Racial Disparities in the U.S. Justice System

A Podcast by Malcolm Capers

To listen to Malcolm’s podcast, click play above.

Podcast Script

Malcom’s Note: this transcript derives from a spoken text and follows the style that I wish to present it in.

[Intro music: “The Bigger Picture”–Lil Baby]

Hi, my name is Malcolm Capers, and I am a young Black man from the suburbs of New Jersey. I’ve never done this publicly, but I’m here today to speak about race and the effect it has on people in this country. I want to have a discussion about the racial disparities in the United States justice system and the impact that they have on the Black community today. With everything that’s been going on in this country over the last year or so regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, especially in these past few weeks with the conclusion of the George Floyd trial, today’s episode is timely, and no matter our differences, whether race, age or otherwise, it’s a topic that needs to be addressed.

The conviction of Derek Chauvin in the George Floyd case was a great step in the right direction as far as justice is concerned; however, it doesn’t take away from the fact that there have been major issues in our justice system for years that haven’t been addressed. Eric Garner, the Black man who was choked to death in 2014 over a cigarette? His killer Daniel Pantaleo still walks the streets of New York City as a free man. Terrence Kutcher, the Black man who was shot on camera while he was unarmed. His killer still walks the streets as a free woman. It took 331 days to convict Derek Chauvin of a murder that was nationally televised; however, when the roles are reversed and it’s a Black person perceived to be committing a crime against a white person, even if there isn’t sufficient evidence to charge them, justice is served harshly and swiftly. So, what I want to talk about today is why these disparities are occurring and the impact that has on the Black community.

To better understand these disparities, I did a little research and came across an article called the “Racialization of Crime and Punishment” by Rose M. Brewer and Nancy A. Heitzig. While it was a very dense read, it gave me new insight as to why these disparities may be occurring. The two authors refer to a term called critical race theory, and that term gave a name to an issue that my parents and I had been speaking about for years. In much less complicated terms, the framework behind critical race theory explains that the reason that Black people are treated unfairly in the U.S. justice system and in the U.S. as a whole is because when our constitution was drafted in 1787, all those hundreds of years ago, our wants, needs, opinions, [and] essentially, we as a race, weren’t taken into account, and the reason that we weren’t taken into account is because we were never supposed to have rights.

From the moment Black people arrived in the United States in the 1600s, and for a very long time after that, the line between white people and Black people was very clear. If you were white, you were free, and if you were a landowner, that was even better. However, if you were Black, no matter the shade, you were property, so instead of race and color just signifying a difference in the melanin levels in our skin, it became a matter of superiority. Whiteness was used as a sort of currency. If you had it, you could do whatever you wanted, and you were afforded many privileges that Black people weren’t. You had access to the best doctors, you could go to the best schools, you could drink clean water. On the contrary, if you didn’t have it, you were at the white folks’s mercy. You can use your imagination–we were subjected to torment, rape, and all types physical abuse. On top of that, Black people didn’t have access to the best doctors, or the best schools, or to the opportunities that white people were afforded. But we still wanted to live and we still had to put food on the table for our families. And because Black people weren’t afforded the same opportunities to eat and to survive, many young Black men and women turned to crime–drugs, robbery, and other crimes in order to put the money in their bank account and put food on the table for their family. And when you’re doing this consistently, there’s a very high chance that you’re going to get caught, thus starting a treacherous cycle.

Now while it is technically illegal to discriminate by race in the court of law, my research shows that Black people are arrested and charged at a rate much higher than white people. In fact, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, for every 100,000 white people arrested, only 450 are incarcerated; for every 100,000 Black people arrested, 2,036 are incarcerated. That’s more than five times the incarceration rate of our white peers. To go along with this, it might also help to look at evidence from a study by David Baldus that proves that cases involving Black defendants and white victims are more likely to result in a sentence of death than cases involving any other racial combination. So, we are being arrested at a higher rate and getting much harsher sentences than our white counterparts, and when you get these harsher sentences, usually they are felony charges. In the U.S., once you’re labeled a felon, your life is effectively over. Instead of, you know, rehabilitating like our justice system is supposed to do, the government just cages them up like animals in a hostile system, and with no educational programming, they spit them back on the streets with nothing to show for their time served but the label felon. Then immediately after being released from jail, the newly freed men and women are required to prove that they have a permanent dwelling and a place of work, but as a felon in this country that’s almost impossible. Most jobs won’t even look your way because of your criminal history. In fact, you can’t even apply to work in certain fields like teaching, child care, or law enforcement because you have a felony conviction, and if you have a drug charge, not only does the felony conviction hinder you from getting a job, but the drug conviction permanently bans you from receiving any federal public assistance. This includes assistance for needy families, Medicaid, supplemental social security income, and even food stamps. You also can’t live on Section 8, which is public housing, and in many states, felons are disenfranchised, which means they’re not allowed to vote.

So, with no voting rights, no place to live, and no legal way to make money, many former convicts often find themselves engaging in the same illegal activities that got them arrested in the first place. To be exact, about 83% re-offend. So now we have grown men who have re-offended and are going back to jail. As a result, our younger Black men have no fathers to guide them, and because of all the new measures that are constantly being put in place to punish criminals, many young Black kids in these single mother low-income situations often end up the same way that their fathers did: in jail. And that’s the cycle that I’m talking about. It’s a never-ending one.

Being raised as a young Black man in this country and seeing and experiencing this cycle firsthand, it’s very disheartening, you know. While I am blessed to come from a successful family who has managed to stay out of the system and out of trouble for so long, many of the people close to me have not. I’d say about one-third of my friends have parents or siblings who have been to jail or are currently in the system, and I’ve seen the effect that it has on those kids. They lack love, they lack guidance. And because they weren’t taught otherwise, they treat authority figures as if they are nobodies, and realistically, I can’t blame them. When all you know is police officers taking your loved ones and racially profiling you and even harassing your friends, why would you respect them? In your head, they’re the enemy and, you know, with no initiative being taken to teach kids otherwise, they end up trying to evade and outsmart the enemy, only to fall right into the trap and end up right back in the system and so they just continue said cycle.

The system has been controlling and holding back Black people for hundreds of years, and honestly, I see no clear end in sight. But because I have been afforded the life and opportunities that I have, I’m going to do everything humanly possible to protect the people that I love and care about from the system and to whatever extent that I can, ensure that my children and their children and, in a much broader scope, all Black children, can grow up in a world that’s more suited for us. A world where they see successful men and women who look like them. A world where they understand that no matter their skin color, they can achieve anything that they put their mind to as long as they work hard enough. It’s a tall task, but our generation needs to be the one to do it. We can be the generation to break the cycle and change the narrative, but we have to come together as one to do so. That is the point of this podcast. Not to bring you a boring history lesson, but to alert people to this problem, and hopefully as a result encourage a solution. Individually, our efforts may seem futile, but when we come together as a race, we are an unstoppable force, and when unstoppable forces meet immovable objects, change is inevitable.


Baldus, D. C., Woodworth, G., & Pulaski, C. A. (1990). Equal justice and the death penalty: A legal and empirical analysis. Northeastern University Press.

Brewer, R. M., & Heitzeg, N. A. (2008). The racialization of crime and punishment: Criminal justice, color-blind racism, and the political economy of the prison industrial complex. American Behavioral Scientist, 51(5), 625-644.

Prison Policy Initiative, P. P. (2020). U.S. incarceration rates by race. U.S. incarceration rates by race | Prison Policy Initiative. Retrieved November 7, 2021, from https://www.prisonpolicy.org/graphs/raceinc.html.

U.S. Department of Justice. (2018, May 21). 2018 update on prisoner recidivism: A 9-year follow-up period (2005-2014). Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved November 7, 2021, from https://bjs.ojp.gov/library/publications/2018-update-prisoner-recidivism-9-year-follow-period-2005-2014.

Author Interview – Malcolm Capers

Q: Why did you choose to write about your particular topic for the project?

A: I felt that this was an extremely important topic. In the past two years, it has become increasingly obvious that Black people are treated as inferior in this country — not just in our justice system but in general. I wanted to bring awareness to that in a more informal way and go in-depth about the effect that this unfair treatment has on the Black community.

Q: With this contest, we want to feature pieces that challenge and discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion. How do you feel your piece accomplishes that goal? 

A: I think my piece accomplishes this by highlighting the racial disparities in our justice system and explaining the effect that it had and still has on the Black community. It examines our entire system and encourages people to question: if we know all of this, why are Black people still treated as inferior to this day?

Q: How do you feel the genre of the project helped you effectively communicate to your audience? What were the advantages of this genre in particular?

A: Advocating for the Black community is very important to me, and this podcast project gave me an outlet to do so. It enabled me to educate my peers in an informal and easy-to-understand way about what is going on in this country and the effect it has on our community.

Q: What did you learn through the process of research and completing this project, and/or the experience of preparing it for publication?

A: This was my first true research project, so I learned a lot. I never understood how hard it was to really research and vet information for an in-depth project. It took days just to get the information I needed and then at least another day to filter out unneeded information and start to build my outline. As far as publication, I had never experienced that either, and it is definitely a rigorous process. Perfecting a piece that I thought was perfect at the time is tough, but [Phoenix Rhetorix editor] Professor Crosby has been great and has made the experience very manageable so far.

Q: How has your writing process changed throughout your time at Elon? How do you feel ENG 1100 fostered that change?

A: I have become a much better writer since I enrolled at Elon. I believe that between the great teaching and the constant practice, becoming a stronger writer was inevitable. My ENG 1100 class turned writing from something I dreaded doing my entire life to something that I actually enjoy now, and I’d like to attribute a lot of that to my ENG 1100 professor, Dr. Dinidu Karunanayake. He made writing interesting and fun and really encouraged us to write about what we were passionate about. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.

Q: What advice would you give to students who are currently enrolled in ENG 1100, might want to complete a similar project, or are interested in publishing in Phoenix Rhetorix?

A: Take advantage, and follow your passion. ENG 1100 is one of the few classes where following your passion is encouraged, and students should take full advantage of that. Use it to your benefit, and make a difference. You are being provided with a platform, so make the most of it.

ENG1100 Faculty Interview – Dinidu Karunanayake

Q: What is your overall approach to teaching ENG 1100? 

A: I value a student-centric approach in which students play the main role in knowledge production. At the same time, I want to challenge them to think, research, and compose beyond their comfort zones. To facilitate this, I follow an inquiry-based method. We begin with personal reflection. Students are encouraged to “mindfully read” their own perceptions of their past experiences and biases. This leads to the next inquiry: rhetorical analysis in which students learn how to mindfully examine texts. We discuss the pedagogical power of texts and question how ethics come into play. Then we compose research arguments thinking about academic audiences. Finally, we translate the research essays into multimedia texts. In sum, ENG 1100 is a space where I help students develop a set of transferable interdisciplinary skills that they can apply both inside and outside the classroom.  

Q: What do you hope students get out of completing this particular project?  

A: The reflective inquiry delivers several objectives. It urges students to re-evaluate their familiar perceptions of what writing is. Here, students are asked to use their own experiences as rich material to tell a story. The first thing they learn is that they are already writers; writing can be an everyday practice; and that they have an audience looking forward to reading their work. This perspective goes a long way. On the other hand, they realize the multimodal nature of composition. I offer the option of a podcast because it helps students merge their creativity with reflection, and in a sense, choreograph its delivery. They also learn that composition is a process and gather hands-on experience in this regard. 

Q: In completing this project, did your student face any particular challenges? If so, how did you help them navigate those challenges, and/or how did they work to overcome them?

A: Once we demystify what composition is, and when we realize that everyone is a writer, students face fewer challenges. They are often already familiar with the technology. We have peer review sessions in addition to one-on-conferences with me. The beautiful thing is when students have technology-related questions, their colleagues readily offer advice. Therefore, the challenges in fact foster a collective learning experience. 

Q: What was the most rewarding part of working with your student on this project?

A: The most rewarding part of working with Mary Kate in Fall 2020 and Malcolm Capers in Spring 2021 was witnessing the growth of their ideas through different stages. I’m truly happy to realize that I have facilitated their creative journeys. 

Q: What advice would you give to students who are currently enrolled in ENG 1100, might want to complete a similar project, or are interested in publishing in Phoenix Rhetorix?

A: I would encourage students to consider ENG 1100 as more than a writing class. It is a place of self-discovery and offers many creative and research possibilities. It’s one of the most important classes they take for their future in academia and beyond. Consider it a place of both unlearning some previous (mis)conceptions and co-creating new knowledge. Be adventurous. Experiment with new media. The class will help you unearth and hone some of your talents that you might have so far taken for granted.