Social Reparations for Racist Incarceration: What Americans Owe Men Like Kalief Browder

Published: Good Men Project (April 28, 2015)

Matthew Rozsa argues that it’s time for Americans to pay their debt to non-whites suffering from racial discrimination.

If Americans truly wish to eradicate the scourge of racial oppression from our nation, we must start by paying our debts.

Last week, The New Yorker obtained footage from two surveillance cameras that depicted the horror of Kalief Browder’s experience on Riker’s Island. As the videos and subsequent interviews confirm, Browder was beaten by a corrections officer and various inmates during his time in prison. He also alleges that officers would starve him as a form of punishment, and records back up his claim that he spent nearly two years in solitary confinement during his three year stay behind bars.

What was his crime? Nothing. That isn’t a turn of phrase – Browder lost three years of his life without having done a single thing wrong.

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.

The moment that changed his life forever occurred in May 2010, as the sixteen-year-old sophomore made his way home from a party. After a strange man accused him of being a thief (the specific details of the charges were never fully divulged to Browder or his attorneys), Browder was arrested and held in a jail cell, despite there not being a shred of evidence connecting him to the crime. Because his family couldn’t afford the $10,000 bail, Browder was forced to remain incarcerated until the courts decided to schedule his trial. Eventually he was transferred to Riker’s Island where, despite having not been convicted of a crime, he was treated like any other inmate. It wasn’t until January 2013 that a judge even heard his case, although Browder rejected the offer  to plead guilty in return for time served; instead he waited until he could receive a fair hearing on the following June, at which point the charges were summarily dismissed and Browder was set free.

Needless to say, a lawsuit against the city is currently pending, although Browder’s attorney hasn’t disclosed additional details about it. While it’s safe to assume that anyone who hasn’t had their heart hardened and brain softened by reactionary racial and/or fiscal views will support generously compensating Browder for his ordeal, there is another debt that Americans owe our non-white citizens. To quote from the opening passage of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech:

“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

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While Americans in 2015 are much closer to realizing King’s dream of racial equality than they were in 1963, we have yet to fully honor our civil rights commitments. To illustrate this point, one need only look through the Bill of Rights:

– The First Amendment: Although our free speech protections include “the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” peaceful protests of racial profiling and other law enforcement abuses frequently end in violence either because of police incitement or local authorities’ refusal to accommodate activists requests. This is exacerbated by the conservative media’s tendency to overhype the few incidents of violence that break out, thereby taking attention away from how the majority of protest activity in cities like Ferguson was non-violent. Even on occasions when the origin of a violent outbreak is more murky – the recent riots in Baltimore are a prime example – it behooves ordinary Americans to limit their condemnation only to the individual protesters who became violent without provocation, rather than using the actions of an unruly minority to justify disregarding the legitimate grievances of the majority they erroneously represent. By dismissing all protesters from a specific movement as predisposed to violence, conservatives only increase the likelihood that future gatherings will also be violent, if for no other reason than they’ll be more inclined to use excessive force.

– The Fourth and Sixth Amendments: The Fourth and Sixth Amendments cover a number of constitutional rights that are routinely ignored when the American citizen in question isn’t white. For instance, imagine how quickly America would do away with racially profiling – which remains rampant and has played a large role in creating the racial disparity in our prison population today – if every citizen was equally protected by the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees their right “to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures” and only allows warrants to be issued “upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Browder in particular would have benefited by a strict observation of the Sixth Amendment, which assured him the right to “a speedy and public trial,” “to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation,” and “to be confronted with the witnesses against him”; beyond that, the Sixth Amendment should guarantee minority criminal defendants racially diverse juries, as a way of offsetting the racial prejudice that has been shown to taint the findings of all-white juries trying non-white citizens.

For far too many non-whites, they still find that the checks they cash for their basic civil liberties are returned with the statement, ‘Insufficient funds.’ America needs to pay up.

– The Fifteenth Amendment: Although the Fifteenth Amendment declares that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” Republican politicians have spent the past few years attempting to suppress minority votes. Their efforts have ranged from passing voter ID laws that disproportionately target minorities to using fraud-prevention software that an  investigation revealed labelled 7 million Americans as voter fraud suspects (despite only 31 credible cases of voter fraud being proved nationwide between 2000 and mid-2014), with the lists disproportionately targeting minority voters. This almost certainly played a role in the sweeping Republican victories during the 2014 midterm elections, which not coincidentally saw a sharp drop in turnout among minorities and other elements of the Democratic base (including women and the elderly) and, consequently, gave white voters more pull at the polls (not surprisingly, the 2014 elections also had the lowest overall voter turnout of any midterm contest since World War II).

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The very fact that Kalief Browder’s name isn’t a household word proves the basic point here. As King observed more than half a century ago, one of the main reasons racial discrimination remains so pervasive is that the same constitutional protections guaranteed to white Americans are ignored for non-whites. Not only did Browder suffer because his Fourth and Sixth Amendment rights as a suspected criminal were disregarded; he was harmed long before, when non-white voters who could have elected politicians that would reform our criminal justice system weren’t allowed to cast their ballots, and when protesters who may have drawn attention to his plight were discouraged in advance by the threat of violence or having their cause libeled by insinuations thereof. For far too many non-whites, they still find that the checks they cash for their basic civil liberties are returned with the statement, “Insufficient funds.”

America needs to pay up.

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