“How old are you and what’s your level of education?”
I secretly wished he had asked me that question. No, I did not want to boast or throw my title at him. I did not want a congratulatory tap on the shoulder, a nod of acceptance, or any sort of smile that might indicate, “Oh-wow-you-are-an-exception.” All I wanted was to take the pressure off of the poor girl in front of me, the one who, before a room full of people, was forced to say:
20. High school, I guess.
The judge had already decided what he thought about her, and in my opinion, what he thought about all of us. We stood in a long line, all there to either plead guilty to our crimes, to contest them, or to discuss further processing and scheduling. I stood behind the young 20-year old. From the moment she stepped forward to have her case tried, she was judged, and I’m not speaking in the legal sense.
She was young.
And, she was brown.
In fact, at least 90% of us were. Brown, that is.
I’ve been living in the Kapolei area for a few months now and I must admit that this was one of the highest concentrations of brown people that I’ve seen in one public place: a courtroom. While I may not have been able to determine each and every person’s exact ethnic make-up, the color was obvious. In fact, white stood out.
The poor girl put her head down. I silently wanted to hug her, or to at least stand next to her as the judge pushed further:
“I’m assuming you can read, write, and speak English, right?”
“And you haven’t had anything to drink this morning? You haven’t taken any drugs?”
She was there for driving without a license. This was her second offense, and after waiving her right to a pre-sentence investigation, one that would take her background, education, and family income into consideration before sentencing, she simply said she would pay whatever fee was decided.
“You understand that the maximum penalty for driving without a license is a $1,000 fine and up to 30 days in jail?”
“You understand this?”
I quickly glanced around the room. This was my first experience in courtroom setting like this. (I was there for swerving around a pothole. Yes, I swerved around a pothole and when I was pulled over and asked about it, I did not have my current insurance card in my car. So, I was summoned to court for two traffic crimes: swerving and not having the correct card in my car. Despite taking my card and proof of insurance to the courthouse the next day, I was told that I had to appear in court, in person, if I wanted to avoid a bench warrant for my arrest. My arrest! I’m never swerving around a pothole again! But I have digressed.)
As the judge continued to bombard the girl with questions, I looked around the room wondering if anyone else was as disgusted as I was. In fact, despite my silence I’m sure my face read: “Are you fucking kidding me? $1,000 and 30 days in jail?!? She’s a child. And what a huge waste of government money!”
Those who know me well know that I cannot hide my facial expressions. Therefore, I’m sure that’s exactly what could be read in my scrunched nose, my narrowed eyebrows, and my occasional (or, if I’m being honest, constant) eye rolls. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the judge then tried to play games with me when it was my turn (yes, games is what I will call this):
“Since you have provided proof, we will dismiss the charge for not having insurance. However, in regards to your first offense, do you plead guilty to crossing over a solid yellow line?”
“You plead not guilty? You didn’t cross over a solid yellow line? That’s what the officer recorded.”
I will plead guilty to crossing over a dotted white line, as that is what I did. I did not cross over a solid yellow line.
“But that’s what the police officer recorded.”
What he did not record is the fact that he had to have a second offense to write me up for. He even explained to me that he would have let me go if I had my current insurance card. But, he had to show that there was reason for pulling me over in the first place [“other than the fact that I am brown, apparently,” is what I really wanted to say]. So, he wrote that ticket. There’s no law against crossing over a dotted white line.
“Well, since there are no further notes here, I’ll dismiss your case.”
And despite my relief at not having to pay for swerving around a pothole that I (just this week) see is now being fixed on a road that is now being repaved (but I’ve digressed again), I was troubled by the entire morning, by the entire experience, actually. Now, you must forgive me if what comes next is a bit far-fetched. Actually, on second thought, no need to forgive. It is a bit far-fetched.
But perhaps that’s necessary.
In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander (2011) makes what some may call a “crazy,” “absurd,” or even inappropriate, and yes, perhaps far-fetched comparison between the criminal justice system and (as you’ve probably guessed by now) Jim Crow, or the laws that enforced racial segregation in America since the 1890s. Slogans like “Separate but Equal” and signs blaring “Whites Only” may sound familiar to you. We may not have the signs and slogans anymore. (Note that I wrote this blog one day before the white supremacy march, Unite the Right, in Charlottesville,Virginia, a march that proves there are still people who hold fast to such racist ideologies.) Even after Jim Crow, it is obvious: “America is still not an egalitarian democracy” (p. 1). We may not have Jim Crow, but other systems have taken its place.
(I should pause here to state that an article was published today entitled, “Jim Crow tactics return with Trump’s ‘election integrity’ commission.” It states, “The same sham justifications used to prop up voter suppression tactics during the Jim Crow era—claims that such measures to preserve the integrity, efficiency, and sustainability of elections—are being unapologetically recycled today [as Trump has asserted that he lost the popular vote because of millions of illegal voters].” So you see, Jim Crow really hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s just taken on new names and disguises and new, although not at all surprising, sponsors.)
As Alexander states, “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it” (p. 2). Now, I won’t look at all of the points of her argument here, as I would much rather suggest that you take a look at her book and take some time to watch the documentary, 13th, which critically examines the criminalization of people of color in America and begins to expose the racist origins and motivations of the prison industrial complex. Rather, I would like to make a few comments about our context here.
Before doing so, however, a few clarifications: I am not implying that the situation for Hawaiians and other “brown” people in Hawaiʻi is at all like those of African Americans in the continental United States. We have a different history. On top of that, I am not trying to take anything away from the overwhelming discrimination and racism still experienced by African Americans. I simply use some of the arguments made in those contexts to begin to think about our own. I also use the word “brown” knowing that it is problematic, especially when you consider ethnic diversity in Hawaiʻi.
However, I will say that data regarding incarceration does not lie: Hawaiians have the highest rates of imprisonment in the islands. And that was reflected in the courtroom I stood in. I heard it in the names being called and I saw it in the faces of those around me, faces of so-called “criminals.” Seeing those faces pushed me to investigate further, to dig into a system that although I often assumed was corrupt, I never examined fully. (And I’m saying this knowing that I have only begun my research and have so much more to learn.)
All I knew, as I stood there, was that the idea of a 20-year-old girl going to jail for not having her license was not only ridiculous to me, but also highly ineffective. So many people are convicted of small crimes everyday, and once that goes on to their records, they are labeled. This can impact everything from their ability to get a job to their ability to vote. In more extreme cases, they become those second-class citizens—those with less rights and less opportunities—that laws like Jim Crow once made sure of. It’s not a system of rehabilitation. It’s a system intended to keep certain people down in a country that continually perpetuates the myth, yes the myth, of freedom and equal opportunity.
Suffice it to say that there is certainly so much more at play when you look at a room of people and see one color (with a few exceptions, of course). Popular rhetoric used in conversations about incarceration emphasize poverty and education (over race) and try to persuade us that those are the only factors, or at least the most important ones when it comes to crime and incarceration. What it does not explore is the system at work: the one that has resulted in certain populations of people being undereducated, impoverished, unhealthy, and yes, imprisoned. (You really should watch 13th.)
Institutionalized racism is a thing. And although people don’t always want to talk about race in a country where some have bought into the fiction of “colorblindness,” we have to talk about it. Otherwise, we will continue to, as the documentary outlines, use words like “criminal” to cover up what is very much a conversation that needs to be had about race and equality.
Now, I will fully admit that I am new to writing about this topic. Therefore, any mistakes or generalizations are entirely my own. What I know, however, is that as I continue to think about everyday social injustices—like those witnessed in the courtroom as a young girl was “judged” in every sense of the word—I will continue to write about them, if not to bring a bit more justice to the world, then to at least start a conversation about it.
Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: The New Press.