Editor’s note: This column is reprinted from The Spokesman-Review, June 5, 1983. It was written in response to a news article by Ken Sands on Black incarceration rates in Washington.
Ken Sands’ May 29 article, “Does the system discriminate?” is distressing. Its sadness is that within its contents, its truths are self-evident, yet no conclusions were reached, and many of the people interviewed could only suggest we need further scientific studies.
I do applaud The S-R for its June 2 editorial – it was a long time coming, but the answer is as simple as the statistics reflect.
To be orderly, one must start with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept given in a speech the night before he was killed.
Its eloquence is prophetic:
Tell them not to mention I have a Nobel Peace Prize.
Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others … that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry … that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked … that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.
I want you to say on that day that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; that I was a drum major for righteousness, and all of the other shallow things will not matter.
I just want to leave a committed life behind.
That spirit is not adequately reflected today in America.
After all, Dr. George Wald of Harvard said, “The only purpose of a government is to foster and safeguard the lives of its people.”
The headline of Ken Sands’ article shouldn’t have been a question but a statement of fact.
- Blacks are 2.5% of our state’s population.
- Blacks are 19% of our state’s prison population, the most disproportionate in this nation.
- Every vestige of discrimination and racism has been visited on them in this state.
- Black unemployment is double that of whites and as high as 50% in younger age groups.
- A Black college graduate has the same chance of being unemployed as does a white high school dropout.
- A Black high school graduate’s chances of working are equal to those of a white grade school dropout.
- The mortality rate of children aged 1 to 4 is 70% higher among minorities than among whites.
- One Black or Hispanic child drops out of school for every two who graduate.
- Several conferences were held in Seattle in 1982 dealing with cancer, heart disease and mental disorders. Blacks are overwhelming disproportionately represented in all of these illnesses.
- The leading cause of death for Black males ages 18-25 is homicide.
There are far too many other avenues to allude to with regard to general racial discrimination.
The fact simply stated is: There is no need for “a study.”
The reasons that our number is disproportionately high in the penal system is, as the article points out, that minorities (Blacks in particular) are more likely to be arrested and prosecuted, less likely to have an attorney immediately, more likely to have appointed counsel, less likely to make bail, more likely to be convicted (by judge or jury) and likely to get longer sentences.
There just is no fairness in Washington state’s judicial system.
Let’s look at our state’s judiciary.
Of 356 judges, six are Black, and only three of those are at the superior court level, none in the state’s appellate or supreme courts. Walk through the halls of The Temple of Justice in Olympia, look at the photographs of every Supreme Court justice this state has had and you will see no Black or Brown faces there.
Does the system discriminate? The answer is yes.
But to those who still ask for a reason, I say this: I know it, you know it, we all know it; the reason is racism, pure and simple.
How is it that no one ever asks why whites are so under-represented in our prison population?
The Uniform Sentencing Guidelines, with their allowance for “extreme cases,” is another classic example.
Statistics prove that in its application in juvenile cases since 1978, when judges go outside the guidelines, Blacks are sentenced more often and for longer periods, and that’s what’s going to happen in the adult correction system.
In addition, the act invests even more power in prosecutors who, in substance and effect, are the single authorities initiating the type of charge you will face in the first instance. That fixes the sentencing bracket you’re in.
And it is most clear from the comments of Norman Maleng, King County prosecuting attorney, that there is a total insensitivity in this regard.
The Uniform Sentencing Guidelines, coupled with the abolition of the parole board, an independent agency, grants no allowance for good conduct while in an institution.
And always, there remains the arresting officer – the first actor in this chain of circumstances. Not to mention the police brutality – from choke-holds to shootings – that is visited upon Black men almost exclusively.
If Ken Sands is fortunate enough to be around five lustrums from now and revisits us with an article on this same subject, the statistics will be just as bad because the people don’t give a damn.
It was well-reflected in one of this paper’s editorials which approved a sentencing guidelines plan that allows judges to give up their independence.
My dear friend, Father Cornelius Byrne, a 90-year-old Jesuit priest at DeSmet, Idaho, who took me in as an orphan child, said it best in a letter to me after reading that very editorial:
“(It is independence that) places the Judiciary where it should be, as a foundation ‘sine qua non’ of our Bill of Rights – for all regardless of race or culture or religion.”
I defy anyone, social scientist or otherwise, to offer a rationale for the statement that “minorities are more prone to commit crimes …”
It is an insult.
And to follow it with an explanation that this is in part because minorities tend to be “under-educated” compounds the devilment. It puts the lie to what we are told over and over – we must begin a change with the young, and the “educational system is the key.”
Young Blacks fill our jails, and the educational system has been a bedrock of discrimination and racism.
There’s an old blues song that goes, “When it all comes down, look for me and I’ll still be around.”
From slavery to taxpaying to service, we’ve been around and paid our dues.
If you say anything, say we’re “prone to” patriotism and heroism, for if service to country is hallmark of citizenship and equality, then let’s talk about Blacks in America’s wars:
REVOLUTIONARY WAR – We were there fighting for “inalienable rights.”
CIVIL WAR – There were 190,000 Black troops (10% ) in the Union Army – “a nation can’t survive half slave, half free.”
SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR – Twenty-two Blacks died in the sinking of the Maine, and the 24th and 25th Infantry divisions (all Black) stood with Teddy Roosevelt, who said, “I want no better men beside me than these colored troops.” They were there in the Philippines.
WORLD WAR I – Black troops, some of our best-trained, were not used because a truly racist president, Woodrow Wilson, said Blacks were inferior, all the while espousing “the right is more precious than the peace,” so Black American heroes like the 369th (the old Harlem Hellfighters) fought in French uniforms, with French equipment, beside French soldiers.
They were 191 days in front-line trenches, suffered 3,650 casualties and never lost a trench or a foot of ground.
WORLD WAR II – Two million of us fought with distinction in a segregated army.
The first American hero was Distinguished Service Cross winner Dorey Miller who, all alone, downed enemy planes at Pearl Harbor with guns he’d never been taught to operate.
KOREAN WAR – Now the Army is creeping up to 20-30% Black .
VIETNAM – Forty percent of our casualties were suffered by Black troops.
There’s no more unreigned passion than hatred, and it’s one that our state can least afford.
Washington state’s Black inmate population is the highest proportionately in the country in this so-called enlightened, livable state.
This is not by happenstance or bad luck but by deliberation.
There’ll be no possible fulfillment of the deepest article of our faith that all men are created equal and endowed with certain civil rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and no correction of our penal system until racism ends.
Carl Maxey, who died in 1997, was Spokane’s first prominent Black attorney and served as a chairman of the Washington State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
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