This history of racial inequality and economic injustice in the United States has created continuing challenges for all Americans. EJI believes more must be done to advance our collective goal of equal justice for all. The United States has done very little to acknowledge the legacy of genocide, slavery, lynching, and racial segregation. As a result, people of color are marginalized, disadvantaged, and disproportionately impoverished; the criminal justice system is infected with racial bias; and a presumption of guilt and dangerousness has led to unjustified police violence against black and brown people.
To justify the brutal and dehumanizing institution of slavery in America, its advocates created a myth of racial difference that claimed white people were intellectually and morally superior to African Americans. Under this narrative, black people’s lifelong and nearly inescapable enslavement was defended as “most necessary to the well-being of the negro," instead of a crime against humanity. Slavery was justified as an act of kindness through which whites exposed their less-evolved human property to discipline, hard work, and morality. The formal abolition of slavery did nothing to overcome the harmful ideas created to defend it, and so slavery did not end with emancipation and passage of the 13th Amendment: it evolved.
In the decades that followed, these beliefs in racial hierarchy took new expression in convict leasing, lynching, and other forms of racial terrorism. This violence forced the exodus of millions of black Americans to the North and West, where the narrative of racial difference manifested in urban ghettos and generational poverty. Racial subordination was codified and enforced by violence in the era of Jim Crow and segregation, as the nation and its leaders allowed black people to be burdened, beaten, and marginalized throughout the 20th century.
Courageous activism in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in progress towards civil rights for African Americans, but the myth of racial inferiority was not eradicated. Celebrating and romanticizing the civil rights movement while downplaying the violent and powerful resistance activists faced diverted the national spotlight from the great deal of work left undone. Leading into the end of the 20th century, this left black Americans vulnerable to a new era of racial bias and abuse of power wielded by our contemporary criminal justice system. Today, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Mass incarceration has had devastating consequences for people of color: at the dawn of the 21st century, one in three black boys, and one in six Latino boys, was projected to go to jail or prison in his lifetime.