WASHINGTON, D.C. – United States
In the United States of America, there is an expression that purports to describe procedures under the law: “innocent until proven guilty.”
On the surface, this phrase highlights the epitome of a democratic society – one that hears evidence, first, and reasons then votes upon that evidence, second. It rings of a society that bases decisions upon judicious logic and takes pride in a rigor of due process.
In practice, however, those ideals of utmost ethic are discarded in the callous wind. Semblances of procedure are eroded by barbaric impulses to stick with the tribe at the expense of the lives of humans.
It is quite the stretch to label court proceedings with whites and Black people at opposing ends of a trial. What transpires is rather predetermined by an American racial order where whites receive the full extent of protection and Blacks are subjected to the full extent of mistreatment.
In 1955, for example, after two white men, Roy Bryan and J.W. Milam, violently beat and murdered Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old boy in Mississippi, an all white jury returned a “Not Guilty” verdict after a mere 67 minutes of deliberation.
On the other hand, trials that convict African Americans for crimes, especially where the accuser is white, last an astonishingly short duration. Historically, deliberations among white jurors and decisions from judges that sentence African Americans to death were rendered in minutes.
A century before Emmett Till was brutally murdered, a Missourian white slave owner Robert Newsom repeatedly raped a nineteen-year-old Black girl, Celia, for more than five years. When Newsom attacked Ceila once again in her cabin, she fought back in self-defense to end the constant rape, fatally clubbing her abuser.
An all white jury looked past the rape of young Ceila.
No liberal white feminists stood by the protection of a Black girl against assault committed by a white man. Ceila, like other African slaves, never consented to their daily rape. Yet, white women and men facilitated these violations against Black bodies. Rather than protect her from a violent assailant, the all white jury sentenced Celia to death – to be “hanged by the neck until dead.”
Another shameful example of American injustice occurred in 1933 when an all white jury took five minutes to render a guilty verdict against the Scottsboro Boys, the nine young Black teenagers who were falsely accused of raping two white women.
Upon rendering the decision, the white jurors emerged from the jury room in laughter, finding pleasure in marring the lives of young Black boys, even savoring the thought of sentencing them to death.
More often than not, whites are unwilling to accord Blacks the presumption of innocence that is part of the law.
Centuries after the Anglo-Saxons who laid claim to Native American lands wrote that “all men are created equal,” through the rampant practices of racial injustice under federal law, they undid the very essence of those words, not only during the 18th century when Anglo-Saxons declared racism legal, but even today when societal rhetoric alleges racial equality to be the norm.
One needs to look no further than mass incarceration statistics, or any other indicator for that matter, to see that racial equality is nowhere to be found within U.S. borders.
In an American society that for 400 years, from the federal government all the way down to ordinary citizens, has verified its penchant for unequal treatment and even ordered violence on the sole basis of skin color, what does it mean for a Black man or woman to have a trial by jury, if the proceedings merely amount to a trial by racists?
What does “innocent until proven guilty” mean for African Americans who are sent to trial by majority white or all white juries? What does it mean for white murderers like Daniel Panteleo, Darren Wilson, and George Zimmerman who are exonerated by all white or majority white juries?
What does it mean for Black families who by virtue of skin color are incapable of receiving justice in America when they are subjected to the judgments of all white and majority white juries?
If America is a racist country and racism is a hate crime perpetrated by whites in America, how then, under all white or majority white juries, can African Americans be assured that justice will be served? How will a statement like “I will have my day in court” ever apply to them?
So are the issues that African Americans have grappled with since they were rounded up, chained, and shipped under brutal, inhumane conditions to the Americas through the transatlantic slave trade.
These are the issues that contemporary Blacks still face while in residence in the United States, alongside the descendants of the slave trading whites who continue to persecute them.
The conundrum before African Americans is how to achieve justice at the hands of the unjust.
More appropriately, though, the burden falls upon white Americans to prove they can attain what has thus far been elusive to them: an ultimate victory of morality, the mark of civilization and humanity.