Photo: Alex Wong (Getty Images)

I know black people like Paul Manafort.

Like Manafort, Larry Langford, the former mayor of Birmingham, Ala., was essentially jailed for collusion after he directed $7.1 million in county bond business to investment bankers in exchange for $230,000 in cash, a few suits and some jewelry. Like Manafort, Larry Langford was found guilty in a federal court. And Larry Langford’s attorney asked the judge for leniency because, like Manafort, Larry Langford was elderly and seriously ill.

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But unlike Paul Manafort, Larry Langford was black.

A federal judge sentenced Larry Langford to 15 years in federal prison.

Then, there is the tragedy of Mecenia Dials. For years, I tried to get documentation on Dials’ case. Her attorney didn’t return calls. The court wouldn’t release the information., maybe because they knew her case was an injustice.

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In 1997, Dials went to court to face charges after she was arrested with nine ounces (a little more than two cups) of cocaine. Investigators knew that the drugs didn’t belong to Dials, but prosecutors wanted to “flip” her in order to catch a bigger fish, as they did with Manafort. Dials, like Manafort, didn’t have a criminal history, so she may have assumed the judge would be lenient in her case.

But again, Dials was black.

In September 1997, 22-year-old Mecenia Dials was sentenced to 25 years in prison without the possibility of parole.

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On charges that look a lot like Paul Manafort’s, former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in prison. When he was caught with legally purchased marijuana, Patrick Beadle was sentenced to twice the length of Manafort’s sentence. Lakeith Smith didn’t kill anyone. The judge and the prosecutors acknowledge that police shot Lakeith Smith’s friends in cold blood. Yet Smith is the one serving a 65-year prison stint.

OK, maybe I was wrong ...

There are no black people like Paul Manafort.


Paul Manafort’s extremely light, 47-month sentence highlights the reality of the two, simultaneously existing criminal justice systems in America. While most people think the justice system is divided between the haves and have-nots, the numbers don’t prove that to be true. Almost every bit of empirical data shows that there is a not-so-secret, separate, more lenient criminal justice system.

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The first one is the one we all know. It punishes people for crimes by imposing prescribed sentences. If you murder, you face a life sentence. If you do drugs, you might be arrested. This system is dictated by legislation and common sense. And in theory, it offers liberty and justice for all.

And then there is the system for white people.

In this system, judges don’t have to follow the law. In white people’s criminal justice system, rapists don’t go to jail. In this system, a white man can plow his car into a group of people, kill them and get off light because a judge determined that he is too “affluent” to spend the rest of his life in prison. In this system, police officers are immune from prosecution.

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Just the white ones, though. Not the black ones. Not the other ones.

Journalists, academics and activists often mention a study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that shows black men receive sentences that are 20 percent longer than the sentences for whites who commit the same crimes. The same people will explain how black people receive higher bail amounts, are offered fewer plea deals and are less likely to be granted parole. 

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However, when citing the data, it is often framed in the context of law enforcement officers, prosecutors and judges being prejudiced against black defendants, a charge that they all deny. But the truth is, in every part of the criminal justice system, white people get the benefit of being white. 

In a country that is 62 percent white, whites are overrepresented on federal and state benches and blacks are underrepresented. One hundred and ten of the 1,018 (10.8 percent) sitting judges in U.S. district and Circuit courts are black and 806 (79.1 percent) are white, according to the Federal Judicial Center’s data.

Most judges have the legal latitude to disregard sentencing guidelines and impose their own sentences; the data shows that when they use their own discretion, it is not that they over-punish black people, but they under-punish white people.

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Whiteness is a get-out of-everything free card.

A 2018 study, “Judicial Politics and Sentencing Disparities,” examined 546,916 federal court decisions (essentially every federal decision between 1998 and 2015), and found that white, Republican-appointed judges sentence black people to much longer prison sentences than black judges or even white Democrat judges.

But buried in this report, and in the USSC report, is another interesting and underreported fact—that judges are much more likely to sentence white defendants to periods of incarceration that fall below the recommended guidelines. In a Princeton study on the racial disparities in bail outcomes, researchers found that white defendants are less likely to be held in custody than black people accused of a crime, even though white defendants are more likely to commit a crime while on bail. And when prosecutors charge people with crimes, they are twice as likely to charge African Americans with offenses that have mandatory minimums, Drug Policy Alliance reports.

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There is not enough bandwidth on all the internet combined to properly dissect the disparities in the criminal justice system. But when it comes to justice in America, the data is clear:

White lives matter.


The phrase “Black Lives Matter” is not a protest.

It is a prayer. It is the hope of every black mother and the desire of every black father. It is a wish that we believe we can speak into existence. It is quite literally our American dream.

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And when people respond to that phrase with “all lives matter” or “white lives matter,” we roll our eyes knowing that there has never been a nanosecond in the history of this country where white lives haven’t been more valuable than a diamond-encrusted, platinum covered brick of gold.

On March 7, 2019, a federal judge said Paul Manafort, who swindled the government out of 10 times more than Langford, who engaged in a decade of crime that netted him millions more than Mecenia Dials’ one-time lack of judgment; who bilked the government out of at least $6 million, stood in front of a federal judge and awaited sentencing.

Manafort showed no remorse. He lied to prosecutors. He refused to cooperate with the investigators. He had shared secret information with Russians.

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But Paul Manafort is white.

Federal District Judge T.S. Ellis, an arch-conservative Reagan appointee who happened to be white, recognized that Paul Manafort looked like him. Ellis said the government’s sentencing recommendation was “excessive.” He said Manafort was a “generous man” and a “good friend” [to others]. Ellis could see things in Manafort because of Manafort’s whiteness.

There is only one logical, data-backed conclusion that explains Ellis’ sentence:

Justice is for white people.

On Dec. 28, 2018, Larry Langford returned to Birmingham, Ala., on a compassionate release after serving nine years in federal prison. Eleven days later, Larry Langford died.

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In November 2018, after 21 years in prison, Mecenia Dials returned home.

But they’re not white so it does not matter.