What Brett Kavanaugh can teach us about racism in America’s legal system

SHARE What Brett Kavanaugh can teach us about racism in America’s legal system

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 27, 2018. | AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool

While watching the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings last week, I wondered:

Why does Judge Brett Kavanaugh, accused of sexual assault, feel entitled to a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court of the United States, while my formerly incarcerated students — often jailed for crimes like battery from fistfights — are left unemployed, sometimes for life, banned from even the most entry-level work?


That Kavanaugh is under consideration for appointment to the Supreme Court at all throws the racist double standard in our justice system into sharp relief. There is one standard of behavior for African-American and Latinx young people, who are harshly punished for crimes in adolescence, and quite another for wealthy white boys, who can be accused of sexual assault and still go on to be nominated to serve on the most important court in the world.

As a former educator in the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, I taught an African-American young man who has a battery charge on his record from age 18. He is now 23 and has a one-year-old daughter. The two of them are couchsurfing, living between shelters and friends’ apartments, without enough money to secure their own housing. He spends every day applying for jobs in fast food restaurants and hotels in downtown Chicago, hoping someone will hire him despite his history.

This young man often gets through two or three interviews, only to be told he cannot be hired after his background check reveals his criminal record. He desperately wants to go to college and support his child, but our system seems designed to push him back into the illegal economy.

Sadly, his story is typical of young people of color who have been locked up for minor offenses. No matter how they wish to change their lives, once their record is marked they are often unable to secure housing or employment.

President Donald Trump, senators, and right-wing pundits are quick to defend Kavanaugh based on his age at the time of the alleged assault, while ignoring the fact that so many young adults are languishing in prisons without proper defense or adequate legal representation as a result of poverty and the color of their skin.

Many of us who work in the juvenile justice system have lobbied for years to eliminate juvenile sex offender registries and the sentencing of adolescents as adults, and to increase protections for young people who make big mistakes. African American teenagers in particular are charged as adults in criminal court, and given harsher sentences than white peers. However, research tells us that youth, even older than 18, are neither cognitively nor developmentally adults by any social or scientific standards.

When advocating for youth in the justice system, we ask the question — should any person be judged forever based on the worst mistake they made as a teenager?

Now we see the GOP and FOX News commentators adopting a similar line of argument toward Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, arguing that allegations based on actions in his young adulthood should not be allowed to ruin his career going forward. It is true that Kavanaugh was a teenager when he allegedly assaulted Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. And I can, of course, agree that we should not evaluate a man solely based on a crime he may have committed in his youth.

However, unlike many youth of color who are charged or incarcerated, Kavanaugh has never been criminally charged, and now has been given a public — global — forum to clear his name. So, we can certainly evaluate him based on the complete lack of accountability or honesty he has demonstrated in response to the accusations.

Many Americans believe that Ford is a credible witness, and that Kavanaugh continues to lie about his behavior under oath. A person who so thoroughly refuses to take responsibility for his actions — no matter at what age they took place — should not be trusted to make and enforce laws for the rest of us.

Those who are truly worried about the reputations of people who were accused of crimes in their youth should shift their focus from Kavanaugh to New York’s Yusef Abdus Salaam and the Central Park 5. They were exonerated of the crime of rape and went on to lead lives of service to society, but continue to be maligned by Trump.

The hypocrisy in our country at the time of these hearings is apparent. Those who defend Kavanaugh based on their supposed concern for the rights of youth are just circling the wagons of racism, patriarchy, and power.

Amanda Klonsky is the Chief Program Officer for an education program for people in jails and prisons across the Northeast. She recently earned her doctorate in Education Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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