צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף
Justice, justice, you shall pursue! – Deuteronomy 16:20
My children grew up in Oakland, CA. They are two white men, and because they’ve grown up in Oakland, they have many friends who are African Americans or Latinos. Since they were in middle school my sons have seen how their friends are treated by the police and as a result, they are distrustful of law enforcement. Conversely, I tend to trust the cops, because I’m white and grew up in the Southeast. We’ve had many interesting discussions on our differences of perception; over time I’ve come to realize that I’ve lived a very sheltered life in this respect.
We have a crisis of confidence in the USA today, one that undermines our system of laws. People of color believe that they are harassed unfairly by police, that they are arrested more often than white peers, that they are convicted more often and spend more time in prison than white peers. In states that permit the death penalty, they are executed far more often than white peers. In short, many African Americans believe that the entire system of justice is geared to treat them unfairly and that they cannot expect justice from it.
One could write this off as paranoia, except that the statistics bear it out. In “Fourteen Examples of Racism in Criminal Justice System” Bill Quigley has assembled a horrifying list of examples of studies which conclude that the US criminal justice system treats people of color unfairly. While African Americans are only 13% of the US population, they comprise 37% of those arrested for drug offenses, even though studies have shown that they engage in drug offenses at rates comparable to the white majority. That’s just the first item on his list – click the link and read the rest of it.
So when an unarmed African American youth is shot dead in the street by a white police officer in broad daylight, it should not surprise us at all that his family and many others believe that there might be something amiss. Given that his is the latest in a string of highly publicized deaths of unarmed young men of color, it should not surprise us that many people are angry and demand justice. And now that a grand jury has returned from its deliberations behind closed doors with no indictment, it should not surprise us that parts of this nation are overwhelmed with anger and grief.
Judaism teaches us that justice is an essential value. Justice is not only punishment meted out to the wrongdoer; it is also the assurance that the innocent will not be punished. Justice is even-handed towards all classes of people: “You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; you shall not favor the poor, nor favor the mighty; but in righteousness shalt you judge your neighbor.” (Leviticus 19:15) Maimonides insists that judges must have stainless reputations; they must conduct themselves in such a way that not only is justice done, but so that it is seen to have been done. Appearances count: a judge or judicial process which smells fishy is a problem.
President Obama said tonight that “we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.” In other words, he said we have to accept the verdict of our legal system. In practical terms, yes, the grand jury is over and Officer Wilson will never stand trial in a criminal court. But today’s events say loud and clear to me that we must deal with the injustices in our system, precisely because so many people distrust not only this verdict, but the entire system that produced it.
If you are unhappy with the demonstrations, if you are unhappy with today’s verdict, no matter what “side” you are on, surely we can all agree that we should have a system of justice that is truly just, to which every law-abiding person can appeal with confidence. People are out in the street because they believe they cannot trust the legal system or law enforcement. They are not crazy. Again, if you haven’t looked at the list of studies Mr. Quigley offers in his article, I beg that you do so.
The only way to improve our situation is to improve the statistics. For example:
- We need an end to traffic stops that target black drivers. When black drivers are stopped, they should get exactly the same treatment as a white driver in the same circumstances.
- If whites and blacks engage in drug offenses in roughly equal proportions, then arrests should also match those proportions.
- We need to improve the public defender system and insure that every person gets a fair trial, because any individual might be innocent.
- There should be no difference in the length of prison sentences for black and white offenders.
I am sure there are other things that need to be done, and experts who have ideas how to get there. My point is that what we have right now is not a good system of justice, because too many people believe it to be unjust. We must work towards a perception of fairness and justice by all citizens, not just certain privileged groups of citizens.
There is no quick or easy fix. “Justice, justice you shall pursue” cannot be reduced to “chase the bad guys.” Guns won’t fix it, Humvees won’t fix it, slogans won’t fix it, and riots definitely won’t fix it. What we need is a national renewal of dedication to the proposition that all men and women are created equal, that in our nation, justice is indeed for all.