A few years ago, I retired from the Massachusetts criminal justice system. I had worked for twenty years, first as a courtroom clerk in criminal sessions and then, for ten years, as a prosecutor. As a white female, it was my experience that our criminal justice system was stacked against people of color. It may have been my imagination, but higher bails, longer sentences, and harsher probation terms, seemed to be the norm for non-white defendants. Although we had a few black and Asian judges and a few non-white court officers and lawyers and cops, for the most part everyone in the courtroom other than the defendants was white. If the goal is justice administered fairly, that is not a good starting point.
Because of my work history, the events in this country that followed the death of George Floyd have pained me deeply. Like all difficult things, there are many layers to this, and I have tried to sort them out. First of all, I think nearly everyone will agree on two things. One, that what the police did to George Floyd was sickening and contrary to their duty as peace officers. Second, that looting and violence is bad. (The vast majority of the protesters these past weeks have opposed looting and violence.) So, let’s look beyond those two things. Let’s look at the real issue: what can be done to bring people of color to full equality in this country?
For three centuries, America has systematically oppressed black people. Things have gotten better since slavery and lynching and Jim Crow, but there still is inequality, in the criminal justice system and in society in general. I don’t know how to fix this problem, but I know we have to focus on the problem itself. Peripheral issues can’t distract us, or there is no hope for real change. Focusing on whether the media is biased, whether Donald Trump is a hero or a monster, whether Antifa or white supremacist groups invaded the protests, and so on, are nothing but distractions from the real issue: what can be done to bring people of color to full equality in this country?
As Christians, we believe that we are all children of God, made in God’s image. We simply cannot believe that and then cling to a criminal justice system (or an educational, medical, housing, economic, or political system) that disadvantages and sometimes even brutalizes individuals because of their race. We have to take a long, hard look at these systems and make fundamental changes to them. The problem of course, is that the “we” in this sentence—the people taking the long, hard look—are usually the people who are doing just fine within these systems.
How do we get past this? We get past it by putting our own self-interest aside and doing what is right, even if it disadvantages us personally. That is a very hard thing to do. It requires a higher love. As Christians, we are called to a higher love. In order to reach a place of higher love, we must start with the realization that there are three things to be outraged about: (1) The looting and violence being committed by opportunists trying to derail peaceful protests; (2) what the Minneapolis officers did to George Floyd; and, most importantly, (3) systemic racism. It is of the utmost importance that we are most outraged by (3). Until we go beyond anger and fear about property damage and violence, until we go beyond disgust and sadness at the cruel actions of bad police officers, until we actually admit there is systemic racism in this country and do whatever is needed to fix an unfair system—even if it we are personally advantaged by it—things will not get better.
Attorney Martha Coravos served as a law clerk, a courtroom clerk, and an Assistant District Attorney at the Massachusetts Superior Court from 1997 to 2017. She presently does criminal defense work in Lowell, Massachusetts.
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