Mistreatment of “The Black Body” in Contemporary U.S. Society

Race and Human RightsMarch 2017Group 3Katrin Link, Martina Oles, Christoph Radtke


Race and racism are still considered key features in today’s American society. For some people, it is an ongoing issue since the abolition of slavery, yet others label American society as post-racial. Nevertheless, African Americans in great parts still experience discrimination on a regular basis. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the treatment of “the black body” and its impact on societal structures. The following essay attempts to shed light on the injustices that African Americans have to deal with on a daily basis in a discriminatory society. The focus thereby will be on examples and themes taken from two documentaries: “Take this Hammer” and “The 13th”. With these concepts, we will illustrate how mistreatment within American society evolves, making “the black body” suffer, both physically and mentally. There are different realms where discrimination against black people can be found, within this essay we will limit our short analysis to the housing situation, police brutality and the criminal justice system.

Take this Hammer

When thinking about resources to properly analyze the treatment of the black body we started watching “Take this Hammer (Richard O. Moore; 1964)”:


The movie follows James Baldwin as he drives around San Francisco. He talks to many African Americans about their living conditions, how they are being treated and their future.

Shortly after the beginning James Baldwin talks to a group of young African Americans.

One states:

“I think they [the police] have a purpose [...] but then again the way some of these people do you sometimes. They pick you up, stop you [...] if you look suspicious they’d just stop you [...] We weren’t doing anything wrong (Moore 1964: 11’20’’)”

“Because when they [the police] put a dog on me it’s just like sending an animal to fight another animal (Moore 1964: 13’28’’)”

African Americans were not only treated unequal but also confronted with police brutality and racial harassment. They literally felt like they were stripped of their humanity as they were treated like animals. Yet, is this different in comparison to what African Americans experience in the United States today? During the last couple of years there have been multiple cases of police brutality that received worldwide attention. Many videos of police officers who are beating, shooting, and killing unarmed black people for no reason have been spread widely over the Internet. According to the Huffington Post, in 2016, over 230 black people have been killed in the United States. Furthermore, 34% of all unarmed people killed by the police in the USA were black.

The 13thHowever, police brutality does not always result in deadly shootings like the documentary “The 13th” clarifies. An unjust criminal justice system today assures the mistreatment of


African Americans on different levels which relates to the Jim Crow Era that the U.S. supposedly abolished many decades ago.

In the Age of Mass Incarceration, the extent of legal mistreatment that mostly targets African Americans is an important topic for journalist, scholars, and even authors. In general, mass imprisonment in the U.S. can be traced back to the War on Drugs that started in the 1970 under the Reagan administration and to racial bias among the police and other officials, as Michelle Alexander perfectly points out. She also puts emphasis on the fact that the reason why the prison population (more than 2 million inmates) is higher than in any other country is because of regulations like mandatory minimum sentences, three strike laws and, after release, a second-class citizen system former prisoners cannot escape. Such system tremendously increases the likelihood that a person once labeled a prisoner will engage in other criminal activities upon release. One major issue in the legal process needs to be blamed for the above- mentioned injustices: the power of the prosecutor. He alone decides what charges the accused will be facing, if he is offered plea deal, or if he is not charged at all. A so-called plea bargain, “. . . a guilty plea by the defendant in exchange for some form of leniency by the prosecutor” (Alexander 87), poses a major threat to many accused people and especially African Americans simply because they are pressured into accepting such deals no matter if they are actually innocent or not.

Different articles include data that prove that black Americans suffer most because the minority group is more likely to engage in low key criminal activities such as stealing food to provide for their family in order to make ends meet since they belong to a minority group that has no access to resources in contrast to white people. In 2014, black defendants were 19 percent more likely to be offered plea deals which also included time in jail for simple misdemeanors and drug offenses such as possession of marijuana. Most of the crimes are nonviolent however, the person is sent to prison for an unusually long period which breaks up families and mostly guarantees that a reintegration into society is not possible. As a


conclusion, it is the black body that is physically and emotionally exploited by the system. The problem here is that most Americans do not even know how the criminal justice systems works and would never assume the high number of innocent people in prison while watching Law and Order or other televised shows that could not be further from reality. People believe that the accused is given a lawyer, and that he is guaranteed his 6th Amendment rights because that is how the system works, isn’t it? Reality looks different: Many are not represented by a lawyer (which directly violates the Supreme Court decision Gideon vs. Wainwright), many have to wait months to go to trial, and a woefully public defender system cannot give a meaningful representation to the clients.

Considering all the facts, is it even possible to change the legal system that seems at fault in so many instances? Criminologist John Paff underlines that local courts, lawyers and prosecutors must start making changes because on a federal level such task seems impossible right now. Another article argues that the accused can crash the system by simply exercising their legal rights. That includes, rejecting any plea deals and pushing to go to trial. Imagine what this would do to the already overwhelmed Courts and their caseloads. Yet, is this something that African Americans would easily do considering racial discrimination that has yet to end? Would they be able to stand up against legal threats that put their husbands, wives, and even kids in danger instead of hoping to be reunited with them in a couple of years? Imagine the emotional struggle and burden they have to carry during the trial and even inside the prison walls. Understandably, there is only so much a person can take and being black in America puts an extra burden on them, an additional fear and mistrust in a legal system that has been failing them for many decades.

The impact of the system of mass incarceration that affects African Americans, puts indeed an extra burden on them. Not only in terms of their own defense, but also on the time after they are released from prison (if they were lucky enough not to be sentenced to prison for lifetime). It can almost be claimed that through the prison system a segregation of society


is taking place, for when an inmate is released there are certain restrictions taking effect. Being labeled a criminal causes discrimination in terms of housing, employment, education, and the denial of several societal opportunities such as food stamps and other public benefits, in addition, if one is marked as a felon jury service and voting is denied, too (Alexander 2). Therefore, being labeled a criminal puts a harsh social stigma on an individual. With this stigma society is segregated again and resembles the structures of Jim Crow, for mostly black people are marked as criminals. This again illustrates how the treatment of the “black body” is shaped by discrimination.

According to a viewpoint by Amnesty International “international human rights law requires that the essential aim of all penal systems must be to allow, encourage, and facilitate rehabilitation” (Amnesty International). However, looking at the U.S. system this request by human rights law of ensured social rehabilitation cannot be fulfilled in its entirety. As the documentary and other examples show, one is labeled a felon even after serving time in prison. A former felon has to indicate his time in prison, for instance, on job applications or when searching for housing. The label of a felon impedes life and thus, rehabilitation. In fact, this is not only violating human rights, but at the same time serves as a tool for racial discrimination. As statistics show, 1 in 3 black men is already in prison or will go to prison if the current trend remains (Amnesty International). With this statistical prediction, it is hard to see an end of discrimination against African Americans through the criminal justice system. The only ‘hope’ is that appeals made to authorities will be put into effect and then the justice system will be changed fundamentally.


Taking everything into account, a crucial racial discrimination becomes revealed, with which African Americans need to cope. The treatment of “the black body” is marked by racial bias, brutality, and inequity and sadly many people are not aware of what is happening since they


blindly trust the legal system as well as the criminal justice system. Documentaries such as “The 13th” or “Take this Hammer” are targeted towards all those who must become aware of the inequities created by either the criminal justice system or other instances such as the police. It is pivotal to acknowledge how racism within American society is still prevalent and it should be society’s aim to ensure human rights and racial equality to all the oppressed minority groups because only then can we look forward to a united future.

Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Rev. ed., New Press, 2012.

Amnesty International USA. “Mass Incarceration in the USA“ amnestyusa.org, Web. 21 Mar 2017. http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/military-police-and-arms/police- and-human-rights/mass-incarceration-in-the-usa

Craven, Julia. "More Than 250 Black People Were Killed By Police In 2016 [Updated]." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 01 Jan. 2017. Web. 14 Mar. 2017.

KQED, 1964. Take this Hammer (the Director's Cut) - San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive. Web. 13 Mar. 2017. https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/sfbatv/bundles/216518

Paff, John. Locked In: The true causes of mass incarceration. Basic Books, 2017. “The 13th”. Directed by Ava DuVernay. Netflix, 2016.




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