Figure 1: Johnson's Hierarchy of Homicide Seriousness

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1891). Enforcement of the Slave Trade Laws (American Historical Association, Annual Report). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Negro versus White, White versus White

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Negro versus Negro, White versus Negro

By Heather MacDonald
Summer 2012

By Heather MacDonald
March 14, 2003

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Building on the idea that the criminal justice system consistently devalues African American life, Johnson (1941) developed a Hierarchy of Homicide Seriousness in which he describes racially disparate perceptions of crime (See Figure 1). Hawkins (1983) further expanded on Johnson's model to include "stranger", "friend", and "acquaintance". Both models highlight the historical devalued status of African Americans in the criminal justice system by noting that crimes are considered "most serious" when there is a White victim and Black offender. These crimes disrupt the established social hierarchy and indicate that African Americans are somehow behaving incongruently with their position in society. As a result, the punishments for these crimes are often very harsh. Crimes in which there is an African American victim and White offender are considered "least serious" because these crimes align with the established social order. African Americans are perceived as inferior to White Americans, therefore their victimization is often overlooked. This model of disparate treatment concerning the victimization of White and African Americans is evidenced in the administration of justice quite frequently.

Sutherland, E.H. (1947). Principles in Criminology (4th ed.). Philadelphia: Lippincott.

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The case of Emmitt Till is another example of the criminal justice system devaluing the life of African Americans. While accused of whistling at a White girl, Emmitt Till was kidnapped, beat beyond recognition, and shot in the head. His offenders were tried for murder. The case was decided by an all-White, all-male jury because women and African Americans were not permitted to sit on juries. The jury acquitted the offenders of all charges and a few months later, they confessed to the crime. Like the Scottsboro case, the case of Emmitt Till demonstrates the inability of the criminal justice system to provide justice to African Americans.

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The enforcement of slave codes provides one example of disparate treatment in criminal justice. Laws regulating the slave trade provide another. The slave trade consisted of the abduction, trade, and sell of Africans into slavery, often involving long passages across the Atlantic Ocean. W.E.B. Du Bois found that even after the death penalty was instituted in America for trading slaves, very few Whites were convicted, let alone executed for slave trading (Du Bois 1891). He found that many White Americans believed the punishment of death was too severe a punishment to impose on someone engaging in the slave trade, therefore, White offenders were often found not guilty of the offense. This early form of White crime in America was allowed to persist, particularly due to White supremacy, the devaluation of African American lives, and the economic benefits of the institution of slavery (Du Bois, 1891). Again, historical race relations served as a key component in criminal justice disparities concerning application of the law and imposition of punishments.


The criminal justice system is a reflection of society. African Americans have a historical reputation of marginalization and denigration in the United States that reputation is paralleled in the criminal justice system. During the slavery era, African Americans were considered chattel. They were deemed inferior to Whites and forced into slave labor to support the southern economy. Attempts to escape or revolt prompted Whites to use slave patrollers and pass "slave codes" which embraced criminal law and regulated almost every aspect of slave life (Gabbidon and Greene, 2012). These laws were only applicable to African Americans and their violations resulted in harsh punishment because they threatened the very institution of slavery and challenged the status quo. This disparate application of law and the unequal distribution of criminal penalties perpetuated the ideology of White supremacy and Black inferiority. As a result of being birthed from this ideology, the criminal justice system still harbors structural glitches that disadvantage African Americans. Therefore, the assertion that the system is "broken" is an inaccurate assessment, the system was never right from the beginning.