Why?

The world is mourning the death of 50 men, women, and children, murdered by a right wing extremist in New Zeeland. In 2018, 50 people in the U.S. were killed as a result of hate crimes- all committed by right wing extremists. One U.S. President addressed the spread of racial hatred and divisiveness like this: “Today, however, some of our citizens are still denied equal opportunity for education, jobs, and economic advancement and for the expression of their views at the polls. Most serious of all, some are denied equal protection under laws”- Harry S. Truman, January 7, 1947.

Sadly, what was true in 1947 is still largely true today, perhaps not in degree but in kind. No other case illustrates this more clearly than that of Crystal Mason, a 43 year old mother of 3. Mason voted in the 2016 Presidential election while serving probation, but it is against Texas state law to vote while on probation. She was sentenced to 5 years in prison for voter fraud. Mason maintains that no one told her she couldn’t vote while on probation, nor did she sign anything stating she couldn’t vote. Mason failed to read the fine print on a write-in ballot she completed when she reported to her normal polling place and found her name was not listed on the rolls. In contrast, Terri Lynn Rote, a 56 year old white woman, was sentenced to only 2 years probation and a $750 fine for voting twice for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential election—a blatantly illegal instance of voter fraud. It’s hard to believe that race didn’t factor into these wildly different sentences. Mason was sentenced to 5 years in prison for one felony count of conspiracy to defraud the United States in 2011. Mason received the sentence for her part in a tax preparation scheme where she artificially inflated tax returns for clients from 2005 – 2008. Mason was ordered to pay $4,206,805 in restitution as a part of her original felony conviction that set her up for the voter fraud charge for which she is currently serving.

Another disturbing contrast in sentencing black and white convicts is between Paul Manafort, the former Trump Campaign Chairman, and black Louisiana Congressman Bill Jefferson. Earlier this month, Manafort was sentenced to 4 years (47 months) for 8 counts of felony financial fraud and tax evasion, and ordered to pay $25 million in restitution for over $55 million in income he hid in overseas bank accounts. The sentencing guideline for his case was 14 to 25 years. Judge T.S. Ellis reported that he believed the guideline was excessive, even as he noted that Manafort had never apologized for his crimes. Ellis must have had a change of heart in the face of Manafort’s overwhelming remorse because he sentenced Jefferson to 13 years in prison for bribes totaling between $400,000 and $1 million. Jefferson’s was the longest sentence ever given to a U.S. Congressman. In a second trial, Judge Amy Berman Jackson sentenced Manafort to another 43 months for conspiracy against the United States and witness tampering. Still, Manafort’s total sentence amounts to just over half of Jefferson’s.

One could argue these cases and the disparities in sentencing are anecdotal, but in aggregate such discrepancies contribute to the “19.1 percent more prison time black men receive than similarly situated white felons, even after adjusting for prior criminal history, violence, and plea bargains.” reported Elie Mystal. Sherrilyn Ifill, Director of the NAACP legal Defense Fund has been lobbying Congress for years to provide implicit bias training for federal judges. Ifill states, “Some judges are biased and don’t know, some are biased and would improve if things were explained to them.” She maintains we live in an era where predictive analytics are so good we can tell you if the right fielder for the Yankees is likely to pull the ball with an O-2 count, but we can’t seem to tell with statistical probability if a judge who has been sitting on the federal bench for 30 years has an implicit bias.

One thing is certain, America is embroiled in a political and cultural clash. Tom Brokaw was very candid in sharing with the world that many Americans in the ruling class would prefer white grand babies to brown ones if given a choice. Can you blame them? They are acting on the racial bias and the social currency ascribed to whiteness in American society. This cultural capital has been systematically invested in preserving privilege among wealthy white males for so long that it’s beneficiaries take it for granted that even seemingly neutral institutions will give them preferential treatment. During Women’s History Month this year, let’s reflect on how the Equal Rights Amendment fell 1 vote shy of being ratified in Virginia. That single vote would have given the amendment the required number of states to ratify it as an amendment to the U.S. constitution, effectively guaranteeing women in the U.S. equal rights protected by law.

Some leaders exploit differences, and long standing divisions among us for political gain, and to preserve ill-gotten social advantages. Theirs is a failed strategy. History is replete with their failures in Nazi Germany, American chattel slavery, the Apartheid system of South Africa, even Great Britain’s current debacle with Brexit arose out of nationalist ideologies. The leaders that history has recorded as the most successful, spoke to our higher ambitions. They provided a vision that united and inspired us to pursue the best expression of ourselves, by emphasizing our common humanity. Despite how far our experiment in democracy has come, we still have considerable lengths to go before we live up to Truman’s vision for the United States: “Whether discrimination is based on race, creed, or color, or land of origin, it is utterly contrary to American ideals of democracy.”- Harry S. Truman, January 7, 1947.

Troy Mosley, author of Unwritten Truce: the Armed Forces and American Social Justice