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Racism in the U.S. Criminal Justice System - Institutionalized Genocide, ACS, 2016

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Issue Brief

October 2016

Racism in the U.S. Criminal Justice System:
Institutionalized Genocide?
Nkechi Taifa*
David Simon, creator of the popular HBO series The Wire and commentator in director
Eugene Jarecki’s documentary The House I Live In, once characterized the drug war as a
“holocaust in slow motion.”1 Filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted that the water crisis in
Flint, Michigan was “a version of genocide.”2 Brazen police killings are far from new but
increasingly terrifying as the result of smart phones, with even barber shop chatter describing
the situation as genocidal. And a Shadow Report compilation of police violence and torture
submitted to the United Nations (UN) in 2014 used genocide as its backdrop.3
On the launch of his 1903 treatise, The Souls of Black Folk, historian W.E.B. DuBois
prophesized that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,”
referring to the pernicious role of race in society. And now, more than 100 years later, his
prognosis is even more ominous as my scrutiny of international law dictates that conditions
facing twenty-first century Black America could have parallels to genocide.

I. Introduction
I coined the arguably contentious phrase “institutional genocide” as a framework through
which to analyze the evolving jurisprudence of international human rights doctrine to
selected conditions impacting Black people in the United States.4 The terminology is neither
radical ranting nor rank rhetoric. It uses the international definition of genocide as a lens to
scrutinize today’s criminal punishment system and its impact on the Black community,

* The views expressed in this Issue Brief are solely those of the author.
1 Inside the “War on Drugs,” HARV. MAG. (Mar. 28, 2013),
2 Michael Moore (@MMFlint), TWITTER (Dec. 19, 2015, 7:13 PM),
4 See, e.g., Freddie Allen, The IBW “Black Paper” Seeks To Energize Activists, L.A. SENTINEL (Sept. 6, 2013),

American Constitution Society | 1333 H Street, NW, 11th Floor | Washington, DC 20005

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although the impact of racism in other systems, such as education5 or health care,6 could
likewise be so examined.
The backdrop for my analysis is the scholarship of Critical Race Theory,7 which provides an
expanded framework of thinking on issues of race and social reality. For example, the term
“genocide” appears to singularly conjure in most minds images of fiery ovens and atrocious
massacres. As such, there is often a blanket denunciation of the applicability of the term to
the United States. This censure is understandable, albeit myopic. Seldom do critics
dispassionately examine the internationally accepted parameters of the term “genocide,” and
then methodically apply that definition to the impact of the United States’ criminal justice
system on a particular racial group.8 For if one were to do so, I suggest that manifestations
of genocide against a substantial segment of the Black populace in the United States could
be plausible.
The purpose of this Issue Brief is to advance the scholarly dialogue with respect to the
applicability of international human rights doctrine to domestic United States conditions; in
this case, the application of the international definition of genocide to the Black community
as it is impacted by the U.S. criminal justice system. My premise is that the United States has
moved beyond institutional racism9 in the administration of its punishment system, to
manifestations of genocide.
Nothing in this argument is intended to compare or equate genocides throughout history.
Each is abhorrent with its own mass atrocity. All must be remembered with their victims
respected and sufferings honored.

See, e.g., Joy Resmovits, American Schools Are Still Racist, Government Report Finds, HUFF. POST (Mar. 21, 2014),
6 See, e.g., megalopolisuk, Medical Apartheid Part 1, YOUTUBE (Feb. 27, 2007),
7 Critical Race Theory is the legal scholarship movement developed in the mid-1970s as a result of discontent
with the failure of Critical Legal Studies to adequately address race in its analysis and criticism of the American
Crenshaw et al., eds., 1996). Critical Race Theorists often advance innovative thoughts, tactics and strategies
with which to analyze legal doctrine related to race.
8 For example, Professor Randall Kennedy has criticized the paradigm of genocide in the United States, noting,
that “no one . . . has come forward with credible evidence to suggest that American drug policy is truly
genocidal—that is, deliberately designed to eradicate a people.” Randall Kennedy, Symposium, The State,
Criminal Law, and Racial Discrimination: A Comment, 107 HARV. L. REV. 1255, 1261 (1994). Professor Kennedy’s
definitional reference to genocide however, is underinclusive. In selectively paraphrasing the Genocide
Convention, he omits provisions that are addressed in this Paper and leaves the reader to off-handedly dismiss
any correlation applied to conditions within the United States.
9 “Institutional racism . . . is a theory of racism wherein unwarranted racially disparate treatment is codified
within the structural fabric of social institutions and manifests routinely without the need for a discrete actor to
overtly perpetrate a discriminatory act.” Nkechi Taifa, The “Crack/Powder” Disparity: Can the International Race
Convention Provide a Basis for Relief?, AM. CONST. SOC’Y (May 2006), [hereinafter The
Crack/Powder Disparity].

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I first present the definition of genocide embraced by the international community and
analyze its adoption as ratified by the United States. Next, I tackle a presumptively
fundamental barrier to my thesis—the issue of intent—and theorize how that hurdle might
be overcome. In the classic story-telling tradition of many critical race theorists,10 I then
briefly introduce the inter-generational characters in Aunt Nettie’s neighborhood—a stylized
composite of a community impacted by the devastating realities of the criminal justice
system over the past forty years. Finally, I discuss, in a cursory fashion, policies and practices
highlighted by the composite, demonstrating their far-reaching and grave implications, which
I proffer, in many respects, parallel the definition of genocide against a substantial segment
of the U.S. Black population within the framework of both international and domestic law.

II. Application of the Term “Genocide”
A. The International Definition of Genocide
In 1948 the UN General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Prevention
and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention).11 This Convention
confirmed that “genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime
under international law which [the Contracting Parties] undertake to prevent and to
punish.”12 Genocide, the Convention declares, is the committing of certain acts “with intent
to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” 13 According to
the international convention, the following acts constitute genocide:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring
about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [or]
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.14
Pursuant to the Genocide Convention, however, genocide is not the only punishable act.
Related acts, such as conspiracy, incitement or attempts to commit genocide, and complicity
in genocide, are equally punishable.15 Furthermore, the international definition concludes by
reminding the Parties that those who commit genocide or any other of the related acts “shall

A predominate theme within critical race jurisprudence is the active use of storytelling—which includes
narrative, parable, chronicles and anecdotes—with which to analyze and challenge the “majoritarian mindset—
the bundle of presuppositions, received wisdoms, and shared cultural understandings persons in the dominant
group bring to discussions of race.” Richard Delgado & Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Annotated
Bibliography, 79 VA. L. REV. 461, 462 (1993).
11 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Dec. 9, 1948, 78 U.N.T.S. 277
[hereinafter Genocide Convention].
12 Id. at art. I.
13 Id. at art. II.
14 Id.
15 Id. at art. III.

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be punished, whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private

B. The Lengthy Process of U.S. Ratification
The UN General Assembly adopted the Genocide Convention in 1948 without dissent, with
the United States being the first nation to sign. Indeed, the United States’ delegation played a
pivotal role in drafting the international Convention; however, it took the United States
thirty-eight years to give its advice and consent to ratification. One of the articulated reasons
for this unconscionable delay was the fear that Blacks in America would use the treaty to
their advantage.17
According to Stephen Klitzman, chairman of an American Bar Association committee that
chronicled the history of the Genocide Convention’s ratification process, the Genocide
Convention had set a record “as the most scrutinized and analyzed non-military treaty ever
to be considered by the Senate.”18 The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings
for thirteen days. More than 200 witnesses, representing divergent views, testified. The
hearing’s transcript was more than 2,000 pages long.19
Nearly forty years after its adoption by the United Nations, and after scores of other nations
had already ratified it, the U.S. Senate finally gave its advice and consent to ratification,
subject to the enactment of implementing legislation under federal law. By this point,
political leaders in the United States felt comfortable that enactment of anti-segregation laws
mooted concern over attacks against American racial practices of the 1950s and 1960s.20 The
Senate also took the extra step of inserting language to limit the scope of the Genocide
Convention within U.S. law.
Id. at art. IV.
That fear was not without substance. In 1951, three years after the passage of the Genocide Convention by
the United Nations, W.E.B. DuBois and over ninety others presented the United Nations with a petition
chronicling the genocidal sufferings, murder, mental assault and crimes against humanity inflicted against Black
people. Twenty years later this petition was published in the book, CIVIL RIGHTS CONGRESS, WE CHARGE
STATES GOVERNMENT AGAINST THE NEGRO PEOPLE (William L. Patterson ed., 1970). The documented
reasons for delay included the anxieties of segregationists that ratification would subject the United States to
punishment under the Convention, based on the country’s treatment of Native American and Black people.
This fear was illustrated by the concerns of Ohio Senator John Bricker, who was alarmed at the thought that
literally thousands of discriminatory federal and state laws could automatically be invalidated by application of
international human rights law in domestic courts. See Stephen H. Klitzman, Craig H. Baab & Brian C. Murphy,
Ratification of the Genocide Convention: From the Ashes of “Shoah” Past the Shoals of the Senate, 33 FED. BAR NEWS & J.
no. 6, July-Aug. 1986, at 257, reprinted in The Genocide Convention Implementation Act: Hearing on H.R. 807 Before the
Subcomm. on Immigration, Refugees, & International Law of the H. Comm. on the Judiciary, 100th Cong. (1988)
(statement of Stephen Klitzman) [hereinafter Ratification of the Genocide Convention].
18 See Ratification of the Genocide Convention, supra note 17.
19 Yet, despite this voluminous record and the fact that the Foreign Relations Committee favorably reported
the pact five times prior to 1985 (1970, 1971, 1973, 1976, and 1984), the treaty never came to vote in the full
Senate until February 1986. See id.
20 See Nkechi Taifa, Symposium, Codification or Castration? The Applicability of the International Convention to Eliminate
All Forms of Racial Discrimination to the U.S. Criminal Justice System, 40 HOW. L.J. 641, 652 (1997). See also THOMAS

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Implementing legislation was now critical because the Genocide Convention, distinct from
later international human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial
Discrimination, incorporated a provision that the Contracting Parties agree to enact the
necessary legislation in their respective jurisdictions prior to depositing the ratification
documents with the United Nations.21 This provision was significant, in that it ensured that
ratification of the Genocide Convention would not be a symbolic gesture, but would have
the full force of laws and the authority to enact penalties.

C. The United States Codification
On April 4, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Genocide Convention
Implementation Act.22 This Act codified the international Genocide Convention in U.S. law,
making various changes to limit its applicability, perhaps because the Senate feared the
language as originally composed. These changes included: (1) adding the terms “specific”
before “intent,” and “substantial” in front of “part;” and (2) defining “mental harm” as the
permanent impairment of mental faculties, particularly referring to the application of
narcotic drugs. Thus, the Genocide Convention, as codified in U.S. law reads (with the
significant additions highlighted in bold, and omissions designated by brackets) as follows:
“Whoever, whether in time of peace or in time of war, in a circumstance
described in subsection (d) and with the specific intent to destroy, in whole
or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such—
(1) kills members of that group;
(2) causes serious bodily injury [or mental harm] to members of that group;
(3) causes the permanent impairment of the mental faculties of
members of the group through drugs, torture, or similar techniques;
(4) subjects the group to conditions of life that are intended to cause the
physical destruction of the group in whole or in part;
(5) imposes measures intended to prevent births within the group; or
(6) transfers by force children of the group to another group;
shall be punished as provided in subsection (b).”23

III. The Problem with Intent
Many of the disparities in the criminal justice system arise from institutional and structural
racism, in which “public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other

Genocide Convention, supra note 11, at art. V.
Genocide Convention Implementation Act of 1987, Pub. L. No. 100-606, 102 Stat. 3045 (1988), as amended by
The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, Pub. L. No. 103-322, tit. VI, § 60003(a)(13),
108 Stat. 1796 (1994) (codified at 18 U.S.C. § 1091 (2009)).
23 18 U.S.C. § 1091(a).

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norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity.”24 As
such, the “specific intent” prong, as inserted by the United States, is a fundamental hurdle to
use of this treaty in U.S. law. It is a difficult hurdle, given the restrictive manner in which
U.S. courts have historically construed the intent requirement within a general equal
protection analysis involving criminal justice issues.25 It seems obvious that few public
officials, private individuals, or constitutionally responsible officials will explicitly state, “I
have the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, your racial, ethnic or
religious group.” More recently, however, in the seminal stop-and-frisk case Floyd v. City of
New York, a federal judge in the Southern District of New York found discriminatory intent
based on circumstantial evidence.26 Still, the Supreme Court has yet to abandon its longstanding tradition requiring direct evidence of intent.27
Despite the lower court finding in Floyd that intentional discrimination could be found based
on both statistical and anecdotal evidence,28 as I stated in The “Crack/Powder” Disparity: Can
the International Race Convention Provide a Basis for Relief?:
Scholars have argued . . . that the current intent standard “ignores the way
racism works” and because racial inequality can manifest “irrespective of the
decisionmakers’ motive,” the remedy to that inequality must likewise not be
dependent upon provable intentional conduct. “Sophisticated racists have
learned to code their language and not leave behind a trail of racism.”
Although cognizable reasons may exist for courts declining to extend an
equal protection remedy beyond cases of provable intentional discrimination,
such arguments, no matter how colossal they may appear, should not
continue to be allowed as justification to circumscribe justice. . . . Current
equal protection analysis must not be allowed to block consideration of
creative solutions.29
Unless the Supreme Court adopts the analysis in Floyd or sanctions similar use of ancillary
evidence to prove discriminatory intent, we should look to international jurisprudence,
which understands that racism manifests in various forms, allowing intent to be gleaned
through actions and impact. For example, the International Convention on the Elimination
of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which the United States has ratified but not
made self-executing, allows laws and practices that have an invidious discriminatory impact
25 Jeffrey A. Kruse, Substantive Equal Protection Analysis Under State v. Russell, and the Potential Impact on the
Criminal Justice System, 50 WASH. & LEE L. REV. 1791 (1993).
26 Floyd v. City of New York, 959 F.Supp.2d 540 (S.D.N.Y. 2013).
27 United States v. Armstrong, 517 U.S. 456 (1996). The Supreme Court ruled in Armstrong that, in order for a
defendant to be entitled to discovery based on a claim of selective prosecution because of race, the defendant
must prove the prosecution was motivated by discriminatory intent.
28 Floyd, 959 F. Supp. 2d at 562.
29 The “Crack/Powder” Disparity, supra note 9, at 5 (citations omitted).

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to be condemned, regardless of specific intent, reaching both conscious and unconscious
forms of racism.30 Thus, if the intent standard of the Genocide Convention, as ratified by the
United States, were to be interpreted in accordance with the intent standard in CERD, then
the paradigm of genocide against a substantial portion of the Black populace in the United
States resulting from institutionalized or structural racism in the criminal justice system
could, in fact, be plausible and actionable.
Leaving the intent prong aside, let us go back to the definition of genocide and analyze how
the impact of racism in the criminal punishment system could fit that mold. In this vein, the
term “institutional genocide” is a formulation illuminating the severity inherent in the
international nomenclature, while acknowledging that there may be complications with the
U.S. interpretation of intent. In the criminal punishment context, institutionalized genocide
is the aggregate impact of discriminatory treatment of a community—embedded in laws,
policies, and practices of institutions involved in policing, prosecution, and sanctions—
which has the effect of destroying, in whole or substantial part, a racial, ethnic or religious
group. Such destruction manifests through killings, bodily or mental harm, and destructive
conditions of life, to name a few factors. This destruction may not be the result of conscious
choice or intentional, deliberate decision-making. Indeed, in addition to being perpetrated
through individual acts, discriminatory treatment is embedded within the structure, policies,
and practices of whole institutions.
There is a broader social context that underlies the criminal justice system in the United
States, which disproportionately impacts African Americans. It is a social context permeated
by the poverty, rampant unemployment, poor housing and homelessness, inadequate
education, harmful health outcomes, and diminished life opportunities of “disordered
neighborhoods.”31 With such an array of interrelated risk factors, the conditions of life in
neighborhoods of concentrated poverty often result in the destruction of not only
individuals, but also entire families and generations. The cumulative effect of these
conditions almost guarantees the involvement of many young inner city Blacks in the
criminal justice system. Ultimately, unmet social needs provide fuel for the cycle of
incarceration.32 Even the vast majority of African Americans who do not come from poverty
nevertheless share a heritage on this land of enslavement, segregation, and unequal treatment
based on race, often embedded in institutions and generally implicit in policies and practices.
These structural arrangements result in killings and bodily and mental harm, on top of
appalling conditions of life.
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Dec. 21, 1965, 660
U.N.T.S. 195.
31 “Disordered neighborhoods” also refers to “policing styles and outcomes, crime, social control, social
disorganization, neighborhood decay, foreclosure, and fear of crime.” Danielle Wallace & Christopher Scott,
Neighborhood Disclosure, OXFORD BIBLIOGRAPHIES (July 24, 2013),
32 See Nkechi Taifa & Catherine Beane, Symposium, Integrative Solutions to Interrelated Issues: A Multi-Disciplinary
Look Behind the Cycle of Incarceration, 3 HARV. L. & POL’Y REV. 283 (2009).

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Are these conscious acts intended to cause such destruction? Are they the unconscious
effects of structural racism in the criminal justice system? Or do they constitute
institutionalized genocide? The following section will attempt to answer these questions by
analyzing the life of the fictional “Aunt Nettie” through the framework of the U.S.
interpretation of the international definition of “genocide.”

IV. Aunt Nettie’s Neighborhood and Breaking Down the Saga
Aunt Nettie, the elderly lady who lives up the street, has seen and heard it all. Whether
viewed first hand from her porch or heard from news reports flashed across her T.V. screen,
her community’s narratives are representative of countless chronicles in neighborhoods
across the country depicting aspects of the definitional prongs of genocide. Aunt Nettie’s life
is saturated with accounts of seemingly senseless police killings of Black men, women and
children. When she was a little girl, Nettie’s grandfather was executed for the murder of a
White woman in Georgia, despite the fact that he was fifty miles away at a family reunion at
the time. He proclaimed his innocence to the end. Now in her later years, Nettie knows the
dilapidated conditions around her are commonplace in her neighborhood. For decades she
knew the children in her neighborhood ate paint chips from crumbling ceilings and walls,
never realizing they contained deadly lead. So when the reports came out about poisoned
water from lead pipes in Flint, Michigan, she could only shake her head in agony.
Aunt Nettie was scared to sit on her front porch that day. The previous night another Black
youth was gunned down by law enforcement, this time right on her block, so she contented
herself to pulling back her curtains and peering out the window. She watched the aging
African American men gather at their daily abode—the street corner in front of the liquor
store. She watched as her nephew Larry walked past them. Larry was recently released from
serving a twenty-year mandatory minimum drug sentence and Nettie knew he was anxious to
get back on his feet. She watched the teens hanging out by the alley with no employment
prospects in sight and noticed the middle school students who frequented the fast-food
restaurant on their way home from class, many of whom had never been to a “sit-down”
restaurant in their lives. She watched her pregnant, drug-addicted niece Tanisha slowly
ambling up the stairs to the apartment she let her boyfriend use as a drug-selling haven.
Little did Aunt Nettie know that circumstances would dictate that Tanisha would never get
to raise the child she would deliver. Just yesterday, Aunt Nettie witnessed Tanisha’s little
brother, Terrence, get arrested for carjacking. But despite the desolate and painful conditions
of life surrounding her neighborhood, Aunt Nettie beamed when she saw her grandnephew
Little Ray bounce down the street toward her door.

A. “Killing Members of the Group”
Racially biased executions and extrajudicial killings against Black people—whether by lynch
mobs or officers of the law, fall within the first definitional prong of the Genocide
Convention. Aunt Nettie’s grandfather, executed in a White victim case, is representative of
hundreds of Black men who have been convicted of killing Whites and sentenced to die and

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countless others murdered before even getting to the courthouse. While the facts may differ
in individual cases, the constant factor—death sentences or extrajudicial killings where the
race of the victim is White—remains. This is further demonstrated by a U.S. General
Accounting Office study, which found evidence indicating a pattern of racial disparities in
the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty, and concluded that those who
murdered Whites were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered
Furthermore, there are disproportionately high rates of the use of excessive and deadly force
by police officers against people of color, with more and more occurrences coming to light
as the result of video technology. Despite the lack of an adequate federal database of fatal
police shootings, even a cursory scrutiny of academic studies, legal rulings and media
investigations reveals evidence of intentional and implicit bias by police against Blacks, from
traffic stops to unjustified police killings. 34 The young Black man shot dead by police in
Aunt Nettie’s neighborhood is reminiscent of increasing numbers of African Americans
murdered by the very police officers sworn to protect them. The Genocide Convention does
not provide guidance as to what numbers constitute “a group” and there has yet to be any
United States-based litigation delineating such. However, even discounting the legacy of
lynchings35 in this country by private individuals and racially biased capital punishment36 by
the state, I submit that racially biased police killings of unarmed Blacks37 alone is probative
of “killing of members of the group.”

B. Causing Serious Bodily Injury, Mental Harm or Permanent Impairment
of Mental Faculties
Under the international definition of genocide, it is possible to destroy a group of people
without actual killing, that is why the definition includes, “causing serious bodily or mental
harm to members of the group” or, as interpreted and codified by the United States,
“caus[ing] serious bodily injury to members of the group,” and “caus[ing] the permanent
impairment of the mental faculties of members of the group through drugs, torture or
similar techniques.” Although the United States sought to confine the reach of the
international definition through its restrictive interpretation of “mental harm,” substantial
numbers of African Americans have nevertheless been bodily harmed and mentally
34 See Kia Makarechi, What the Data Really Says About Police and Racial Bias, VANITY FAIR (July 14, 2016),; Justin Feldman, Roland Fryer Is Wrong: There
Is Racial Bias in Shootings by Police, OPENSCHOLAR@HARVARD: JUSTIN FELDMAN (July 12, 2016),
(2d ed. 2015),
36 See Richard C. Dieter, The Death Penalty in Black and White: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides, DEATH PENALTY
37 See Rich Juzwiak & Aleksander Chan, Unarmed People of Color Killed by Police 1999-2014, GAWKER (Dec. 8,

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impaired. Whether such injuries are caused by drugs, disproportionate racial imprisonment,
solitary confinement, or torture, they are all exacerbated as the result of centuries of
untreated, multi-generational trauma, analytically described as “Post Traumatic Slave
While in prison, Aunt Nettie’s son Larry was incarcerated in a special housing unit within a
super maximum prison. Confined for twenty-three hours a day in a sealed, windowless cell,
with no work, training, or other programs, Larry was subjected to regimes of extreme social
and sensory deprivation. Many in his unit also suffered from severe mental illness due to the
lack of environmental stimulation, leading to traumatic and serious psychiatric consequences.
Prison authorities have defended such units as being necessary to contain violent, disruptive
prisoners; however, Amnesty International asserts that conditions in some units violate
international standards for the humane treatment of prisoners and exceed what is necessary
for security purposes.39 The total U.S. prison and jail population has exceeded the two
million mark. Nearly half of that population is African American, with Black men in the
United States incarcerated at a rate five times higher than Blacks were under apartheid South
Africa. The increase in the prison population is neither evidence of rising crime and nor an
indication of more criminal activity by African Africans. Rather, it is a reflection of
destructively lengthy sentencing policies that have had a disproportionate impact on African
Still, the health consequences of mass incarceration are often overlooked. As a result of
prison overcrowding and the lack of appropriate correctional health care, tuberculosis
spreads rapidly. In New York City, where a particularly virulent, multi-drug resistant form of
the disease broke out, eighty percent of known cases were traced to prisons. Moreover, the
rate of HIV infection in the prison population is proliferating. Given the disproportionate
numbers of African Americans who are incarcerated, and the cycling of people in and out of
prison, a public health crisis has been created with disastrous consequences for not only
Black prisoners but their families and communities as well.
Another stark example illustrating the genocidal definition of bodily or mental harm was the
systematic torture that was inflicted on at least 125 African American suspects in police
custody on Chicago’s Southside to extract confessions between 1972 and 1991. The torture
techniques included electric shocks to genitals, suffocation with plastic bags, hot radiator
burnings, and mock executions, all under the command of Lt. Jon Burge of the Chicago
Police Department.
“Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome” posits that centuries of chattel slavery in the United States, followed by
the residual impacts of multi-generational oppression and institutionalized racism without the opportunity to
heal or access societal benefits, result in predictable destructive patterns of behavior. Post Traumatic Slave
Syndrome, DR. JOY DEGRUY, (last visited
Oct. 21, 2016).

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Burge’s legacy of torture left festering wounds that remain open to this day.
Many survivors continue to suffer from nightmares and flashbacks, grappling
with post-traumatic stress disorder that has gone untreated for decades. They
live under a shroud of shame, guilt, and anguish that undermines their ability
to form relationships and share community with others. Survivors’ family
members were also left to contend with their secondary trauma in isolation,
after their fathers, sons and partners were ripped from them. As whispers of
the torture spread, entire communities lived in fear that they or their loved
ones would be disappeared from street corners or homes into the bowels of
police stations to be tortured and terrorized. The torture, like lynchings,
served to terrorize entire African American communities.40
The UN Committee Against Torture was dismayed by Lt. Burge’s systematic use of torture.
The committee reviewed the issue of police violence in Chicago and it expressed “deep
concern at the frequent and recurrent police shootings or fatal pursuits of unarmed black
individuals.”41 As the result of a multi-faceted mobilization incorporating community
activism and advocacy, Chicago became the first U.S. municipality to provide a reparations
settlement to victims of racially motivated police violence.42

C. Inflicting Conditions Calculated to Bring About Physical Destruction
The people in Aunt Nettie’s neighborhood have lived all their lives in an under-resourced
environment with substandard schools and a lack of meaningful jobs. Many of the children
grew up with health deficits from lead poisoning and the lack of fresh food sources in their
community. Who knows what impact these educational, health and economic disadvantages
may have on people subjected to them? Such conditions of life—exacerbated by the extra
scrutiny of police officers deployed to the area—do not make Aunt Nettie’s neighborhood
safer, but instead result in more people from her community being arrested, prosecuted,
convicted, and imprisoned.

Joey Mogul, Reparations: A Blueprint To Address Systemic Police Violence, PEOPLE’S LAW OFF., (last visited Oct. 21,
41 See Press Release, We Charge Genocide, Chicago Police Violence Against Black and Latino Youth Called
Out by United Nations Committee (Nov. 31, 2014),; see also
WE CHARGE GENOCIDE, supra note 3, at 2.
42 Chicago, Ill., Reparations for Burge Torture Victims Ordinance (May 6, 2015), The ordinance provides a formal apology from the city; free tuition at Chicago city
colleges; psychological counseling and prioritized access to select city services; a requirement that the Burge
torture cases and police brutality be taught as part of the curriculum in Chicago city schools; and the creation of
a public memorial in remembrance of the torture and its survivors. The ordinance also provides compensation
to living survivors from a $5.5 million dollar city fund. See City of Chicago Reparations for Burge Torture Victims—
Frequently Asked Questions, CITY OF CHI., (last visited Oct. 21, 2016).

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For instance, Young Terrence’s arrest and adjudication as a juvenile for car theft increased
the likelihood that he later would be arrested and incarcerated as an adult. Studies have
revealed that if youth like Terrence are sent to an adult prison, they are “500% more likely to
be sexually assaulted, 200% more likely to be beaten by staff, and 50% more likely to be
attacked with a weapon” than if they had been confined in a juvenile facility.43
After his release from prison, the conditions of life confronting Aunt Nettie’s son, Larry,
appeared calculated to ensure he would not succeed. In fact, he told Aunt Nettie that every
time he disclosed his felony conviction on a job application or during an interview, he was
not hired or, if he lied to get a job, he was fired when his record was discovered. “Aunt
Nettie, I even received my GED in prison, and wanted to enroll in some college courses
once I was released, but they said I couldn’t receive financial aid because of my drug
conviction. When I got out of prison, I didn’t have medical insurance, and no place to live.
And to make matters worse, when I go out to look for a job, I’m often stopped on the
streets by the police and harassed for no reason.”
More than 600,000 people return home each year from state and federal prisons. Despite the
passage of the 2008 Second Chance Act44 and Obama Administration reentry initiatives,45
outdated laws and policies have made the transition process from prison life to society
increasingly difficult, creating challenges that not only negatively impact formerly
incarcerated people, but also have a rippling effect on their families and communities. Many
of these barriers to reentry into society arise in the areas of housing, employment, public
benefits, education, family reunification, and participation in the political process.
Although Aunt Nettie smiled when she saw Little Ray approach her door, she did not realize
that based on his third grade test scores, a prison bed was already being reserved for him.
The long-term impact of being denied healthy conditions of life, coupled with the disruption
and disintegration of families and diminished life prospects wrought by mass incarceration,
result in incalculable damages to substantial numbers of African Americans.

D. Imposing Measures to Prevent Births or Transferring Children by
Force to Another Group
Not only was Aunt Nettie disappointed that Tanisha allowed her boyfriend to sell drugs
from her apartment, she was shocked when Tanisha was arrested and sent to prison. She did
not realize that drug conspiracy laws sweep within their ambit those who answer telephones
and take messages, as well as those who actually sell drugs. Tanisha was shackled
Fact Sheet: Juvenile Justice System, ACLU, (last visited
Oct. 21, 2016).
44 See Second Chance Act, COUNCIL OF STATE GOV’TS JUSTICE CTR., (last visited Oct. 21, 2016).
45 See Press Release, White House Off. of the Press Sec’y, Fact Sheet: President Obama Announces New
Actions to Promote Rehabilitation and Reintegration for the Formerly Incarcerated (Nov. 2, 2015),

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intermittently throughout her pregnancy and when her baby was born, she was immediately
shackled to the bed.46 Her son was later placed in a foster home with influential, White
parents who were intent on adopting him.47 Equally egregious, the fifteen-year mandatory
minimum sentence she received took her out of her childbearing age, meaning she would
never have the chance to reproduce again.
The Sentencing Project reports that from 1989 to 1994, the criminal justice control rates for
African American women increased seventy-eight percent (a rate greater than that of any
other demographic group studied).48 This was more than double the increase for African
American men and for White women and more than nine times the increase for White men.
Although the numbers of incarcerated Black women have significantly decreased since
2000,49 the astronomical incarceration of substantial numbers during their key reproductive
years has negatively impacted the entire group’s ability to give birth. Likewise, as the result of
their lengthy sentences many, like Tanisha, have had their parental rights terminated, a trend
that is arguably illustrative of “transferring children from one group to another.”

V. Conclusion
In response to the ideas this Issue Brief posits, one may ask, “But is it deliberate? Why is it
important that the conditions confronting Black people in the criminal justice system be
viewed as genocidal? What is wrong with just saying that the system is racist?” In response, I
would argue that the horror of overt and institutional racism has not been repugnant enough
to prompt a critical mass of the American population to demand that their elected leaders
Shackling pregnant women violates the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and the U.N.
Convention Against Torture—treaties that have been ratified by the United States—and is violative of other
international law standards as well. INT’L HUMAN RIGHTS CLINIC, UNIV. OF CHI. LAW SCH., CHI. LEGAL
47 The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 requires a state to file a petition for termination of parental
rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 of the most recent 22 months. See Adoption and Safe Families
Act of 1997, Pub. Law 105-89, tit. I, § 103(a), 111 Stat. 2115 (1997) (codified at 42 U.S.C. § 675(5)(E) (2016)).
This almost assures that children of parents serving mandatory minimum sentences will be adopted, if there is
no acceptable relative to intervene. There is concern that as the result of incarceration, disproportionate
numbers of Black children are being removed from birth families and transracially adopted, without serious
focus on home-based services, reunification, or kinship care. E.g., J. Toni Oliver, Adoptions Should Consider Black
Children and Black Families, N.Y. TIMES (Feb. 3, 2014), Indeed, it can be argued that involuntarily severing parental rights
from incarcerated people who are disproportionately African American triggers the genocidal element,
“transfers by force children of the group to another group.” This is not meant to suggest that all, or even most,
transracial adoptions contribute to genocide.
49 Marc Mauer, The Changing Racial Dynamics of Women’s Incarceration, SENTENCING PROJECT (Feb. 2013),

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fashion structural solutions. Therefore, scholars, advocates, and activists—particularly those
whose communities are most affected by racism—must raise the ante and advance creative,
audacious, and untested theories. Perhaps applying the intensified nomenclature of genocide
will shock the conscience of the public to intensify actions to remedy the problem. Perhaps
the stark juxtaposition of the internationally accepted definition of genocide and the impact
of racism in the U.S. criminal justice system will spark needed change in laws, policies, and
Is the impact of racism in the criminal justice system genocidal against a substantial portion
of the Black populace? I submit yes. As long as the lives of the people in Aunt Nettie’s
neighborhood and African American communities as a whole are being destroyed; as long as
discriminatory treatment is embedded in police departments, prosecutor’s offices, and
courtrooms, and the perception of unequal justice is perpetuated throughout the system; and
as long as legislatures continue laws and policies that have a damaging effect, there will be
dire consequences for Black people. This Issue Brief has presented the case that the
cumulative impact of destructive treatment against Blacks in the criminal justice system,
combined with challenging conditions of life negatively impacting generations, constitutes
institutionalized genocide—the human rights crisis facing twenty-first century Black

About the Author
Nkechi Taifa is Advocacy Director for Criminal Justice at the Open Society Foundations,
working to influence policy in support of comprehensive justice reform. Taifa focuses on
issues involving sentencing reform, law enforcement accountability, re-entry of previously
incarcerated persons, prison reform and clemency. Taifa also convenes the Justice
Roundtable, a Washington-based advocacy network advancing federal criminal justice
reform. Prior to joining the Open Society, Taifa was the founding director of Howard
University School of Law’s Equal Justice Program, and was adjunct professor at both
Howard Law and American University Washington College of Law. Taifa has served as
legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, public policy counsel for the
Women’s Legal Defense Fund, and as a staff attorney for the National Prison Project. She
has also been in private practice, specializing in representing indigent adults and juveniles.
Taifa has served on many different public interest boards, and as an appointed commissioner
and chair of the District of Columbia Commission on Human Rights. Taifa received her JD
from George Washington Law School, and BA from Howard University.

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