A new report by the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based civil rights organization, revealed that 135 years after race-based jury selection was barred by federal courts, people of color are still illegally kept from serving on them.
The report examined jury selection in eight Southern states, including: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee. And while the results aren’t exactly surprising, they still read like a bad script from the Jim Crow era. Potential Black jurists were routinely dismissed by prosecutors for allegedly being too young, too old, single, married, divorced, because they had relatives who had attended historically Black colleges, or because some “looked liked drug dealers.”
At least those were the reasons most often given for their dismissals. Even though the 1986 Supreme Court decision Batson v. Kentucky outlawed racial discrimination during the initial phases of jury selection, EJI and several civil rights lawyers claim that it’s too easy for prosecutors and defense attorneys to think of race-neutral reasons to dismiss Black jurors. The report went so far as to say that prosecutors are “trained to exclude people on the basis of race and instructed how to conceal their racial bias.” One Mississippi prosecutor admitted that he had dismissed two Black jurors because he had been trained to do so in a course on jury selection.
In Houston County, Alabama, 80 percent of Blacks qualified for jury service have been struck by prosecutors in death penalty cases, according to the study.
In an example from a recent New York Times story, a juror studying to become a minister was dismissed because she wasn’t “the kind of juror we were looking for,” while a white man who was a minister was allowed to serve.
ColorLines writer Katti Gray recently drew a parallel between such blatant forms of racial discrimination and the enduring legacies of crime, punishment, and political disenfranchisement in Black communities. The report found that while all-white juries were sending Black defendants off to prison, they were less likely to spend time deliberating, more likely to make errors, and considered fewer perspectives than their racially diverse counterparts.
The results, according to EJI director Bryan Stevenson in Gray’s story, can be paralyzing:
“…we’re paying too little attention to the fact that 200,000 African Americans were in prison in 1972 and 2.3 million are there today. Five million more are on probation. And they have children, siblings, parents, spouses—so there’s 10 million to 15 million who are affected by mass incarceration. A lot of us just don’t want to talk about that.”