This Is Who Our Constitution Doesn’t Protect — And What We Can Do to Change That

By Maya Rockeymoore

The explosion of street protests in Ferguson nearly a year ago following the police killing of unarmed black teen Michael Brown intensified attention on the failure of the U.S. constitution to protect or offer opportunities to black males.

Discrimination against black girls and women and other people of color is also a very real phenomenon. But from police and prison officials who commit violence against black men and boys with impunity to education administrators and employers who deny or expel them from learning and work opportunities at higher rates, there is a unique dynamic facing black men and boys that is worthy of dedicated examination.

Because black men are more likely to be policed, stopped, searched, arrested, sentenced and sentenced longer, one in three black men will end up in prison during their lifetimes. Young black men are 21 times more likely to be shot dead by a police officer than young white men. And, in 2010, black male life expectancy was 4.7 years lower than for white males. Homicides—not a significant mortality factor for black females—accounted for almost a one-year loss in the life expectancy of black males.

Black male bodies are at or near the bottom of every major indicator of psychosocial well being in the United States. This crisis is a long-standing precedent with roots in the capture and enslavement of humans with black skin, the exclusion, repression, and lynching of blacks during Jim Crow, and the economic, educational, and residential isolation of black communities that continues today.

There is no policy framework more profoundly important to the United States than its Constitution. This document is the standard against which laws are made and court decisions ruled. Yet, in low-income communities and in communities of color, residents’ constitutional rights are routinely violated. Instead of having protected First Amendment rights, a person in these neighborhoods can get accosted, arrested, physically abused and/or killed by law enforcement officials for stating an opinion, standing on a sidewalk, video recording police encounters, or simply being a black male between the ages of 14 and 21.

For African Americans, the notion of Second Amendment rights is a cruel joke. The hypocrisy is laid bare in states that have open carry firearm laws, but in which a black man with a gun is never considered entitled to firearm ownership like his white counterparts. Instead, as the family of John Crawford learned in Ohio, they are presumed to be a threat and subject to a “shoot first, ask questions later” law enforcement mentality. From grand juries to legal representation, their Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights are violated when they are denied adequate legal representation, due process and equal protection under the law.

Clearly we need a more equitable system to ensure all citizens are granted full rights, what I call liberation policy, leveraging public policy to bring about full social and economic rights for groups subject to persistent discrimination.

A liberation policy agenda would start by placing institutional constraints on the biases of the people making the policies, continue by ensuring that existing legal protections are applied in an equal fashion across populations, and end by implementing and sustaining equitable policies that provide redress for those who have been consistently excluded. This agenda would have a positive effect on the entire nation, but would have an especially transformative impact on black men and boys as well as other historically marginalized groups.

So what would a liberation policy agenda look like, one that would bring fairness and justice to the system?

  1.  Transparent, fair and constitutional policing. Federal and state laws should mandate body cameras on all police officers, and the collection of data on all law enforcement encounters with civilians. The ability of local police departments to receive federal grants should be linked to compliance with federal community policing standards, and we should establish a moratorium on arrests for non-violent drug offenses such as low-level drug possession. The legal rights of bystanders to report on police interactions via audio and video recordings should be affirmed.
  2.  Law enforcement officials accountable to the public. All U.S. states should adopt Wisconsin’s law requiring democratic, independent and transparent review boards in instances of police-involved incidents of a serious nature. These efforts would begin to repair the broken trust between communities and those hired to serve and protect them.
  3. Transparent, fair, and constitutional court proceedings. States should adopt laws to record the proceedings and standardize the practices of grand juries. And in an effort to guarantee the Sixth Amendment right to legal defense, states should require all licensed lawyers to provide pro bono services for defendants in need of legal assistance, akin to requirements for jury service, as a complement to a better funded public defense corps.
  4. Abolish the death penalty. With states unable to implement humane methods of executing death row inmates and the widespread use of DNA evidence underscoring the fallibility of the U.S. system of legal justice, the death penalty should be struck down.
  5. Eradicate the school-to-prison pipeline. Abolish zero tolerance rules that criminalize black youth for minor infractions in schools and push them into the criminal justice system. State laws should require data transparency when tracking students into special education and non-post secondary education tracks. The federal government should reinforce this move by denying resources to any school district engaging in discriminatory practices, and by introducing a new financing system that distributes resources equitably across schools. As a result, all students would attend well-resourced, high quality schools.
  6. Dismantle prison industrial complex. We should collect and publicly report data regarding the treatment of those held in prisons, including the exorbitant cost of incarceration, with the goal of implementing strategies to reduce the prison population. Corporations using labor from prison inmates should be banned from being publicly traded on all stock exchanges and from lobbying for stronger sentencing laws that generate more incarcerated individuals.
  7. Re-enfranchise citizens with felony convictions. A movement to restore the principles of democracy to U.S. policies and politics should include the permanent restoration of voting rights for convicted felons in states across the country.

There is no doubt that a liberation policy agenda will require a strategy that gives attention to electoral politics, advocacy, grassroots education and mobilization, messaging and fundraising — in addition to the politics of protests. In other words, it will take a generational passing of the baton, a 21st century civil rights movement for fairness and inclusion in America. Only this will end what seems to have become a never-ending relay race for justice.


maya.web_ This essay is part of the “Shifting Perceptions: Being Black in America” series commissioned by Perception Institute in partnership with Mic.

Maya Rockeymoore is president and CEO of Global Policy Solutions.

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