(Tulsa Mayor G. T. Bynum | Photo Courtesy of Mvskoke Vision)
By Hailey Ferguson
This past April, the City of Tulsa and the Community Service Council released the inaugural Equality Indicators report in partnership with the City University of New York and 100 Resilient Cities.
Mayor G. T. Bynum soon after stated that results were “very bad,” adding that “we’ve known for a long time in Tulsa that we had a serious issue with, in particular, racial disparity in our city. People felt that in their gut, but they didn’t necessarily have a way to measure it. And the reality is that we have a long way to go.”
But black Tulsans have known this for a much longer time.
The inaugural report confirms that black Tulsans are arrested at twice the rate of white residents and are five times as likely to be victims of officer use-of-force than all other racial and ethnic groups.
This is a common narrative of black Americans, who constitute 2.3 million, or 34%, of the 6.8 million total correctional population. And historically in the United States, the law and the criminal justice system have disproportionately affected black Americans.
According to George T. Patterson, author of “Social Work Practice in the Criminal Justice System,” published in 2014, black males were six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males.
A year later, the NAACP reported that African Americans and Hispanics comprised approximately 32% of the US population but encompassed 56% of all incarcerated people.
And in Oklahoma, the state with the highest overall black incarceration rate, 1 in 15 black males ages 18 and older are in prison, said Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., of the Sentencing Project.
The high incarceration rate of black Americans can be linked to racial disparities in sentencing, mandatory minimum sentences, over-policing communities of color, lack of bias training for police officers, and a lack of national community policing effort, among other discrepancies.
Again, this is nothing new to black Americans, who face discrimination and over-policing on a regular basis.
Harsh punishment policies adopted over the past 40 years, according to Natasha Frost and Todd Clear, authors of “The Punishment Imperative,” are the main causes of the historic rise in black incarceration rates.
Beginning in 1973, mass imprisonment gave rise to three major eras of policymaking, all of which had an unequal impact on people of color, especially African Americans.
In 1986, a series of policies were enacted to increase the use of imprisonment for various felonies.
There was a sharp growth in state imprisonment for drug offenders from 1987 to 1991.
And in his article “The Changing Racial Dynamics of the War on Drugs,” Marc Mauer of the Screening Project claimed that, from 1990 to 1995, the emphasis for sentencing was based on the notion that harsh and lengthy sentences were a crime deterrent.
Harsh drug laws and sentencing is a crucial factor in persistent racial disparities within the criminal justice system.
In comparison to their white counterparts, said Mauer, black Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for drug offenses and 2.5 times as likely to be arrested for drug possession even though there is no evidence to suggest that black Americans use drugs at higher rates.
Some recurring themes correlated with the high incarceration rates of black Americans are implicit bias, harsh drug laws and sentencing, policy practices such as stop-and-frisk, and pre-trial detention.
That prosecutors are more likely to charge black defendants under state habitual offender laws than correspondingly situated white defendants accounts for many of the policies and practices that disproportionately affect black Americans.
Also significant in criminal justice outcomes is the role that white people’s perceptions of different races play.
An abundant amount of research, according to Nellis, shows that beliefs about dangerousness and threats to public safety overlap with individual perceptions of people of color. Furthermore, survey data suggest that police officers associate black people with terms like “dangerous,” “aggressive,” “violent,” and “criminal”.
If Mayor Bynum truly wishes to see racial disparities diminished in Tulsa and within our criminal justice system, he must recognize the need for policy change, the need for a change in policing, and the need to move away from harsh and lengthy sentencing.
Additionally, he must make good on his promise to fully implement the 77 recommendations on community policing, as well as address miscarriages of justice that have severely hurt black Tulsans ― most notably, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and the deaths of black Tulsans at the hands of police.
Tulsa is not a comfortable place for black Tulsans to live.
White Tulsans, on the other hand, have the privilege of ignoring the fact that our prisons are filled with black and brown bodies; that black Tulsans are arrested at twice the rate of white Tulsans; and that every black or brown Tulsan, when encountering a law enforcement officer, ponders the question, “Am I next?”
The time for talking about racial disparities and the Equality Indicators is over.
Now is the time for the mayor to act and make some much-needed changes to policing and policy. And, above all, now is the time for him and the Tulsa Police Department to take responsibility for their actions that disproportionately affect black and brown people.
Hailey Ferguson is a contributing editor of The Black Wall Street Times, a proud ally for people of color, an advocate for Women’s Rights, and a member of Aware Tulsa‘s Vision Team. She currently studies social work at Northeastern State University.