47 Months: A Case Study in Systemic Racism and Why The Time for Tokenism is Over

47 Months: A Case Study in Systemic Racism and Why The Time for Tokenism is Over

There is righteous - and right - outrage at Judge T.S. Ellis’ feather-light sentence on Paul Manafort in the case against him in Virginia. The sentencing guidelines called for the imposition of a 20-year sentence, but Judge Ellis took it upon himself to ignore the guidelines and sentence Manafort to 47 months.

It’s not that Ellis has any great general opposition to imposing harsh sentences, even on men of means. In 2009, Judge Ellis sentenced former Rep. William Jefferson - who committed crimes similar to what Paul Manafort was convicted of by the Virginia jury - to 13 years in prison, about half the time recommended in the government’s sentencing memorandum. In contrast, Paul Manafort got less than a quarter of the time prosecutors outlined in his sentencing memo. William Jefferson, though, is black.

This isn’t about resources. This is about race. This is what racism is about.

When we utter the word ‘racism’, most people automatically think of epithets, terms used to refer to individuals. Or a little more advanced, we think of phobias that individuals hold against groups of people. And racism is in part about that: the conscious and subconscious thoughts, words and actions of individuals, epithets and attitudes directed from individuals to other individuals or groups.

But racism is far less about the individual epithets and far, far more about systemic, institutionalized, normalized disparity in the treatments of whole groups of people. It is more about attitudes that are ingrained in the bricks that make up our justice system than about stereotypes harbored by individuals, without excuse though those might be.

As I noted in a twitter-thread last night,

Racism is a deep-seated institutional scourge in multiple facets of American life, not the least of which is its criminal justice system. And even when it comes to the criminal justice system, racism isn't just about the made-up disparity between crack and powdered cocaine.

We can go over the statistics. We know that in America, African Americans constitute three times as much of the prison population than they do the general population, and in some states certain “progressive heroes” hail from, the problem is worse. Imprisoned black Vermonters, for example, comprise 9 times their share of the general population. We know black and brown people are prosecuted more often, convicted more often when prosecuted, and receive longer sentences when convicted.

We know that bail for black defendants are set, on average, $10,000 higher than that of white defendants, given they stand accused of similar crimes. We know that 70% of people in jail are presumed innocent but cannot pay bail, and that a disproportionate number of them are black and brown.

But the statistics are merely snapshot measurements of a very ill criminal justice system. The statistics are a window into an ugly reality. Once again from my Twitter thread:

Racism in the criminal justice system is about who is prosecuted, who is held accountable when prosecuted, and what consequences they suffer. It's about white people getting the benefit of being a "first time offender", and black people... not.

And, finally, in the criminal justice system, racism is very much about "white collar crimes." Somehow, someway, the theft of our democracy by white man who's made millions working for a foreign adversary is seen as less of a 'crime' than a black boy who shoplifts.

Or hell, a black or brown boy who pays for their items and then gets gunned down for wearing a hoodie. The shooter then goes free because tall black boys in a hoodie are perceived to be a threat - both by our criminal justice system and in our individual minds.

But a white man in a suit who cries about how hard this process has been on HIM - not what a betrayal he has brought on the country - is looked upon kindly by a judge who is... his peer.

THIS is racism. It is systemic. It's not about epithets. It's about making those epithets come alive through the same institutions that are supposed to guard the rule of law, supposed to guarantee equal justice under law. THIS. IS. RACISM.

The truth is that normalized institutional racism permits the existence of broad social bigotry. Politicians who pretend racism is simply a personal issue and therefore solvable by associating with people of color are - wittingly or not - guilty of perpetuating the true damage of systemic racism. Whether that is a Republican Congressman using a black woman as a silent prop at a Congressional hearing to claim that Trump is not racist, or a “progressive” Senator who has done nothing about institutional racism for 30 years in Congress suddenly pretending to be a civil rights hero on the strength of who is on their campaign payroll, both are pretending that being able to high-five a person of color is a solution to, or an argument against, racism.

It is not. Because racism - or lack thereof - isn’t about your black friends. Especially for those seeking the public trust, racism is about what you have done to make deeply entrenched, institutionalized, normalized racism less so.



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