Race and the Law: The Best and Worst of 2011
No, the legal system didn't help create a post-black America. But there were times when justice prevailed.
Best legal blog: It turns out that the death of Blackprof four years ago (to which I was a regular contributor) was only a bump in the road for the emergence of legal blogs focused on matters of race and the law. Today Turtle Talk provides excellent analysis of Native American legal issues. Colored Demos offers sophisticated, intellectual analysis by the powerhouse trio of law scholars Guy-Uriel Charles, Luis Fuentes-Rowher and Anupam Chander, who write about the Supreme Court, race, law and politics.
But the best this year goes to Darren Hutchinson, whose Dissenting Justice blog can't be beat for fearless, thoughtful analysis of race, politics and law. His series, "Every Murder Victim Has a Story," is a hypnotic and powerful elegy to crime victims in the D.C.-Baltimore area -- movingly focusing on matters not often addressed on legal blogs.
Best lecture on race and the law: There was a special poignancy to 2011's Derrick Bell Lecture. Bell, one of the most respected, loved and controversial figures in legal education, died on Oct. 5 at the age of 80. The eponymous annual lecture about race and the law at NYU Law School was packed to the gills the night before Bell's funeral.
The speaker, Berkeley Law professor Ian Haney López, delivered a dizzyingly spot-on analysis of how the concept of colorblindness has become the modern legal justification for the same arguments advanced as "states' rights" in earlier decades. Haney López's moving description of his early rejection of Bell's pessimistic views about race and his subsequent recognition of Bell's brilliantly prescient assessment of race and American politics moved the house to sustained applause.
Worst police department practice: Almost every young black man living in New York could identify with the powerfully disturbing essay by Nicholas K. Peart in the New York Times several weeks ago. Being stopped and frisked by the NYPD is a regular part of life for the city's minority male citizens. If the practice stays on pace, it's estimated that nearly 700,000 New Yorkers -- 85 percent of them black or Latino men -- will have been subjected to stop and frisk in 2011.
This common practice -- of stopping and searching black and Latino men who have committed no crime or infraction -- strips law-abiding black and Latino men of their full citizenship rights, sacrificing their freedom to walk unmolested on the streets of New York to the caprice of police officers. It sounds like a practice from a third-rate authoritarian state, not the most cosmopolitan city in the world's most powerful democracy.
The city's stop-and-frisk policies have an unintended consequence. These same black and Latino men have little incentive to provide police with the kinds of tips, witness identifications and assistance that the NYPD needs to solve real crimes. Fostering a relationship of hostility with the city's black and Latino male population is not only wrong; it's also not smart policing.
Best police-department action: Earlier this year, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly decided to issue a directive to his force to discontinue the practice of making arrests of individuals in possession of small quantities of marijuana. New York City law treats the possession of small quantities of marijuana as an infraction, and even then only if the marijuana is burning or in public view. Under these circumstances, violators should receive only a citation. But police had routinely been arresting such individuals.
Moreover, the marijuana associated with these arrests was often not in plain view. Instead, officers would require individuals to empty their pockets or backpacks and then claim that the marijuana revealed pursuant to the illegal search was "in plain view." Commissioner Kelly's directive was clear and firm and is expected to greatly reduce arrests for these low-level violations, although this change will do little to help the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who have arrest records because of the failure of the department to adhere to the law. Kelly should now turn his attention to the department's more widespread stop-and-frisk practices.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore and the author of On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century.