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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Outraged over Guantánamo? Why not San Quentin?

In 8 October 2007 issue of The New Yorker, there is a really good essay in The Talk of the Town section in the front of the mag ... by Steve Coll. He's written a number of books which also look interesting. For example, Ghost Wars : The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004) ISBN 1-59420-007-6.

His essay is about the Jena Six and how Jena, Louisiana is not the worst of the worst as far as racial discrimination is concerned and how blacks are sentenced. His point is that the disparity between how blacks and whites are sentenced is the norm or as he puts it, "the national embarrassment." He states that the number of blacks in prison has quadrupled since 1980.


He goes on:
The state of Louisiana, true to its reputation for rococo extremism in all matters political, locks up in prison a higher percentage of its population--black, white, and all other races combined--than any other state in the nation. It might be of some comfort to politicians, then, if the Jena case, like the disgraceful treatment of displaced African-American victims of Hurricane Katrina, could be rationalized as an isolated, swamp-inspired exception to a more temperate American norm.

The opposite is true, however. In July, the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group, released a state-by-state study of prison populations that identified where blacks endured the highest rates of incarceration. The top four states were South Dakota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Vermont; the top ten included Utah, Montana, and Colorado--not places renowned for their African-American subcultures. In the United States today, driving while black--or shoplifting while black, or taking illegal drugs, or hitting schoolmates--often carries the greatest risk of incarceration, in comparison to the risk faced by whites, in states where people of color are rare, including a few states that are liberal, prosperous, and not a little self-satisfied. Ex-slave states that are relatively poor and have large African-American populations, such as Louisiana, display less racial disparity.

Discrimination in the American justice system is not only a Deep South thing; it is a national embarrassment. Tocqueville, who initially came to America to study its penal system, might wonder how a democracy can so earnestly debate the justice of detaining foreign nationals at Guantánamo while displaying not a whiff of discomfort about the record number of its own citizens--now more than two million--stuffed into jails and prisons, or about the causes of racial disparity in this forgotten population.

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