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Underground Codes: Race, Crime and Related Fires
Katheryn Russell-Brown
New York: New York University Press, 2004.
$18.00, 208 pages, ISBN 0-8147-7541-1

Gerardo Del Guercio
Université de Montréal


The purpose of Katheryn Russell-Brown’s Underground Codes: Race, Crime and Related Fires is to demonstrate that the American justice system is plagued with covert racism. Russell-Brown refers to this covert racism as underground codes, and discusses the unfair policing of African Americans, the correlating of Black culture with crime, and the inefficiency of existing data on minority cultures and the law. My review will illustrate how Katheryn Russell-Brown provides readers of Afro-American studies with a theoretical layout that “highlight[s] the limitations of current measures of racial discrimination” [6] and outlines “a typology that identifies the sites for racial bias within the justice system that have been overlooked by mainstream measures of racial bias.” Racial equality in the justice system is possible once the underground codes have been eliminated.

Katheryn Russell-Brown centers her text on Daniel Georges-Abeyie’s term ‘petit apartheid’ to portray the “race-influenced practices in the justice system” [5] that mainstream research methods leave unmeasured. Russell-Brown considers American law flawed due to its treating Blacks inferiorly to Whites. The racism is rooted in “[t]he interaction between legal and extralegal variables, such as the type of case and the race, gender and economic class of the offender and the courtroom actors, [that] affect how cases are decided” [12]. Manipulating legal and extralegal variables are what Russell-Brown believes is the cause of Blacks being labeled social deviants.

Measuring every stage of the American justice system will determine that race and crime are not related. Unmeasured variables include pre-arrest and post sentencing. By not measuring all variables, gaps emerge wherein “some of the legislative and policy mechanisms that enable racial bias to proliferate within the justice system” [13] are allowed to persist. Extensive research in pre-arrest and post sentencing is required because “there are back regions within the criminal justice system where race consistently predicts outcomes” [18]. Russell-Brown suggests that the disproportionately high crime rate among African Americans will decline once extensive data on pre-arrest and post sentencing become available. It is therefore imperative that microscopic studies be applied to the American justice system so that the typecast of Black deviance can be deconstructed. Measuring every stage of the law will ultimately prove whether “the degree of racially biased decision making may be a significant factor in the number of minorities who enter and pass through the criminal justice process” [18].

Katheryn-Russell Brown’s Underground Codes: Race, Crime and Related Fires explores how mainstream discourse demonizes Black culture. The debate surrounding gangsta rap music questions if Black art “perpetuates stereotypes of African American youth as highly sexualized and criminal” [37]. I argue that although gangsta rap music extols violence and misogyny, it is nonetheless not reflective of the entire Black community. It would be unfair to assume that the advocation of a few musicians is the same as that of an entire population. Russell-Brown disagrees with the federal government’s stance on sexually explicit art. One reference is the overruling of George W. Bush’s 1998 law banning the investment of government pension funds in companies that “manufacture or distribute music that degrades women or promotes violence” [43]. Government funds should instead be invested in social programs or research.

A major problem that Katheryn Russell-Brown finds with American law is that it polices minority cultures unfairly. Russell-Brown’s views on undergroung policing are encapsulated in the following statement:

With each incident, national and local, the public expresses shock and dismay. When prosecuted, cases wind their way through the legal system—ultimately arriving at their final resting place, dusty legal annals. These incidents reveal the layers and complexity of police brutality. Given this, it is not surprising that many of the core issues associated with the topic—intricate and historically laden— have eluded sustained social discussion and comment. There is a haze, thick and oppressive, that surrounds police brutality and appropriate, workable policy responses. [55]

Driving while Black is one example of “underground policing.” Current research finds that Blacks are three times more likely to be pulled over while driving than Whites are, yet more Caucasians are found transporting contraband substances. Racial profiling becomes an underground code when Blacks are detained more frequently for crimes that are committed primarily by Whites.

A contemporary case of racial profiling is that of Patrick Dorismond, a security guard who was murdered by New York police outside of a Manhattan nightclub. Rudolph Giuliani attempted to sway public sympathy by releasing Dorismond’s juvenile criminal record. Giuliani’s actions were motivated by using Dorismond’s past to depict him as a bad victim. Katheryn Russell-Brown states that “[t]his new information encouraged the public to believe the impossible—that, at the time of the shooting, the officers were aware of Dorismond’s juvenile record (his prior criminality) and, therefore, justifiably threatened by him” [61]. The police officers were later acquitted of all charges. The supposition is that the police used Dorismond’s race to suspect him of being a narcotics supplier. I base my latter point on the fact that the police had no reason for suspecting Dorismond of any wrongdoing and that several Whites were standing in front of the same nightclub. The NYPD officers nevertheless chose to interrogate a Black man.

The African American community has united to offer Black protectionism to high profile Blacks who face legal prosecution. Black protectionism examines “how African Americans treat high-profile members of its community who have been accused of criminal or unethical activity” [72]. Potential candidates for Black protectionism must meet certain criteria: that the victim faces allegations of wrongdoing; that the accusation be made against a Black community member of creditability and respect; that the allegations come from a mainstream agent; and that the victim has something significant to lose. African Americans of high profile receive such protection from mainstream racial prejudice in order to defend Black culture from being labeled deviant.

Not every influential African American qualifies for Black protectionism. Jocelyn Elders, Bill Clinton’s U.S. surgeon general was dismissed for her liberal views on sex education and for encouraging masturbation. Black Americans did not extend protection to Elders because she lacked sufficient “racial seniority or recognition” [87]. Protectionism is thus given to public icons that can mirror their entire race. Black women have been traditionally denied protection due to their relatively minor share of the American public sphere.

Katheryn Russell-Brown concludes her text with a discussion on why Black women must be studied separately from White women. Making a distinction between Black and White women is necessary in view of the fact that African American women suffer the double bind of being Black and female. Russell-Brown notes that the rate of Black female criminality remains unmeasured in existing data, and that it represents Black women as welfare collectors who are “irresponsible, promiscuous young women, who are willing and able to become out-of-wedlock mothers” [119]. Black women’s place in the American justice system is a significant one that constitutes the largest crime rate growth of any other race or gender. The U.S. census for 2001 found that “44 percent” [125] of Black women arrested for breaking the law were sentenced to State and Federal prisons. Conducting studies exclusively on Black women would clarify how and why African American females occupy such a large percentage of incarcerated women.

What I have been arguing towards throughout this analysis is that Katheryn Russell-Brown’s Underground Codes: Race, Crime and Related Fires slowly breaks down the unmeasured variables that traditionally equate African American culture with crime. Racially discriminatory acts like assuming groups of Black pedestrians being involved in gangsterism must be examined in order to maximize police efficiency. Extensive research in the American justice system will create a race neuter legal process and finally discover if and why race is accountable for high crime rates in minority cultures. Using the law to create racial equality would inherently lower the tension between Whites and African Americans because Black Americans would no longer be forced to abide by a justice system that treats them as inferiors.



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