The Central Park 5 Settled, but the Case of Racial Injustice in America Is Wide Open

As the innocent men at the center of the infamous case are compensated—and Donald Trump calls the resolution “a disgrace”—we’re reminded that the attitudes that put them behind bars are still with us today. 

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It’s a reminder that black and Latino men are presumed guilty by the American criminal-justice system and the public that holds it accountable. You can almost hear the unspoken question coming from people like Trump: If they didn’t commit this specific crime, who’s to say they did not commit others?

I grew up in New York during this era, walked its streets, played in its parks and chafed at the suspicious stares from police officers whenever groups of young black boys gathered. Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s visionary film about race and democracy in the post-civil-rights era, came out a little over two months later. I remember waiting in line, with great anticipation, to view a movie that critics feared might spark race riots in a city that simmered far and wide with racial tension.

In many ways the case of the Central Park Five is a metaphor for our contemporary justice system. Race and class shape the treatment received by the accused, especially the innocent.

The heart of the matter is that the defendants, even those who confessed, were innocent and the system didn’t care. Instead it relegated them to years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit because their backgrounds and bodies presumed guilt. 

This happens to black men all too often. It’s only the epilogue, where five exonerated defendants receive a hard-earned second chance, that is an anomaly.

No amount of money will restore what those five teenagers, now approaching middle age, have lost. But we are better off living in a country where acts of restorative justice, however long delayed, sometimes cannot be denied—and where we’re moved by stories like this one not to repeat our mistakes. 

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and the recently released Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.

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