Race in the criminal justice system: What role does it play 20 years after the OJ Simpson trial?

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By Natalie Batra on

Police brutality is alive and well on the streets of America


Hollywood does not represent ethnic minorities: it creates them, and provides its audience with an experience of them.

The infamous Orenthal J (OJ) Simpson trial — which is once again in the limelight courtesy of a recent BBC drama — epitomises this. Just over 20 years ago, race related claims against Officer Fuhrman effectively convinced the jury of Simpson’s innocence. More worryingly, the bloody glove that was riddled with Simpson’s DNA was not used as a tool to judge his guilt or innocence. Cochrane, Shapiro and Kardashian, the infamous, expensive defence team played the race card to get “The Juice” off the hook.

While race continues to play a fundamental role in the 21st century criminal justice system, whether this case fairly evokes racial claims of injustice is highly questionable. Simpson’s fame allowed his dream team to win his trial based on racial injustice. The stance adopted here is that by playing the race card in this manner, the position of race in the criminal justice system was ridiculed. More recent criminal trials further encompass this same notion: Mark Brown in Missouri, Oscar Grant in the Bay Area and Trayvon Martin in Florida. For true legal progression, honest dialogue is pertinent.

This July will mark 22 years since the infamous OJ trial, and with court proceedings’ increased exposure in the media, it becomes pertinent to examine whether we have moved past racial discrimination in the justice system.

The acquittal of George Zimmerman — Oscar Grant’s police killer — and a more recent media atrocity involving the killing of an unconscious man and woman in Inglewood, are a major cause for concern.

Let’s take a brief look at the latter: on 28 February, police “felt threatened” by a belief that the female in question was carrying a gun while the couple were asleep. They pertinent question remains as to why alternatives to deadly weapons were not used instead. And more worryingly, how can two unconscious people have caused threatening behaviour?

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We cannot understand the law unless we can comprehend the process in which the law applies and, as revealed in the backdrop of these most recent cases, legal process in the 21st century is not synonymous to a fair and equal justice system. Thus, critical race theory within the sphere of law must continue to ask questions, and prompt legislatures to change the way laws are shaped so that those from the lower socioeconomic bands are not encouraged to commit crime — poverty encourages extreme measures, crime being one of them. Professor Jody Armour of USC Gould School of law in California provides a pertinent example of this honest dialogue. Armour questions whether the Florida “stand your ground” laws should be in existence at all as a “self defence” in criminal law. How do we justify standing your ground when the practical realities of our justice system prove that the defence is racially discriminatory in practice? And why do such laws translate into injustice for the black victim all too frequently? The stark reality is that police brutality against ethnic minorities is a deadly issue — that is if you do not have the money to fight back, just like OJ did.

Kimberle Crenshaw of the University of California, Los Angeles’ law faculty questioned the place of affirmative action at the University of Michigan. While the university sought to promote equal treatment and diversity in admissions, the application procedure continued to ask whether past family members have attended the college: a reflection of the past rather than the present credibility of the individual. We are not moving past racially infused stereotypes in the college admission system if we constantly compare the present to a past of unequal opportunities.

Honest dialogue in the form of critical race theory begins with the layperson; it begins with the opinions of individuals and communities that have experienced racial injustice. The likes of Armour and Crenshaw respond to these unjust situations, and it is our job to tenaciously continue to speak out against our experiences. In order to resolve unequal treatment, we need to put more into crime prevention by targeting the root causes behind deviant behaviour, such as providing more opportunities for those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to excel.

Racial injustice epitomises the OJ trial, and the streets of the United States of America. The only way to move past the issues associated with the trial is to provide minorities with better opportunities to flourish, rather than revert to a life of crime in a system that seeks to support and exploit them. That involves going into schools in rough neighbourhoods and making children aware of the opportunities that lie ahead, but also by allowing those opportunities to become attainable.

Minorities must be able to partake in the Darwinian race, instead of being shot down at the first hurdle — literally.

Natalie Batra is an LPC student at Kaplan Law School.

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