Race, wealth and justice
Devon Chenelle | Wednesday, October 25, 2017
Among the American civil religion’s sprawling symbolical repertoire, few images are as common, or as semiotically potent, as that of Lady Justice. As befits the personification of our justice system, she is portrayed in three compositions just in the Supreme Court building and in innumerable county courthouses across the republic. Lady Justice is traditionally depicted with a set of scales, a sword and a blindfold, items representing the moral principles underlying our justice system, respectively signifying evaluation of the evidence, courts’ punitive role and the law’s blindness towards the identities and attributes of those called to trial.
However, although justice is ideally blind, many Americans are convinced it is anything but. Over the past years, outcry over putatively racially inspired miscarriages of justice has become one of the fundamental sources of unrest and discontent in the American body politic. Such claims certainly were overwhelmingly and grossly true throughout America in the past, and assuredly explicit and intentional actions of racial prejudice still persist in many police departments and district courts. Furthermore, there is certainly no doubt that Black Americans, already victims of centuries of economic subjugation and exploitation, are subject to a wildly disproportionate amount of police violence and punitive measures from the justice system. Very reasonably, this state of affairs leads many to conclude that the justice system operates, pervasively and powerfully, on a racially-tilted field, where differences in skin color lead to vast differences in outcome. Yet what if this racially-focused account about the justice system’s constitutive and systematic failures, while making many compelling claims and accurate arguments, ultimately misses the forest for the trees: Could it be that what truly excites our justice system’s biases are not differences of race, but those of wealth, a process obscured by this country’s wretched racial income disparities? Perhaps is what Lady Justice glimpses when she slides up her blindfold — for there is no doubt that she all too often does — is not variations in pigmentation, but in wealth?
During October 1993, two off-duty police officers, Mark and Scott Whitwell (brothers), were having a particularly wild celebration, carousing around town after one of their wives passed the bar exam. The officers, heavily intoxicated and brandishing stolen firearms, were behind the wheel of an automobile when they had a near-collision with a car driven by one Lesane Parish Crooks. An argument broke out, during which Mark Whitwell shot at Crooks’ automobile, and subsequently Crooks exited his car and non-fatally shot both officers. The Atlantic Police Department brought charges against Crooks, but they were eventually dropped.
Earlier that same year, Cordozar Calvin Broadus Jr. was arrested and charged with murder in the death of Phillip Woldermariam, a known gang member fatally shot by Broadus’ close associate McKinley Lee, while Broadus drove the getaway car. Defended by Johnnie Cochran, both Lee and Broadus were acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
Twelve years later, on May 10, 2005, one Radric Davis was ambushed by five armed men at a Decatur, Georgia house, and, feeling understandably threatened amid his would-be captors’ discussion of whether to kill or simply rob him, Davis picked up a handgun and shot one of the men, Pookie Loc, dead. Davis then, with a number of his associates, buried and hid Loc’s corpse behind a nearby middle school. After Loc’s cadaver was found, Davis turned himself in and was charged with first-degree murder. By January 2006, the murder charge was dropped, again on the grounds of self-defense.
I know three anecdotal cases hardly prove a case, but I hope they can open the door for the at least the possibility of the larger point I would like to make: American justice is far more susceptible to cash than color. These three men, likely better known to you as Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg and Gucci Mane, are exactly the sorts of men committing exactly the sorts of offenses that get black men locked up for life or extrajudicially killed — with one crucial difference: They were all wealthy rappers, with access to lawyers and legal knowledge that their poorer counterparts simply don’t have. Thus, add money to the equation, without changing a thing about race or background, and everything changes. This should be no surprise in an America that is far more founded on capitalist ideals than it was, at least explicitly, on racist ones. In this country the most privileged group will always be those with the capital, not those with the right color. Now obviously poverty and race are tied up in a million different ways in America, but I’d simply like to suggest that potentially, that just maybe, our courts are not quite as racist as we fear, and are far more classist than we dare imagine. And to think I haven’t even mentioned OJ Simpson!
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.