[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/10/30/heather.ellis.1.jpg caption="Heather Ellis is facing 15-years in prison for allegedly cutting line at a Wal-Mart store in Missouri."]
Dr. Boyce Watkins
Special to AC360°
Heather Ellis is in trouble. The 24-year old preacher’s daughter has spent most of her life doing the right things: Going to college, getting ready for medical school and staying out of trouble. What Heather didn’t realize is that even when you do the right things, your margin of error as a person of color in America is virtually non-existent.
When I wrote my book, “What if George Bush were a Black Man?” the key point was that America’s justice system has a difficult time understanding that punishments must match the magnitude of the crime that has allegedly been committed. The actions that a “frat boy” can get away with 20 times during college can send an African American to prison for the next 20-years. America is a country that has, without question, consistently over-charged, over-searched, over-incarcerated and over-sentenced African Americans for the past 400 years of its existence.
Given its ugly past, the criminal justice system has very little credibility, and even police reports are subject to being questioned – especially in a town like Kennett, MO. My father’s a cop, so I know how all this works. Even when black men were lynched 100 years ago, there were always “witnesses” and police reports to say that he was a bad person. Fortunately, lynching does not occur anymore (although a black boy – Walter Currie Jr. – was burned alive by his white classmate in the same area as Heather), but the noose has been replaced with the long prison sentence as the most typical and most devastating form of punishment. As a result, black men and women are filling up America’s penitentiaries at an alarming rate, and it is destroying the core of the black family.
The idea that Heather Ellis faces up to 15-years in prison for an incident that amounts to her being a “bad person” and cutting line at Walmart is one of the most glaring reflections of judicial disparity that our country has ever seen. The crux of her charges, two felony counts of assaulting a police officer, are merely derivatives of the fact that she had been chastised for allegedly getting angry at those who refused to serve her after accusing her of cutting the line.
In a recent report, Dr. Christopher Metzler, King Downing, Elliot Millner and Dr. Wilmer Leon make the clear point that Kennett, Missouri has created both a pattern and practice of disparate treatment toward people of color. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the police of Kennett, Missouri search African Americans more than twice as often as whites (14% vs. 6%) even though they possess contraband at roughly the same rate (25% vs. 20%). Across the state of Missouri, African-Americans are searched almost twice as often as whites (12% vs. 7%), even though they are LESS likely to possess contraband (17% vs. 20%). Attorney General Eric Holder should get involved by conducting a thorough investigation of the entire Southeast Missouri judicial system.
Not only is there a problem in the broader justice system, there are variations in how police respond to African American suspects vs. those who are not black. Rather than de-escalating the situation and sending Heather home to her family, the officers decided that it might make more sense to send her to jail. That’s the norm for black youth, as we are now sending inner city school kids to jail right out of the classroom. Such a police state would not be acceptable in the suburbs, where young people are allowed to make mistakes.
My simple contention is this: Had Heather Ellis been a Duke Lacrosse player getting a little rowdy on spring break, I doubt very seriously that she would be facing this kind of prison time. America has a two-tiered justice system, where people of color are being given the bottom rung of the justice ladder. Our inability to let go of our racially horrific past is causing us to destroy our future. The Heather Ellis case is merely a symptom of a much larger problem.
Filed under: 360° Radar
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
Questions or comments? Send an email
Want to know more? Go behind the scenes with