History and the Effects of the Criminal Justice System on Minorities -- 1940 to 1960
The 20-year period from 1940 to 1960 represented a crossroads for the United States in terms of engagement in an enormously costly world war as well as the social upheavals that resulted from the manner in which minorities in general, and Asian and African-Americans in particular, had been historically treated. While blacks had historically been the target of much of the racist views and violence in the U.S. through the mid-20th century, Asian-Americans were never far behind in the social mix and the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 just made matters worse for all concerned. Indeed, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans were interred during the war "for their own protection," but many observers suggested this fundamental abrogation of these citizen's constitutional rights was tantamount to illegal imprisonment and punishment. To determine the historical effects of the criminal justice system on minorities in the U.S., this paper will provide a discussion concerning the manner in which the criminal justice system and government treated Asian-American as well as African-Americans through the 1940s to 1960s, followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.
Review and Discussion
Background and Overview.
According to Black's Law Dictionary (1990), the criminal justice system in the United States is comprised of "a network of courts and tribunals which deal with criminal law and its enforcement" (p. 374). The enforcement component of the criminal justice system is the nation's police departments, which began in America around 1830, in Philadelphia and New York (Bouza, 1990). For the first 130 years of their history, these elements of the criminal justice system were comprised entirely of white males. "This prejudicial attitude toward sex and race mirrored that of the larger society," Bouza advises (p. 141). Unfortunately, substantive changes in this composition were slow in coming, and have taken longer than most observers would have believed. As a result, throughout their respective histories, police departments in the United States have remained white male-dominated institutions (Bouza, 1990). Even the modest gains realized by minorities in becoming part of the criminal justice system have been insufficient to offset this arrangement: "The entrance of women in large numbers and, to a lesser degree, blacks and other minorities changed the mix, but police departments still tend to be ruled by white men, even in cities where the chief or the mayor is black" (Bouza, p. 34). While they are the most visible symbol of the criminal justice system, police are just the first link in an enormous nationwide network that extends all the way to the Supreme Court; however, for the vast majority of minority citizens during the early 1940s and beyond, access to these higher echelons was diminished or nonexistent. Jim Crow laws were still fully in place across the country and segregation was an institutionalized way of life for the vast majority of the south (Klarman, 2004). The early 1940s were also a crucible for the American way of life as the nation was confronted with a true "Axis of Evil" in the form of Nazi Germany, Japan and Italy, among others, and the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 galvanized the country's criminal justice system into one with a more compelling mission than harassing African-Americans: rounding up and interring tens of thousand of Japanese-American (and German-American) citizens in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution (Collins, 1985), events which are discussed further below.
Criminal Justice System and Asian-Americans -- 1940 -- 1960.
According to Collins (1985), during 1941, 112,000 persons of Japanese descent were incarcerated without their constitutional guarantees to due process. At the time, it was widely assumed that this racial minority represented the most dangerous element in American society, the author says. "Widespread acceptance of this belief on the West Coast permitted the government to subject them throughout the war to a mass probing and surveillance process which was almost certainly without parallel in American history" (Collins, 1985, p. 5). This fundamentally illegal and morally indefensible legislation placed enormous strains on the loyalty of both the United States-born Japanese (known as "Nisei") as well as their alien parents (who were known as "Issei"); although the vast majority accepted the harsh realities of these hardships, a significant minority reacted to their incarceration by renouncing their American citizenships. In this regard, Collins reports, "Thus, an official federal policy of determination of loyalty by race drove many otherwise loyal citizens to an act which most were soon to regret" (Collins, 1985, p. 6). In fact, U.S. legislators were anxious to help these minority members along the way and in July, 1944, Congress passed an amendment to the Nationality Act of 1940. This amendment allowed United States nationals to renounce their citizenship during wartime while they were still residing within the country. This legislation was the result of three years of efforts by congressional leaders from the Pacific Coast to help rid the country of what these legislators regarded to be an undesirable race: the Japanese. "While the act was a somewhat diminished version of what they actually desired, that is, to rid the United States of its entire Japanese population, it did succeed far beyond their expectations" (Collins, 1985, p. 6). As a result of what was essentially an official policy of persecution and imprisonment by the U.S. government, 5,589 Nisei were required to give up their lands in a mass movement during the months of December 1944 and through early 1945. Consequently, one out of every fourteen American citizens of Japanese descent renounced their citizenship and became in fact a "native American alien" during the pendency of the war and thereafter (Collins, 1985).
In his book, Whispered Silences: Japanese-Americans and World War II, Okihiro (1996) reports that, "The subject of Japanese-Americans and World War II is clearly the most written about episode in Asian-American history and perhaps is the most recognized historical event of significance to Asian-Americans among contemporary Americans" (p. 10). Despite the fairly benign pictures of these internment camps shown in documentaries today, the conditions for many Asian-Americans was certainly less than ideal. Even for those who were not subjected to physical violence or threats experienced a profound psychological insult. According to Okihiro, "Their summary apprehension, the grim condition of their quarters, the ever-present armed guards, arbitrary punishments, and threats of immediate execution worked upon the minds of the internees" (p. 170). Some of Japanese internees were treated less harshly than others, but some were actually brutalized by their captors; for example, Okihiro cites examples of harassment such as being fed food made unpalatable with too much salt or pepper, to incarceration in solitary confinement, to periodic beatings, which, in one case, caused the internee's front teeth to be knocked out. Indeed, "Guards provoked and threatened with unsheathed bayonets and commonly used handcuffs to restrain the internees. Those practices, whether widespread and condoned by the government's Alien Enemy Control Unit or not, clearly occurred, and word of the abuse spread quickly among the subject population" (Okihiro, p. 170).
Criminal Justice System and African-Americans -- 1940 -- 1960.
During the 1940s, the Supreme Court issues a number of decisions that provided some new protections for black rights, but these advances were limited. According to Klarman, "The justices were willing to intervene against the worst abuses of Jim Crow, such as the willingness to execute innocent blacks who were convicted on the basis of tortured confessions in farcical trials. They were less inclined to challenge the more routine but fundamental aspects of white supremacy, such as segregation and disfranchisement, which emerged from this period mostly unscathed" (p. 99). Despite these modest protections for black rights, widespread abuses and violence continued. During the period from the 1950s to 1960s, for example, an inordinate percentage of blacks were killed by law enforcement authorities compared to their white counterparts. According to Walker (1993), "Police shootings have always been a civil rights issue. Research indicated that the disparity in persons shot and killed by the police was as high as eight blacks for every one white. These data lent support to the allegation that the police had two trigger fingers, one for whites and another for blacks" (emphasis added) (p. 27). Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, African-Americans continued to experience the effects of a racist criminal justice system that affected virtually every part of their lives in ways that most whites of the era could not even begin to understand. For example, Bailey and Green (1999) point out that "Being white was a property that African-Americans did not possess. This lack of whiteness not only restricted them in their access to adequate public accommodation on railroads and streetcars and in theaters and hotels, it also meant that they were barred from certain jobs that were 'color-coded'" (p. 66).
Because this level of racism had been internalized and institutionalized, it was simply the accepted way of life for millions and millions of white…
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