By: Juan Archuleta, MMA; Sebastian Joseph-Day, Los Angeles Rams; Torry Holt, NFL Legends Community; Mark-Anthony Kaye, LAFC; Tyson Ross, MLB Player
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently overturned Ezzard Ellis’s conviction because the lawyer charged with representing him was a “virulent racist who believed in the inferiority of racial minorities.” In another case tried by that same lawyer, he said that the “n — ” “got what he deserved” after a jury sentenced his client to death. For thirty years, this attorney represented clients, many Black, nearly all of whom he hated.
This lawyer may seem like an outlier in our justice system, but as every sentient and sane being now knows, the criminal legal system is rife with racism, including in the purportedly progressive state of California. A Black man here is eight times more likely to be incarcerated than a white man — in Mississippi, the disparity is “just” 3:1. A Latino man is twice as likely to be incarcerated as a white man in this state, also one of the largest discrepancies in the country. Black men receive longer sentences and are charged more harshly, and Latino men are not far behind. Racism appears in other less statistically demonstrable but no less pernicious ways at every turn in American courthouses. Prosecutors regularly strike Black jurors from the jury pool simply for being Black. In trial after trial, prosecutors use racially coded language, referring to Black defendants as “animals.” For the most part, we tolerate this racism as the cost of doing business in an unjust system.
If California passes the Racial Justice Act, we can start to root racism out from the system at its core. The Act, which is currently before the Senate, would provide a new trial or sentencing hearing for those who can demonstrate that their case was infected by racial bias, either because someone blatantly exhibited it toward the defendant, as occurred in Ezzard Ellis’s case, because a prosecutor charged them differently because of race, or because a judge sentenced them differently than he or she would a white person.
Passage of this Act would be a game changer. We want to believe that we can make people less racist, that we can have enough conversations and talks that suddenly it won’t infect our legal system anymore. While an appealing idea, it has never worked. We’ve tried that with policing, where police forces receive implicit bias training and engage in community policing, and Black men still get shot and Black people are still disproportionately policed. Conversations and trainings likewise won’t remove racism from the rest of the legal system. We need to have strict rules and real consequences for racist behavior, both to stop it from happening or to correct course when it does. We cannot wait to change hearts and minds.
Most voters probably think that people already can get relief once it is discovered that their cases were infected by racism — a reasonable assumption — but they would be wrong. To overturn a conviction or get a new sentence in our legal system, a person must show that racism not only occurred in his or her case, but that it also measurably impacted the outcome of the trial or sentencing. In other words, the individual must definitely prove that he or she would not have been convicted, or would have been sentenced to a lower term but for the racism. Because the outcome of every case is the product of a wide variety of factors, in practice, it is almost impossible to conclusively demonstrate that race tipped the scales. As a result, disparate sentencing and charging practices persist at every level of the legal system, and racism is simply considered an unfortunate byproduct of punishment.
Allowing racism to go unchecked in our legal system is not only morally opprobrious, but it also makes us less safe. When people do not believe that the system treats them fairly, they are less likely to call the police for help, they are less likely to call the police to help others, and they are less likely to testify at trial as witnesses. When people do not want to participate in legal proceedings, serious crimes go unsolved.
Especially in this moment, as people are storming the street daily demanding an end to the rampant discrimination that pervades our criminal legal system, passing the Racial Justice Act is a moral imperative. By doing so, our elected officials would signal to the public that in California we will no longer tolerate a system that lets race casually invade it at every turn. Failing to pass it, on the other hand, would let people know that racism is here to stay as we take away people’s liberty. This latter message is simply one we cannot afford.
About Players Coalition
Players Coalition is structured as an independent 501(c)(3) (charity) and 501(c)(4) (advocacy) organization, working with professional athletes, coaches and owners across leagues to improve social justice and racial equality in our country.