The Elephant in the Room

By Lisa D’Souza

Yesterday, I attended a celebration of Timothy Cole’s life at which the State of Texas officially acknowledged the wrong done Mr. Cole by placing a historical marker at his grave.  Among the attendees were six men, all of whom had been arrested, tried and convicted of crimes they had not committed. Each of them served years, some decades, in prison before winning their release.

At the close of the luncheon event, Frederic White, the dean of Texas Wesleyan School of Law, who hosted the event, recollected a police encounter he had as a youngster zooming through town on his new bicycle. The police stopped him and accused him of having stolen it. He was carrying his bicycle registration in his pocket, and could prove the bike was in fact his, so the police allowed him to go on his way.

Neither Dean White nor any of the speakers mentioned the elephant in the room. Dean White, Tim Cole, and all six of the exonerees at the event are black men.

That is no coincidence.

Studies conducted by The Sentencing Project have shown that the rates of imprisonment of black men cannot be explained by disproportionate criminal behavior. One report cites the fact that in 1954 (the year the Supreme Court declared that separate is not equal), 100,000 black men were in prison in the U.S. Now, that number is 900,000. If these trends continue, 1 in 3 African-American men can expect to go to jail at least once in his life compared to 1 in 17 white men. Youth of color fare no better in the juvenile court systems.

If we want to improve our criminal justice system, we need to talk about race. If we want to reduce the number of wrongful convictions, we need to acknowledge that black men are more often suspected, more often arrested, more often imprisoned than anyone else.

There’s an elephant in the room. Let’s talk about it.

2 thoughts on “The Elephant in the Room

  1. Not to mention, as children in predominately white schools, black boys are more often suspended, etc. It needs to be addressed. And school records are often used trials.

  2. Race is not just an issue in wrongful conviction, statistically it appears to be perhaps the biggest issue. Yet, bringing it up directly feels almost taboo.
    Race is a difficult issue for us in our work….in reality, we are writing about a case where race was central. Native Alaskans/ Americans see this, other minorities see this, many free thinkers of the majority race see it as well, yet ANY discussion of race is so polarizing that it costs some support, or at least inspires some admonishment for playing “the race card.” At the end of the day we have decided that you have to play the cards you were dealt, and don’t shy away from the issue. But sadly, acknowledging the elephant in the room is both difficult and costly.

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