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Death of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: Association between race, poverty, and social exclusion in the US

John Wight is a writer and commentator specializing in geopolitics, UK domestic politics, culture and sport.

Published time: April 23, 2014 14:54
Former South African president and Nobel Peace laureate, Nelson Mandela (R), shakes hands with former US boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter (L) during the inaugural World Reconciliation Day celebrations in Melbourne 08 September 2000. (AFP Photo / Torsten Blackwood)

The recent death, at 76, of former US middleweight boxing contender, Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, reminded the world of the courageous and tenacious struggle this black man waged to overturn his wrongful conviction and imprisonment for murder in 1966.

More significantly it reminded us that the racism responsible for Carter’s wrongful conviction continues to underpin the US criminal justice system to this day.

In a 2010 article, Bill Quigley, legal director of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, compiled 14 examples of racism within the US criminal justice system. They make shocking reading, especially when we consider the oft-repeated assertion that the United States is a country founded on the principles of liberty and justice for all. Among the examples cited by Quigley are:

• the fact that though whites and blacks commit drugs offenses at a comparable rate, African Americans constitute 37 percent of the people arrested for drugs offenses, while making up 13 percent of the population;

• the police stop and search blacks and Latinos far more frequently than whites;

• once arrested, blacks are far more likely to be held in prison awaiting trial than their white counterparts. This was confirmed in a 1995 New York state division of criminal justice review of felony arrests, which found that in some parts of New York blacks are 33 percent more likely to be detained awaiting felony trials than whites;

• a July 2009 report by the Sentencing Project found that two-thirds of the people in the US with life sentences are non-white. In New York, it is 83 percent.

The list goes on.

The association between race, poverty, and social exclusion in America is a cancer that has corroded social cohesion in the “land of the free” to the point where the rich and affluent reside in so-called gated communities – in effect rich ghettoes – where they are guarded by 24-hour security and spend an inordinate amount of time and effort isolating themselves from the huge sea of poverty that surrounds them and the tiny bubbles of affluence in which they exist.

With blacks and Latinos constituting the vast majority of the poor, their disproportionate number among the mammoth US prison population is no surprise. However, as with Rubin Carter, the racism that suffuses the nation’s criminal justice system at every level has ensured that many are there having been wrongfully convicted. The most egregious cases involve prisoners sitting on death row.

US Rubin Carter (R) lands a punch on Fabio Bettini of Italy during their international middleweight match in Paris, 22 February 1965. (AFP Photo)

Margaret Kimberley, editor and senior columnist with the Black Agenda Report in the US, wrote an article titled When Cops and Prosecutors are Racist Criminals – Half of Wrongfully Convicted Prisoners in America Are Black, posted on the Global Research website in May 2013. In the piece, Kimberley writes: “America’s addiction to racism and violence creates outright criminality among police and prosecutors. Their misconduct is tolerated and even encouraged and the result is an untold number of innocent people in jail.”

Her hard-hitting analysis is supported by research carried out by the respected American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which formed the basis of an article that appeared on the organization’s website in 2010, written by senior attorney Cassandra Stubbs. She writes: “African-American defendants are more likely to be wrongfully convicted of crimes punishable by death. In North Carolina, six of the seven exonerated death row inmates were people of color. The last three men exonerated from death row in North Carolina were all African-American, including ACLU client Bo Jones. The majority of nationwide death row exonerations are all also disproportionately people of color."

To be black in the United States in the 21st century means that you are at far greater risk of being poor, socially excluded, and convicted of a crime – whether rightfully or wrongfully – just as Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter was in 1966 and again in 1976, when his parole was overturned on appeal by the prosecutor and he was sent back to prison, where he remained until he was finally exonerated and released in 1985. In total the man who inspired the 1999 Hollywood movie – The Hurricane – starring Denzel Washington, and whose plight also became the subject of a powerful protest song by Bob Dylan in 1975, served 19 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Yet Carter was lucky in that his case became a cause celebre in the US and around the world, spawning a welter of books and a campaign supported by celebrities from the worlds of sports, music, and movies. For the overwhelming majority suffering the same fate their despair and pleas for justice are ignored, as they are left to languish in the bowels of the US criminal justice system.

Elijah Salters stands with his mother, Kimberly, outside of their current residence at the Auburn Family Residence, a shelter for homeless families and individuals, on February 21, 2014 in the Fort Greene neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Spenser Platt)

Cases such as Carter’s – who upon his release moved to Canada to begin working with a charitable organization highlighting the plight of the wrongfully convicted in the US – induce anger at the scale of the injustice involved, but also inspiration at the triumph of the human spirit over seemingly insurmountable odds.

The racism and social and economic justice suffered in the main by African Americans and Latinos in the US is the foundation upon which the nation’s foreign policy of war and imperialism rests. In the words of Malcolm X: “You can’t understand what is going on in Mississippi if you don’t know what is going on in the Congo.”

Carter died a free man after spending his best years fighting a racist criminal justice system that incarcerates young black men regardless of guilt or innocence.

As Nelson Mandela wrote: "It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.

By this reckoning, in the United States of America, barbarism reigns.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.