‘Their loved ones should still be here’: Diversity Forum panelists discuss injustices within American justice system


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The Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion hosted its “Structures of Inequity: A Conversation on Social Justice” event on Tuesday as part of Pitt’s annual Diversity Forum.

By Grace Stringer, For The Pitt News

Anthony Hinton said the American judicial system is not broken it was built to oppress Black people.

“The system is working exactly the way it was designed to work,” Hinton, one of the longest serving wrongfully convicted death row prisoners in the state of Alabama, said. “It was designed to put men of color in prison.”

Pitt’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion hosted the panel “Structures of Inequity: A Conversation on Social Justice” as the first event at this year’s Diversity Forum on Tuesday. The panel — moderated by Tomar Pierson-Brown, associate dean for equity and inclusive excellence at Pitt’s School of Law — focused on structural inequality in America and the unequal treatment of Black people in prisons, housing, corporations and court rooms.

Hinton began the session by telling the story of when he was arrested for murders he didn’t commit. He said at the panel that the officer who arrested him refused to state his charges and knew he was an innocent man.

“That detective looked at me and he said, ‘I truly don’t believe you did it, but I believe one of your homeboys did it.’ Take a rap for one of your homeboys,” Hinton said.

Another panelist, ReNika Moore, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program, shared a story on the history of the unequal treatment of Black people in America. Moore said that in 17th-century colonial Maryland three indentured servants, two white men and one Black man ran away from their contract holder before it ended. All were later caught, but the Black man received a longer sentence.

“What the courts in Maryland determined was that the two white indentured servants would be required to serve an additional three years,” Moore said. “At the same time, the Black man, John Punch, was sentenced to a lifetime of indentured service.” 

Moore said systemic racism is built into the nation’s laws. She noted one case that when a Black family moved in on a predominantly white street, the white neighbors started to call the police on the Black family for varying reasons from the Black children playing on their own trampoline to Black teenagers sitting in their own yard which eventually led to their eviction.

“After repeated calls to the police, they determined that she was a public nuisance and evicted her, her daughters and the children she was taking care of from housing,” Moore said.

Moore said the white family was able to do this because of an ordinance in the town of Faribault, Minnesota that considers nuisance conditions a threat to public safety. According to Moore, the Faribault ordinance is an example of inequitable housing in America and said the Black family was evicted because their white neighbors did not want someone in their neighborhood who did not look like them — not because they were a true threat to the city.

Candi Castleberry-Singleton, vice president of diversity partnership strategy and engagement at Twitter, offered her condolences to Hinton, saying it is important to understand how common inequity within the justice system is.

“We are fooling ourselves if we believe that those who have the capability to commit such travesty to Mr. Hinton are only limited to criminal justice,” Castleberry-Singleton said. “The very behaviors that exist in humans exist in every community, every corporation and every school district.”

Castleberry-Singleton said corporations have amplified inequity in the workplace by instilling the fear of retaliation into their employees, ultimately discouraging them from speaking up about their unequal treatment. She said corporate America is in need of a system that can allow such circumstances to be reported safely and without concern.

“The solution must include us having integrated systems that enable people to report that which is not fair and equitable without fear of consequences to them and their careers,” Castleberry-Singleton said.

Sheila Vélez Martínez, the Jack and Lovell Olender professor of asylum, refugee and immigration law at Pitt’s School of Law, said American laws support oppressive systems by allowing the oppression of minorities. She said American law is necessary for equitable social change to be impactful, but the laws do not consider societal inequality.

“Critical theories have always recognized and consistently argued that law is instrumental to dispossession and often colors anti-democratic means as legitimate,” Vélez Martínez said. “Law has historically been complicit in the subordination of marginalized communities.”

Vélez Martínez said Hinton’s experience is evidence of repetitive inequity in America’s legal system.

“[These] same legal issues or stories of troubles connect to past generations’ struggles against injustice and aspirations for social change because they are systemic,” Vélez Martínez said. “So when Mr. Hinton said Alabama knew, Alabama knew, because … this is a system that is designed to work in this way.”

Hinton concluded the panel with a discussion on holding the systems that oppress accountable. He said after 30 years of wrongful imprisonment, he never received an apology from the state of Alabama. Hinton referenced how the family of George Floyd, who was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in May of last year, received a $27 million settlement from the city of Minneapolis.

“His family was awarded some millions of dollars and people look at that as a victory,” Hinton said. “Well, I don’t wanna lose a brother, I don’t wanna lose a neighbor… their loved ones should still be here.”