Democratic Party Deliverance on Abolishing Systemic Racism

by Marianella Herrera

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The Black Lives Matter Global Network, established four short years ago, has made it their mission to collectively commit “to imagining and creating a world free of anti-Blackness, where every Black person has the social, economic, and political power to thrive.” [1] In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and countless other Black Americans who have suffered at the hands of systemic racism and police brutality, the United States is facing a racial reckoning calling for the legitimation of grievances and reparations for the Black community.  This call to action seems to have reached a crucial tipping point as thousands of marches were held across the country to shed light on a system inherently built on inequality and the oppression of Black people, as well as the exhaustion that accompanies the prejudices borne from it. Millions of white Americans were made witness to their own privileged viewpoints, and on a much more fundamental level, their own privileged way of existing. Yet, as the initial momentum of this movement continues to fade, will society perform its due diligence in preserving its message instead of relegating it to a moment in history? 

According to the Grassroots Policy Project, involving people of color in decision-making processes is one of many ways to begin the development of “policies that begin to dismantle the system of structural racism.” This likewise includes increasing civic participation for people of color and/or removing any barriers to participation and explicitly addressing disparate outcomes based on race. [2] While these criteria for policy development may sound quite tempting, systemic racism was never that simple and it never will be. It is difficult to reform a system that was broken to begin with. Thus, are the amendments made to the Democratic Party Platform just as misleading? Will representatives actually take the necessary steps outlined in the party’s new agenda to “overhaul the criminal justice system from top to bottom?” [3] An analysis conducted by the New York Times found that, interestingly enough, “the platform does not include support for defunding the police” but rather vaguely states that “Democrats support national standards governing the use of force.” [4] Furthermore, the analysis notes that “the platform advocates for leaving it up to the states to determine whether to legalize marijuana for recreational use,” a practice that has led to the disproportionate incarceration of Black and Latinx individuals despite no disparity in usage across racial lines. Ever opportunistic, the Democratic Platform acknowledges that “this is the moment to root out structural and systemic racism in our criminal justice system and our society, and reimagine public safety for the benefit of our people and the character of our country,” yet offers elusive paths to actually achieving such a thing. [4] These performative actions are more indicative of the party capitalizing on the moment rather than a genuine interest in implementing change through policy.

The divergence in what the party says and what the party does leaves much to be desired, even before one considers the party’s presidential ticket: former Vice President Joe Biden and California Senator Kamala Harris. Both politicians are certainly notorious for their history with the “tough on crime” stance that has come under intense scrutiny by progressives who are pushing for a rehabilitative justice system. In 1989, Biden, a senator at the time, took to national television to criticize President George H.W. Bush’s lax stance on the War on Drugs. According to Joe Biden, President Bush’s plan didn’t “include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, not enough prosecutors to convict them, not enough judges to sentence them, and not enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.” [5] Shortly thereafter, Biden calls for a tripling in efforts for a crusade that not only increased the Black arrest rate by 219% between 1980 and 1989, but also gave birth to the privatized and for-profit prison system. [6] While the former Vice President has backtracked on stances such as the death penalty and mandatory minimum sentences, he has yet to voice support for calls to defund the police; instead, Biden proposes a restoration of trust between the police and communities to address the circumstances of systemic police misconduct.” [7] 

Kamala Harris, the original “progressive prosecutor,” also seems to support outdated criminal justice policies. In 2008, Harris created the Chronic Truancy Reduction initiative that became the inspiration for California Senate Bill 1317, which sanctioned the incarceration of parents responsible for chronically truant children. These types of statutes have been shown to disparage low-income and working-class families, leading to an increase in the separation of families and children in foster care, as well as an increase in juvenile probation and violations. [8] “In 2014, she declined to take a position on Proposition 47, a ballot initiative approved by voters, that reduced certain low-level felonies to misdemeanors,” wrote Lara Bazelon in an opinion piece for the New York Times just days before Harris announced her presidential bid. [9] Bazelon, a law professor and the former director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles, argues that politicians must compromise in order to make important headway for the sake of their constituents, yet Harris “did not barter or trade to get the support of more conservative law-and-order types; she gave it all away.” This begs the question: will Kamala Harris continue to forego justice to avoid jeopardizing her political capital?

Harris’ blatant refusals to reassess wrongful conviction cases as Attorney General, despite the discrepancies in prosecution and evidence handling as seen in the George Gage and Kevin Cooper trials, respectively, point to thinly veiled indifference on Harris’s part. [10] In the case of George Gage, many inconsistencies appeared throughout the course of the trial, including withheld and redacted medical records, various reshufflings of judges, and dubious witness credibility. As seen in footage released by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, one judge even remarks that the conviction did not seem to be made based on overpowering evidence and speculates that the outcome of the trial would have been different if  the jury had been given the full scope of information. He powerfully states that the “prosecutor’s job is to do more than secure convictions… and maintain them. [They’re] ultimately trying to do justice.” [11] Kevin Cooper faced similar bias when first-responding police officers disposed of bloody overalls recovered at the crime scene, shortly thereafter arresting Cooper. Not only has the evidence against Kevin Cooper been largely discredited due to its misleading nature, but many apolitical organizations have also conducted their own inquiries into the case in support of Cooper’s innocence, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the American Bar Association. [12] As of August 2020, advanced DNA testing is still being conducted to exonerate Cooper, yet he still sits on death row in San Quentin Prison. 

Both candidates, as well as the Democratic Party itself, must therefore find it within themselves to reevaluate the trajectory of their platform, and such valuable change can be directly linked to the will of the people. Democracy, by its very definition, revolves around people utilizing the intrinsic power their voices carry, and nothing proves this point better than the legislative progress the protests have brought about. The Justice for Breonna Taylor Act, sponsored by Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky, “prohibits no-knock warrants…  it requires federal law enforcement officers to provide notice of their authority and purpose before executing a warrant.” [13] The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act likewise offers a plethora of institutional changes, including “amending the federal criminal statute to prosecute police misconduct…, granting the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division subpoena power… to develop authority to conduct independent investigations into problematic police departments…, and the creation of a nationwide police misconduct registry” to prevent officers from fleeing jurisdictions. [14]

Yet, these two bills are not enough. At best, they are late attempts to reverse injustices hundreds of years in the making. Breonna Taylor and George Floyd need not have died in order for the war against racism to make itself known in the very framework of our government; it was always there. Many Americans forget that the white men who wrote the Constitution of the United States compromised on slavery; Robert Dahl wrote, “that it took three-quarters of a century and a sanguinary civil war before slavery was abolished should at the least make us doubt whether the document of the Framers ought to be regarded as holy writ.” [15] That it took almost another century for African Americans to actively participate in our democracy without unjust obstruction is another matter–one that is still up for debate given the increased suppression of minority votes. The events of the past year, paired with the systemic inequality that has long oppressed Black Americans, have highlighted politicians’ overwhelming complacency when it comes to enacting the just policies that their constituents so desperately need. The itch for change is presenting itself, and yet the government is failing to produce results. Breonna Taylor has not gotten the justice she deserves and wanton endangerment seems to supersede murder. When asked about the issue of race–and not the issue of racism–presidential candidates are given the option to simply ignore the question. American society is at a crossroads and it is becoming very evident which path people are prepared to take.

Author’s Note: A special thanks to Alex Davis (Cornell ‘21) and Samantha Lee (Princeton ‘22) for your invaluable advice; without you, this article would be nothing.