News & Politics

Charles Blow: The American Justice System Was Designed to Kill Black Men

Police shootings like the one that left Stephon Clark dead are a feature, not a bug.

Photo Credit: Youtube Screencap / CNN

Protests erupted in Sacramento and around the country this week after Stephon Clark was killed by police, the latest in what's become a regular occurrence in America. These protests are necessary and even briefly cathartic, but as Charles Blow writes in his Monday column, the relief they provide is overshadowed by an ugly truth: the American justice system is designed to kill people of color.

Whether it's Trayvon Martin in Florida, Michael Brown in St. Louis, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, or Eric Garner in New York, there is a "ritualization of these traumas in which the shootings serve as catalysts, a lancing of the boil, in which decades of oppression, neglect, desperation and hopelessness finds a venting valve." The protests begin as a response to individual incidents, but as Blow notes, "collectively they are also about communities that feel abused and betrayed in a country that sees them as expendable." 

New policies like body cameras and improved training are ultimately band-aids on a gaping wound. They can make small improvements, but they won't solve the underlying problem. Blow reminds us, "These shootings keep happening and officers are rarely charged with crimes—and even more rarely convicted—because what they are doing is legal."

Blow traces their legality back to a 1989 Supreme Court case, Graham vs. Connor, in which the court ruled, "the Fourth Amendment’s “objective reasonableness” standard overrode the amendment’s protections “against unreasonable searches and seizures,” and even the Fifth Amendment’s admonition that no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Blow continues: 

By ruling that an officer’s use of force must only meet the “objectively reasonable” standard while allowing that “police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments—in circumstances that are tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving—about the amount of force that is necessary in a particular situation,” the court itself laid the groundwork for the extrajudicial killings by police officers that we keep seeing. This ruling has become scripture for law enforcement.

The phrase "objectively reasonable" is a startling subjective standard by which to determine whether a person deserves to live or die. When race, class and gender are factored into the decision-making, he argues, "the 'objectively reasonable' standard can easily become corrupted and used more as a badge of permission and a shield against liability."

Multiple studies support Blow's conclusions, including one from the Center for Policing Equality, which states: “African-Americans are far more likely than whites and other groups to be the victims of use of force by the police, even when racial disparities in crime are taken into account.”

Blow ends this week with a warning for anyone who is still under the impression that we're dealing with a fair system: "Stephon Clark is not only a casualty of this particular shooting, but he is also a casualty of American moral paucity, race-hostile policies and corrosive jurisprudence. The sound of his body falling to the ground became just another beat in America’s rhythm of state-sanctioned tragedy." 

Read the entire column

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Ilana Novick is an AlterNet contributing writer and production editor.