Courts and Jails (1932)

Courts and Jails (1932)

It is to the disgrace of the American Negro, and particularly of his religious and philanthropic organizations, that they continually and systematically neglect Negroes who have been arrested, or who are accused of crime, or who have been convicted and incarcerated.

One can easily realize the reason for this: ever since Emancipation and even before, accused and taunted with being criminals, the emancipated and rising Negro has tried desperately to disassociate himself from his own criminal class. He has been all too eager to class criminals as outcasts, and to condemn every Negro who has the misfortune to be arrested or accused. He has joined with the bloodhounds in anathematizing every Negro in jail, and has called High Heaven to witness that he has absolutely no sympathy and no known connection with any black man who has committed crime.

All this, of course, is arrant nonsense; is a combination of ignorance and pharisaism which ought to put twelve million people to shame. There is absolutely no scientific proof, statistical, social or physical, to show that the American Negro is any more criminal than other elements in the American nation, if indeed as criminal. Moreover, even if he were, what is crime but disease, social or physical? In addition to this, every Negro knows that a frightful proportion of Negroes accused of crime are absolutely innocent. Nothing in the world is easier in the United States than to accuse a black man of crime. In the South, if any crime is committed, the first cry of the mob is, “Find the Negro!” And while they are finding him, the white criminal comfortably escapes. Nothing is easier, South and North, than for a white man to black his face, saddle a felony upon the Negro, and then go wash his body and his soul. Today, if a Negro is accused, whether he is innocent or guilty, he not only is almost certain of conviction, but of getting the limit of the law. What else is the meaning of the extraordinary fact that throughout the United States the number of Negroes hanged, sentenced for life, or for ten, twenty or forty years, is an amazingly large proportion of the total number?

Meantime, what are we doing about it? Here and there, in a few spectacular cases, we are defending persons, where race discrimination is apparent, and where the poor devil of a victim manages to get into the newspaper. But in most cases, the whole black world is dumb and acquiescent; they will not even visit the detention houses where the accused, innocent and guilty, are herded like cattle. They make few systematic attempts to reform the juvenile delinquent who may be guilty of nothing more than energy and mischief. Only in sporadic cases do we visit the jails and hear the tales of the damned.

For a race which boasts its Christianity, and for a Church which squanders its money upon carpets, organs, stained glass, bricks and stone, this attitude toward Negro crime is the most damning accusation yet made.

Citation: Du Bois, W.E.B. 1932. “Courts and Jails.” The Crisis. 39(4):132.