There's a quiet revolution happening in America's courtrooms that promises to radically change how brown skin is treated by our extremely racist criminal justice system. It's a small revolution but it's growing and once it gets large enough to threaten the status quo, the reaction from the right is going to be loud and noisy and confirm everything we've ever said about the deliberate nature of institutional racism in America.
Back in February, Shaun King wrote:
Right now, the United States has more than 2,400 elected prosecutors. They are the gatekeepers of the justice system. More than 9 out of every 10 people who enter the justice system do so through this group.
Even though the United States is more diverse than it’s ever been, on our way to becoming a majority nation of color, over 95 percent of all elected prosecutors are white. This alone is ridiculous.
Listen, white isn’t evil and black isn’t righteous. I’m not saying that, at all, because I know a few sorry black prosecutors and a few amazing white ones, but it’s outrageous that any field, particularly a field that primarily targets and convicts people of color would be 95 percent white. This is a scandal all by itself.
Secondly, an astounding 83 percent of all prosecutors are men. When it’s all said and done, of the 2,400 elected prosecutors in the United States are tallied, only 1 percent are women of color. And that’s all women of color, not just black women. Again, this is travesty. It’s utterly preposterous.
Prosecutors have the almost unlimited power to decide what charges, if any, to press when the police arrest someone. They can choose to throw the book at a black shoplifter and send them to prison for 3 years to teach them a lesson or offer a white rapist community service and probation because they have a bright future ahead of them.
If you think this doesn't happen every single day, you have not been paying attention to America. At all.
I'm not going to go into the statistics showing how black and brown men are disproportionately incarcerated. That's just an indisputable fact at this point in time and not what this article is about. Instead, I want you to think about the ramifications of Shaun King's project to elect progressive prosecutors who will take a much more balanced approach toward criminal justice in America.
Right now, a lot of prosecutors are motivated by "running up the score" like they're playing a game. The more convictions and guilty pleas they get, the "better" they're doing. Naturally, this creates a perverse incentive to withhold evidence, violate civil rights, and do the exact opposite of serve justice. They also have a nasty habit of siding with the police whenever they mow down unarmed civilians in a hail of bullets. They either refuse to press charges or deliberately overcharge knowing they will never get a conviction. Or, in the extreme case of Ferguson, the chief prosecutor deliberately led the grand jury away from indicting a white officer for killing an unarmed black teen. Nice work if you don't have a conscience.
What King is proposing is replacing these prosecutors with men and women (remember, only 1% of America's elected prosecutors are women) that will serve justice, not their own ambition and certainly not their own racial prejudices (explicit or otherwise). Justice is about doing what's best for the community for the long term, not filling private prisons and punishing Those People.
As the movement builds and white male prosecutors with fire and brimstone track records are suddenly being replaced by men and women of color as well as progressive white men and women, there is going to be, without a doubt, a massive backlash from the right. Mind you, the only thing this movement is doing is putting the "justice" in the criminal justice system at the forefront. You'd think that this wouldn't ruffle any feathers but we all know that will not be the case.
In Republican controlled states, we will start to see laws changing prosecutors from an elected position to one appointed by the (Republican) governor. Or perhaps Republicans will pass new "requirements" that just happen to favor conservative white men. Maybe they'll simply pass laws stripping prosecutors of their currently unlimited power in order to force this new wave of progressive prosecutors into maintaining the current system.
Outside of legislation, we will see a sudden massive infrastructure appear out of thin air to turn every race into a hyperpartisan fight. Dozens of "grassroots" PACs will magically appear with unlimited funding to elect the most racist prosecutors they can find. Before, the right was content to let the system do its magic on its own, now that the status quo is threatened, they'll make sure the status is as quo as possible by spending millions to keep it that way.
Next, the propaganda will kick in. Republicans, Fox News, AM Hate Radio and right wing hate sites will suddenly become intensely interested in all of these previously unheralded prosecutors. They'll demand investigations into every aspect of their lives, a demand they will not make of "noncontroversial" (read as: "conservative white male") prosecutors. The smear campaigns will go into high gear, alerting the public to the dastardly plot to let all black criminals go and lock all white men up instead.
Sure, it sounds like something only an imbecile would believe but allow me to remind you of Jade Helm 15, the secret plot by Obama to use a military training exercise to seize control of Texas and put right wingers into secret FEMA concentration camps built under abandoned Walmarts. Millions of white Republican voters foamed at the mouth over this. There is no longer a limit to the sheer stupidity of the American right wing. They will believe anything they are told as long as it pushes their white supremacy rage button.
It's probably true that white men will start going to prison more often simply because they will no longer enjoy the full presumption of innocence that they do now. It won't be much of a bump, however, since the entire point of electing progressive prosecutors is to send less people to jail, not simply to balance the racial mix. Mass incarceration is a cancer on society regardless of the color of the prisoners.
The real threat that will move the right to action is that with King's progressive prosecutors serving justice instead of running up the score, less people of color will go to prison. That will be intolerable to the people with a vested interest in keeping communities of color in shambles. Private prison corporations and the Republicans they own will demand action. Racists like Jeff Sessions will rail against anything that keeps black men at home with their families instead of behind bars. "Law and order" conservatives that have been using the criminal justice system as a weapon against brown skin for centuries will refuse to countenance a movement that undoes their work.
The worst part will be watching supposedly non-racist people lose their minds at the idea of progressive prosecutors. These will be people who didn't give the slightest bit of attention to the criminal justice system when it was unfairly decimating communities of color but will find it deeply and personally offensive that something is being done to make it less racist and oppressive. They won't be able to quite explain what it is that infuriates them so much but the idea of black men not being treated as criminals from the get go will have them howling at the moon in rage. These, of course, will be the same exact people that will swear on a stack of Republican bibles that there is no such thing as institutional systemic racism in America.
Shaun King is not the only person involved in this movement (although he is the most visible for the moment) and as it grows, it's going to draw more and more attention until it reaches a tipping point. That's when the push back will start and I hope King and his group are ready for it because it's going to be ugly and vicious. If the last decade has taught us anything, it's that nothing brings out the worst of the right like defending white supremacy.