Racial Justice

Racial Justice

We must truthfully confront our history of racial injustice before we can repair its painful legacy.

EJI has been challenging racial injustice in criminal and civil cases for over 30 years.

EJI believes we need a new era of truth and justice that starts with confronting our history of racial injustice.

American history begins with the creation of a myth to absolve white settlers of the genocide of Native Americans: the false belief that nonwhite people are less human than white people. This belief in racial hierarchy survived slavery’s abolition, fueled racial terror lynchings, demanded legally codified segregation, and spawned our mass incarceration crisis.

The dehumanizing myth of racial difference endures today because we don’t talk about it.

EJI is working to change that. We’re exposing the myth and its toxic legacy in our reports and videos—and on this page. Our Community Remembrance Project is empowering communities to change the physical landscape to honestly reflect our history. And we’re using the power of place to inspire people to visit Montgomery, Alabama, to learn and reflect in our Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

Beginning in the 17th century, millions of African people were kidnapped, enslaved, and shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas under horrific conditions. Nearly two million people died at sea during the agonizing journey.

For the next two centuries, the enslavement of black people in the United States created wealth, opportunity, and prosperity for millions of Americans. As American slavery evolved, an elaborate and enduring mythology about the inferiority of black people was created to legitimate, perpetuate, and defend slavery. This mythology survived slavery’s formal abolition following the Civil War.

This animated short film by acclaimed artist Molly Crabapple, with narration by Bryan Stevenson, illustrates how the elaborate mythology of racial difference that was created to justify and sustain enslavement evolved after abolition.

In the South, where the enslavement of black people was widely embraced, resistance to ending slavery persisted for another century after the 13th Amendment passed in 1865. Today, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, very little has been done to address the legacy of slavery and its meaning in contemporary life.

In many communities like Montgomery, Alabama—which by 1860 was the capital of the domestic slave trade in Alabama—there is little understanding of the slave trade, slavery, or the longstanding effort to sustain the racial hierarchy that slavery created. In fact, an alternative narrative has emerged in many Southern communities that celebrates the slavery era, honors slavery’s principal proponents and defenders, and refuses to acknowledge or address the problems created by the legacy of slavery.

Racial Terror Lynching

Lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation.

Lynching emerged as a vicious tool of racial control in the South after the Civil War. Lynchings were violent and public events designed to terrorize all black people in order to re-establish white supremacy and suppress black civil rights.

This was not “frontier justice” carried out by a few vigilantes or extremists. Instead, many African Americans were tortured to death in front of picnicking spectators for things like bumping into a white person, wearing their military uniforms, or not using the appropriate title when addressing a white person.

Lynch mobs included elected officials and prominent citizens. White people were celebrated—not arrested—for torturing and killing black people. Spectators bought body parts as souvenirs and posed with hanging corpses for picture postcards to mail to their loved ones.

EJI collaborated with renowned artist Molly Crabapple on this animated video, which unflinchingly explores America’s brutal history of lynching and racial terror.

EJI has documented 4,084 racial terror lynchings in 12 Southern states between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and 1950, which is at least 800 more lynchings in these states than previously reported. EJI has also documented more than 300 racial terror lynchings in other states during this time period. In addition, for all the documented lynchings covered in newspaper reports, many racial terror lynchings went unreported and their victims remain unknown.

Lynching shaped the geographic, political, social, and economic conditions that African Americans experience today. Critically, racial terror lynching reinforced the belief that black people are inherently guilty and dangerous. That belief underlies the racial inequality in our criminal justice system today. Mass incarceration, racially biased capital punishment, excessive and disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were shaped by the terror era.

Watch the extraordinary journey of a family and community who overcame a century of silence to expose an American story about hard work and achievement, racial terrorism and exile, and the healing power of truth-telling.

EJI believes it is critically important to confront America’s history of racial terror lynching. Our Community Remembrance Project is part of our campaign to recognize the victims of lynching by collecting soil from lynching sites, erecting historical markers, and creating a national memorial that acknowledges the horrors of racial injustice.

Segregation

In response to demands for equal rights, millions of white Americans made clear their determined, unwavering, and committed opposition to racial equality, integration, and civil rights.

The story of the American civil rights movement is incomplete. We appropriately honor the activists who bravely challenged segregation, but we don’t talk about the widespread and violent opposition to racial inequality.

Opposition to civil rights and racial equality was a mass movement. Most white Americans, especially in the South, supported segregation. Millions of white parents voted to close and defund public schools, transferred their children to private, white-only schools, and harassed and violently attacked black students while their own children watched or participated.

Over the last 50 years, our political, social, and cultural institutions embraced elected officials, journalists, and white leaders who espoused racist ideas and supported white supremacy. White segregationists were not banished—they were elected and re-elected to prominent offices for decades after the civil rights movement.

Today more than ever, we need to acknowledge that most white Americans supported segregation—only a small minority of white Americans actively dissented from this widespread opposition to civil rights.

EJI’s online experience and our Legacy Museum use video footage from the segregation era to show how millions of white Americans arrested, beat, bombed, and terrorized civil rights demonstrators, including children. We profile the senators, governors, judges, writers, and ministers who led the movement to maintain segregation. And we expose the use of Confederate iconography to rally the opposition to racial equality with an interactive map showing thousands of Confederate monuments that were erected to maintain white supremacy long after the Civil War.

Presumption of Guilt

Racial disparities in our criminal justice system are a legacy of our history of racial injustice.

Black men are nearly six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men; Latino men are nearly three times as likely. Native Americans are incarcerated at more than twice the rate of white Americans.1 Jennifer Bronson, Ph.D., and E. Ann Carson, Ph.D., “Prisoners in 2017,” Bureau of Justice Statistics (April 2019). One of every three black boys, and one of six Latino boys, born in 2001 will go to jail or prison if current trends continue.

These racial disparities are rooted in a narrative of racial difference—the belief that black people were inferior—that was created to justify the enslavement of black people. That belief survived the formal abolition of slavery and evolved to include the belief that black people are dangerous criminals.

Criminalizing black people was the basis for convict leasing, a system created to provide cheap labor after slavery was abolished. Southern lawmakers passed “Black Codes” so that African Americans could be arrested for “crimes” like loitering and forced to work in white-owned businesses and plantations throughout the South.

This belief was reinforced during the decades of racial terror lynchings that followed enslavement when white people defended the torture and murder of black people as necessary to protect their property, families, and way of life from black “criminals.”

Bryan Stevenson advances a much-needed conversation about racial discrimination, police violence, and the tensions created by a society still corrupted by a narrative of racial difference that undermines justice and public safety.

The presumption of guilt and dangerousness assigned to African Americans has made minority communities particularly vulnerable to the unfair administration of criminal justice. Numerous studies have demonstrated that white people have strong unconscious associations between blackness and criminality.2 For example, Jennifer L. Eberhardt et al, “Seeing Black: Race, Crime, and Visual Processing,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2004). Implicit biases have been shown to affect policing and all aspects of the criminal justice system, leading to:

  • Disparately frequent police stops, searches, and violence towards young men of color
  • Higher rates of childhood suspension, expulsion, and arrest at school
  • Disproportionate contact with the juvenile justice system
  • Harsher charging decisions and disadvantaged plea negotiations
  • A greater likelihood of being denied bail and diversion
  • An increased risk of wrongful convictions and unfair sentences
  • Higher rates of probation and parole revocation.

So deeply entrenched is the presumption that people of color are dangerous and guilty that studies have found that Americans’ support for harsh criminal justice policies correlated with how many African Americans they believed were in prison: the more black people they believed were incarcerated, the more they supported aggressive policing tactics and excessively punitive sentencing laws.3 Rebecca C. Hetey & Jennifer L. Eberhardt, “Racial Disparities in Incarceration Increase Acceptance of Punitive Policies,” Psychological Science (Aug. 5, 2014).

Understanding how today’s criminal justice crisis is rooted in our country’s history of racial injustice requires truthfully facing that history and its legacy. EJI is challenging the presumption of guilt and dangerousness in our work inside and outside the courtroom to reform the criminal justice system.

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