In May of 2020, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police sparked a national conversation on racism in policing. The conversation was long overdue. While Floyd’s death was a wake-up call for many, it was also the latest evidence of systemic, anti-Black racism in the United States criminal justice system.
Since the 1600s, racist stereotypes have permeated American society and shaped its criminal justice system. Some of the first organized “police forces” in the United States were slave patrols in the American South, and as policing evolved, disparities in the treatment of Black and white Americans did not.
During the 1980s, the federal government’s strategy to counter illegal drug use shifted from treatment and poverty reduction programs to increased incarceration, penalties, and enforcement for drug offenders. The prison population skyrocketed over the next several decades — in 1972 there were only 200,000 people incarcerated in the United States, while there are now more than 2.2 million. The trend of mass incarceration has meant mostly Black incarceration. Black Americans currently represent one-third of the incarcerated population, even though they make up only an eighth of American adults.
Today, Black Americans are more likely to be arrested, convicted, and given harsher sentences than white Americans who commit the same crimes. They receive much greater police scrutiny than those who are not Black — for instance, they use drugs at the same rates as other races and ethnicities but make up nearly 1 in 3 arrests for drug use. And they suffer deadly police violence at a greater rate than non-Black Americans, as the family of George Floyd knows all too well.
Our criminal justice system’s violence and inequality toward Black Americans is fueled by a long history of racism that frames Black people as inherently dangerous criminals. Positively transforming criminal justice in the United States will require confronting this history and implementing policy based in fairness and accountability.
Sources for the information above are cited at the bottom of this page.
Explore a curated sample of Harvard research and resources related to anti-Black racism in criminal justice below.
Citations for Section Overview
- Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopedia. "War on Drugs." Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/war-on-drugs
- Ghandnoosh, Nazgol. 2015. “Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System.” The Sentencing Project. February 3, 2015. https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/black-lives-matter-eliminating-racial-inequity-in-the-criminal-justice-system/.
- Mauer, Marc. 2011. “Addressing Racial Disparities in Incarceration.” The Prison Journal 91 (3): 87S-101S. https://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Addressing-Racial-Disparities-in-Incarceration.pdf
- Muhammad, Khalil Gibran. 2019. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, with a New Preface. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. http://id.lib.harvard.edu/alma/990120310410203941/catalog.
- Parker, Kim, Juliana Menasce Horowitz, and Monica Anderson. 2020. “Amid Protests, Majorities Across Racial and Ethnic Groups Express Support for the Black Lives Matter Movement.” Pew Research Center. June 12, 2020. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2020/06/12/amid-protests-majorities-across-racial-and-ethnic-groups-express-support-for-the-black-lives-matter-movement/.
- “Racial Justice.” n.d. Equal Justice Initiative. Accessed February 3, 2021.https://eji.org/racial-justice/.
Citations for Page Images
- Interior of Strafford County Jail, New Hampshire | Unidentified Artist. Crime, Prisons: United States. New Hampshire. Dover. Strafford County Jail: New Hampshire State Charitable and Correctional Institutions: Interior - Strafford County Jail., 1902. http://id.lib.harvard.edu/images/HUAM313572soc/catalog
- A young Black girl in a Georgia prison cell, 1963 | Young girls being held in a prison cell at the Leesburg stockade. Part of Barbara Deming Papers. Folder: Alphabetical Correspondence: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC): Photographs, 1963. RLG collection level record MHVW92-A44. http://id.lib.harvard.edu/images/olvgroup1003350/urn-3:RAD.SCHL:258877/catalog
- A New York City demonstration against discriminatory policing, 1976 | Lane, Bettye. Police and Jewish demonstration in Crown Heights, 1976. Part of Bettye Lane Photographs. Folder: Crown Heights demonstration. Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute PC32-136-R8/f12. http://id.lib.harvard.edu/images/8000905528/catalog