw the causes of crime and riots in urban America as being rooted in racism, politicians responded to broad public perceptions that the promotion of law and order took precedence over racial justice. Public officials and the political system simply and smartly responded to public opinion, which endorsed this approach. Electorally, it made sense to ignore the racism within the criminal justice system.

Chapter eight looks at the media and public opinion. First, Moore points out that public opinion in general, and Black opinion specifically, share many of these prejudices and assumptions about crime. There is general awareness of racial disparities and prejudice but also broad support across race to endorse a get tough on crime approach, even if it means sacrificing racial fairness. Second, Moore also looks to how the media and pop culture perpetuate the stereotypes of Blacks as criminals. Such stereotyping plays into cognitive beliefs, making such programming commercially lucrative while also serving to reinforce preexisting beliefs.

By the time one finishes this book, one is left with a sobering picture of criminal justice in America. There is no silver bullet of reforms. The criminal justice system responds to political pressures to ignore race, pressures which in turn are a response to public views on race, which in turn are cued by the mass media, which in turn is influenced by pre-existing societal attitudes, which ironically the media’s programming reinforces. There is thus a perfect input, output, feedback policy loop that sustains the status quo.

The Political Roots of Racial Tracking in American Criminal Justice may well be the best book thus far written on race, politics, and crime in America. Its’ strengths include the data the author amasses to support her conclusions, the near encyclopedic review of the literature on the subject, and the contextualizing of her analysis within a policy framework that demonstrates how strongly so many forces come together to reinforce a dual criminal justice system in America. The challenge, as Nina Moore points out, is how then to change the policy inputs that sustain the status quo. This is perhaps the most important task that Black Lives Matter is undertaking now.

David Schultz, Professor, Department of Political Science, Hamline University, St Paul, MN, 55104.

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