There were two industries in the small Southern California town I grew up in: oil and citrus. In those days, the “Mexicans,” as all Hispanics were called, picked fruit. They moved through the trees in the heat, covered in heavy clothing to protect their limbs from the tree limbs. They were paid by the box, so they worked astonishingly fast. It was the only side of their humanity most saw.
Racism begins with such stereotyping. Societal habits die hard. Like eating and dieting, the weight of racism is easy to acquire and hard to shed. So while much has changed over the years, there is a lot left to do, and it is harder to do on a diet of white bread. And one of the things that hasn’t changed in Utah is the way we incarcerate people.
According to a recent report by the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice, minority offenders tend to draw tougher sentences from the criminal justice system than whites charged with similar offenses. This is not news. Several studies over the past eight years have come to similar conclusions.
It surprise no one that minority offenders, who tend to be poorer than whites, get stiffer sentences. An essential element in keeping the justice system fair is to ensure that leniency is not for sale. This paper reported in its March 13 issue on the case of Michael Kooyman, who was convicted a year ago of forcible sexual abuse. The judge in the case ordered Kooyman, who is white, to do time in the cushier county jail rather than prison, in part because he knew Kooyman could afford to pay for his own court-ordered sex-offender treatment. Sending him to state prison, the more common remedy in cases such as his, would have placed the cost of that treatment on the state. Minorities, by contrast, often suffer in the justice system from inadequate representation.
The same day the story on the Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice appeared in the press, other stories hinted at the educational side of the racial inequity equation. In the category of Failing to Lead by Example, it was reported that Salt Lake Community College recently replaced a black, non-Mormon Equal Employment Opportunity officer—who had resigned because of the college’s record in dealing with complaints about bias and workplace hostility—with a white Mormon who has been named in one of those complaints.
A third story that day drew attention to the date April 26, which this year is the 20th anniversary of the landmark report on public education titled “A Nation At Risk.” The story reported that minorities still lag far behind whites in educational achievement. The nexus between educational and financial success—and keeping people out of prison—is clear.
This society asks great sacrifices of minorities. When we go to war, non-whites die in numbers out of proportion to their representation in the population. In Iraq, 57 percent of the U.S. fatalities were white, compared to 75 percent of the population as a whole. Some of the dead were not even U.S. citizens. The rewards of this society should be as accessible as the risks.
The goal of a just society comes with a price tag, but there is no consensus in Utah or the country on how to tax ourselves and spend in ways that can make a difference. If we are to help people out of poverty through improved educational opportunities and treat everyone fairly who is caught in the criminal justice system, we have to be prepared to pay for it. Educational opportunity and the justice system should be both color blind and dollar blind.