The Intersection Between Race, Law, and Democracy

Angela Lin, The Ohio Fair Courts Alliance

January 28, 2022

Systemic racial inequities can be found in every dominant institution, and our courts are no exception. Structural racism and implicit biases within the law threaten the legitimacy of our courts, while contributing to a deep district of our criminal justice system. Reform is critical to making systemic change in our courts and having diverse judges on the bench reflect the communities that they serve.

Tom Roberts, the State Conference President of the Ohio NAACP, helped kick off the forum by outlining the Ohio Fair Court Alliance’s vision for the courts. Our vision for fair courts is:

  • A diverse bench of knowledgeable judges represent and are accountable to the communities they serve. 
  • Courts treat all people with dignity, respect and fairness (and we know this because courts have transparent data practices).
  • Judges decide cases on their merits, based on law and fact, and free from corrupting influences of money, politics, and bias.
  • Courts are agents of repairing harms, and bring about healing for individuals and communities, rather than compounding punishment and oppression. 

Our expert panelists in our forum, The Intersection Between Race, Law, and Democracy, shared many insights into the actions we need to take and the conversations we need to have in order to truly reform our courts and eliminate the systemic racial inequities and biases that inhibits our criminal justice system from achieving fair and equitable justice. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

Judge Ronald Adrine, Retired Cleveland Municipal Court
  • Systemic racism is structural in nature, while implicit bias is a lens through which individuals view the world. 
  • When judges are aware of the fact that institutions are created by individuals with implicit biases that may impact their policies, judges can take that into consideration when making decisions and set concrete goals to eliminate bias in their courtroom.
  • Procedural fairness relies on Respect, Understanding, Neutrality, and Voice.
Kyle Strickland, Senior Legal Analyst at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity at Ohio State University
  • We often ignore the systems, structures, and policies in place that lead to unequal outcomes and instead try to blame individuals and entire communities. When we do that, we leave communities behind and avoid responsibility for solving these systems of inequality. 
  • It’s important to have uncomfortable conversations and risk being “too divisive” rather than ignoring these issues of systemic racism and inequality because when we don’t talk about these issues, we create a vacuum filled with hateful rhetoric. 
  • The multi-racial democracy we have today is a relatively new concept that’s only 60 years old after the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That democracy is under threat today, especially with the voter suppression laws and the lies about voter fraud that were the same practices and messages that people were pushing during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow Era.
  • We have to reckon with our history, otherwise we lose sight of how we got here and where we can go moving forward.
  • The issues of racial justice and economic justice are all interconnected to issues of our multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy. 
  • Racial equity is not a zero-sum game. Progress for some is not an attack on everybody else. 
Rev. Raymond Greene, Jr., Executive Director of Freedom BLOC
  • In order to create this change, we have to begin small on a micro level. Start by talking to your neighbors and organizing within your community. This lets us build a system of accountability, which influences the court system and voting system.
  • We have to start getting the voices of everyone involved heard, and we have to unite our voices inside our communities.
Maria Bruno, Public Policy Director at Equality Ohio
  • It’s important to name being a white advocate in this space and to recognize the limitations on your perspective. When you are able to make yourself uncomfortable and recognize the privilege you have as being a white ally for racial justice, you’re able to uplift the voices and experiences of Black people and people of color.
  • We often think of the law as something that should be punitive instead of a more victim-focused system, which leads us to care more about whether someone is punished rather than the person being taken care of.
  • We need to be critical of our judicial candidates and prosecutorial candidates by paying attention to judicial races, going to judicial forums, and looking at donors lists to see whether they are being influenced. We can, and must, use the campaign process to decide whether a judge is holding themselves to a high-enough standard to deserve that position.

All the panelists then reflected on what their vision of justice and our courts looked like, as well as what reforms need to occur immediately. Many points were brought up, including diversifying the bench, jury reform, automatic voter registration, Electoral College reform, national voting rights legislation, decriminalizing poverty, and reevaluating how we police cities. We need to talk about race and class and how capitalism has created competition for limited resources that often pit races against each other. The race class narrative is one we must discuss in order to have real conversation among people of different identities. 

Most importantly, we can’t give up hope and we can’t give up the fight. Systemic racial inequities create disillusionment and despair, but we have the power to organize and demand better of our institutions and elected officials. By connecting voting to people’s everyday lives and finding issues that our communities care about, we are able to build a strong coalition of individuals that advocate for racial equality and justice. 

As much as we want to believe that our law and democracy operates fairly and equitably for everyone, the reality is that the courts disproportionately affect people of color. The death penalty, which is still in effect in Ohio, is deeply flawed, racist, and full of errors, impacting the lives of many inmates, particularly Black people. One action you can take to help create a better criminal justice system in the state is by joining the movement to abolish the death penalty. You can write to your lawmakers to let them know you support legislation that repeals this expensive practice in Ohio.

Check out our other forums: