The Evolution Of Inequality In The US

The Evolution Of Inequality In The U.S. Legal System Essay, Research Paper

In the United States, true equality has never existed. From the Declaration of Independence to modern times, the U.S. legal system has failed in any attempt at equality. The ideology of “all [men] are equal but some [men] are more equal than others” has been present throughout the history of the U.S. (Orwell). Inequality has always existed in the United States legal system and continues to exist today; however, the inequality presently in the system is not as blatant as what it once was, but the system has come to depend on inequality.Since the very beginning of a legal system in the United States, there has been inequality. The Declaration of Independence declared that “?all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights?”(Jefferson). The reality of the Declaration of Independence was that all free, white, landowning men are created equal. Slavery continued in the U.S. for nearly ninety years after the Declaration, and black Americans still feel the sting of inequality. Women were also left out of “?all men are created equal?.” The implied meaning of the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence is what the U.S. legal system has strived for and failed to grasp fully.After the establishment of independence in the United States, the development of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights ensued. The Bill of Rights was to establish the basic rights of every citizen of the United States, but failed to do so. The rights of white, male citizens were the only rights that were ensured by the Bill of Rights. The rights of blacks and the underprivileged were not even considered. The Fifth Amendment states, “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury?, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation” (”Constitution”, Amendment V). These rights were often denied to those that were second class citizens or those people that were not even considered to be people, such as slaves. The rights ensured by the first ten amendments have been denied to some part of the population at any given time in American history. The denying of the basic rights established by the Bill of Rights is not limited to the any one amendment. Even today there are cases that cite the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, and the Fifth Amendment, as a basis for defense. The First Amendment right to freedom of speech is probably the most challenged in today?s society. With the “Information Age” upon us, the right to free speech has been seeking out its limits and future potential. Because of the extent of free speech and peoples use of it to speak out against the government, there is inequality currently in the system. People who use their voices against the system are often caused a great deal of legal troubles while those that use their voices to support the system are free to do so at will. To return to America?s early history of inequality, one must look at the black codes. The black codes are defined as “laws [that] were designed to replace the social controls of that had been removed by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution [(1865)], and were thus intended to assure continuance of white supremacy” (”black codes”). The Grandfather Clause and Jim Crow Laws were all part of the black codes of the South. “[The Grandfather Clause]?provided that those who had enjoyed the right to vote prior to 1866 or 1867, or their lineal descendants, would be exempt from educational, property, or tax requirements for voting?[T]hese clauses worked effectively to exclude blacks from the vote but assured the franchise to many impoverished and illiterate whites” (”Grandfather Clause”). Jim Crow Laws were “any of the laws that enforced racial segregation in the U.S. South between the end (1877) of the formal Reconstruction period and the beginning of a strong civil-rights movement (1950s)” (”Jim Crow Laws”). Thus, Jim Crow Laws were a large part of black codes.Jim Crow Laws included the statute set by Plessy v. Ferguson, in 1896, of “separate, but equal” (USSC, “Plessy”). With the topic of Plessy v. Ferguson being brought into the situation, one must look at segregation in America as a means of the system reaffirming inequality. “In the Southern states of the United States?legal segregation in public facilities was current from the late 19th century into the 1950s” (”racial segregation”). Legal segregation in America established the fact that there was inherent inequality in the system. Because of this, “the Civil Rights Movement was initiated by Southern blacks in the 1950s and ’60s to break the prevailing pattern of racial segregation” (”racial segregation”). As a result of this movement, Plessy v. Ferguson was overturned in the 1955 ruling of Brown v. Board of Education (USSC, “Brown”). This did not put an end to legal segregation, but it laid a foundation for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act was “comprehensive U.S. legislation intended to end discrimination based on race, colour, religion, or national origin” (”Civil Rights Act”). Though the intent of the Civil Rights Act was good, it was not as effective as it should have been. It failed to end inequality in the system.Inequality has evolved to fit the newly reformed system. Not just racial inequality adapted to the system, but also inequality towards the indigent and towards women. After all, inequality is not limited to cases of race. Women have been second class citizens since the foundation of America. It wasn?t until the 19th Amendment passed in 1920 that women gained the right to vote (”Constitution”, Amendment XIX). This was fifteen years after the 15th Amendment provided that the right to vote would not be denied on the basis of race or colour (Amendment XV). Yet, it wasn?t until the 24th Amendment in 1964 that poll taxes where prohibited and voting became more accessible to the indigent (Amendment XXIV). Even though these steps were taken to eliminate inequality in most forms, inequality still occurs in the system.The modern legal system in the U.S. has come to not only accept and hide inequality, but also to depend on inequality to function. Perhaps David Cole said it best, “Absent race and class disparities, the privileged among us could not enjoy as much constitutional protection of our liberties as we do?” (5). The case of Gideon v. Wainwright can be used to illustrate this point. Cole summarizes the case:Clarence Earl Gideon, a penniless Florida man, down on his luck and charged with breaking and entering a poolroom, claims that although he can?t afford a layer, he has a constitutional right to have a lawyer appointed by the state to defend him. When the Florida trial court denies his request, [Gideon] represents himself, and is convicted. From prison, [Gideon] sends a hand-written note to the Supreme Court asking it to hear his case. ?Abe Fortas [is appointed] to argue Gideon?s case, and then [the Court] rules that the Sixth Amendment guarantees indigent defendants the assistance of a lawyer in all serious criminal trials. On retrial, with a lawyer paid for by the states, Gideon is acquitted. (63)The Gideon v. Wainwright may not appear to support the previous statement: “Absent race and class disparities, the privileged among us could not enjoy as much constitutional protection of our liberties as we do?” (Cole 5). The outcome of Gideon requires government to provide a lawyer to a defendant, “[b]ut as long as the state provides a warm body with a law degree and a bar admission, little else matters” (64). Even though the state provides indigent defense counsel, most are “underpaid, overworked, and given insufficient resources to conduct an adequate investigation and defense” (84). Cole states that in 1990, “[t]he national average per capita spending on local and state indigent defense was $5.37″ (84). Cole also points out other facts about the ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright:One of the most remarkable facts about the constitutional right declared in Gideon v. Wainwright is that it was not a constitutional right for the first 184 years of our Constitution. The Sixth Amendment guarantees that ?In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right?to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.? But for most of our history, this right applied only to the approximately 10 percent of criminal trials that take place in federal court, and even there is meant only that defendants who had the money to do so could hire and attorney to defend them. (65)What this establishes is the inequalities of defense in the legal system. Those defendants that cannot provide their own council are at a disadvantage since the council they are appointed is often inadequate. The legal system has come to rely on the disparities of defendants as means of producing convictions, and thus as a reason for perpetuating inequality in the system.The inequalities of the justice system can also be shown in the evolution of laws in more resent times. When laws begin to affect large numbers of white middle- and upper-class people, the laws begin to change. An example would involve the spread of marijuana use. Strict laws of the early and middle part of this century prohibiting the use of marijuana were imposed because the majority of users were lower-class minorities. But during the 1960s and 1970s, the use of marijuana spread though the youth of white middle- and upper-class America (Cole 152). This spurred changes in the judicial system to ease the laws affecting marijuana use. Cole summarizes the situation: “When the effects of a criminal law reach the sons and daughters of the white majority, our response is not to get tough, but rather to get lenient” (153).The American legal system has never been truly equal because it was founded on inequality and has always depended on inequality. The system could easily be changed to eliminate those inequalities, but that will not likely happen. “Challenges to measures that disadvantage blacks, other minorities, or women face an inordinate burden to prove purposeful action, and the tendency to ignore the appearance of discrimination or stereotyping?; and moral skepticism that doubts that white men discriminate anymore and questions the credibility and motives of challengers who claim otherwise” have lead to support of inequality (Kairys, par. 22).So long as there is a majority dependent on the disparities of a minority, the system will maintain its current sanctity. In doing so, the system will remain dependent on inequality and provide means for future inequalities. The American legal system will always adapt to allow for inequalities.Works Cited”Black codes”. Encyclopedia Britannica 1997-98. CD-ROM. Britannica. 1998.”Civil Rights Act” Encyclopedia Britannica 1997-98. CD-ROM. Britannica. 1998.Cole, David. No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System. New York: The New Press, 1999.”Constitution of the United States of America”. Encyclopedia Britannica 1997-98. CD-ROM. Britannica. 1998.”Equality”. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition. CD-ROM. Microsoft. 1997.”Grandfather clause”. Encyclopedia Britannica 1997-98. CD-ROM. Britannica. 1998.Jefferson, Thomas. “Declaration of Independence”. Encyclopedia Britannica 1997-98. CD-ROM. Britannica. 1998.”Jim Crow Laws”. Encyclopedia Britannica 1997-98. CD-ROM. Britannica. 1998.Kairys, David. “Unexplained on Grounds Other Than Race”. American University Law Review. Volume 45, Book 3. 12 Dec. 1999., George. Animal Farm in The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations. CD-ROM. Microsoft. 1997.”Racial segregation” Encyclopedia Britannica 1997-98. CD-ROM. Britannica. 1998.United States Supreme Court. “Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).” Selected Historic Decisions of the US Supreme Court. Legal Information Institute, 1999. 12 Dec. 1999. United States Supreme Court. “Brown v. Board of Education, 349 U.S. 294 (1955).” Selected Historic Decisions of the US Supreme Court. Legal Information Institute, 1999. 12 Dec. 1999.


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