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Polk Co. Judge: ‘White People Are Responsible’
Jurist Sees Racial Injustice in Iowa Courts
Lady Justice wears a blindfold to signify that justice is supposed to be blind. But in Iowa, her blindfold is askew, and that’s a bad thing for people of color.
Unequal treatment for minorities — especially blacks – can be found at nearly every decision-making point within Iowa’s criminal justice and child welfare systems. Decisions that if tainted with prejudice can mean jail or prison, foster care and termination of parental rights.
It’s not happening by accident.
Polk County District Associate Court Judge Joe Smith says he knows why it’s happening and he recognizes the culprits. It’s a rather surprising answer.
“I think that we as white people are responsible for it,” he said.
Many white people still equate racism and being racist with the Ku Klux Klan and burning crosses, he said. But it’s the everyday decisions being made throughout the systems that are problematic, he said.
“The institution is imposing a result that is distinctly racist,” Smith said.
State agencies, researchers and others have long studied the issues of racial disproportionality that are rampant in schools, prisons, the child welfare system and criminal justice system. But Smith contends few want to examine the root causes.
“Look at how long there have been sentencing structures in place that had a disparate impact on people of color,” he said. “It’s decades, and we’ve done nothing about it.”
Smith, a former public defender who has been a judge in Polk County since 1999, didn’t wake up one day and decide to confront racial bias. But a two-and-a-half day Undoing Racism seminar by the Louisiana-based People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond jolted him out of his oblivion.
During the seminar, which he has taken twice, Smith sat in a circle with people of different races who described the demeaning treatment they endure because of their skin color. They also talked about history and racial issues.
“When I got home I said to my wife, `I’ll never look at a black person the same way again,’” he said. “It was that profound. I never knew there was so much I didn’t know.”
The Iowa Department of Human Services and the institute are offering the free Undoing Racism seminars in Des Moines through June.
The seminars, taken by nearly every juvenile court judge in Polk County, challenged him to study and speak out about the problems. They compelled him to consider his own actions, those of others and change how he interacts with people on a daily basis.
Recently Smith had a case where a young black man was arrested for shoplifting in a Des Moines suburb and was placed in a detention center.
“I know as well as I know my own name that … if he was white they would have taken him down to the cop shop where he would have sat all night for the parents to get there and they’d have fed him supper and given him a Coke, Smith said. “A little black boy gets hauled off to Meyer Hall and locked up.”
This is how racial disparities in the system can begin, he said. It’s not just institutional racism and prejudice, but white privilege “kicking in there,” he said.
“As we know, detention is the surest predictor of future incarceration that we have,” he said. “When children are detained, the chances that they will wind up in prison go up significantly.”
Smith also acknowledged other problems.
As a public defender, he agreed with other lawyers who disliked dealing with their black clients’ mothers, wives, girlfriends and aunts, he said. Quite often the black women were loud, aggressive and demanding, he said. He viewed their behavior as “disrespectful,” he said. His colleagues told him the women drove them “nuts,” he said.
Now when he’s on the bench, he thinks about the racial injustices that black women might have endured that could be motivating their behavior and the cultural differences that might be coming into play.
“By the time they get to me, I may be the sixth person [they've dealt with at the courthouse], and they feel like they’re being shoved around because of their color,” he said. “And they may or may not be. The reality is that it is not disrespect for the institution and it is not disrespect for me.”
He added: “This is the black woman trying to make herself heard in the only way she believes that whitey will listen to her,” he said. “They’re trying to help the man in their life, and what’s wrong with that?”
It’s a shift in attitude, but it’s not the only one Smith has made. He warns young blacks and Latinos in his courtroom about the perils of running from the police.
“When a police officer tells you to stop, you stop,” he said. “Because if you don’t, as a child of color, the likelihood that you will be shot in the back goes up exponentially.”
He implores them not to reach in their pockets or make any sudden moves. He despises having to tell children that their skin color can get them killed.
“Is it right? No,” he said. “Is it the truth? Yes, it is the truth.”
Another uncomfortable truth Smith has faced is a widespread belief by those who work in the system that black men are somehow “disposable.”
“Because we see so many African-American women who are single mothers, who are single mothers with children of more than one father, that we think that those fathers somehow don’t count, don’t matter,” he said. “That we don’t need to consider them.”
These days, Smith said he pushes the Iowa Department of Human Services to consider the father and his family in cases where a child may need to be placed away from its mother, he said.
Smith also has worked with Casey Family Programs, part of a national foundation that works on child welfare issues. The project is called the Breakthrough Series Collaborative. It looked at the disproportionate number of children of color in the system.
“In Des Moines, more black children of color are referred to DHS than their percentage of the population,” he said. “When it comes to adjudication, the percentage of black children adjudicated goes up. When it comes to removal, it goes up. When it comes to termination [of parental rights], the percentage goes up. And they stay in foster care longer. And they’re less likely to be adopted. In each stage of the proceeding, the results for children of color become more disappointing.”
Why do the results for people of color worsen as they advance throughout these systems? Smith has a theory.
“It’s because we bring a whole set of unconscious preconceptions with us that make us make decisions that we might not otherwise make,” he said. “That influence us in a way that we make decisions that aren’t really in the children’s best interest, but we believe that they are.”
White people never think about their own skin color and race because they don’t have to, he said. But they must begin to open their eyes to the role they play in causing the racial disparities in the systems in which they work and consider how the decisions they make affect the people of color they interact with every day, he said.
That way Lady Justice can’t peek.
“It just involves walking into the courtroom and looking at your family and seeing if it’s a family of color and asking yourself, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?’” Smith said.