Would Casey Anthony be found guilty if she were black?

I logged onto Twitter precisely as the verdict in Casey Anthony’s trial was announced. A good portion of the reactions I read in my timeline were ones of shock and anger. Casey Anthony’s lies and her obstruction of police procedure, matched with bizarre behavior after her daughter’s disappearance, led to a widespread public opinion that indeed she was guilty of murdering her 2-year-old daughter Caylee.

But there was another notable reaction. I read tweet after tweet with the following formulations: Had Casey been a black woman, she would have been convicted. And: while black women are being jailed for sending their children to good schools, white women who murder children are being let off.

The fact is, we cannot say definitively what would have happened had the race of the actors been different. The jury would have likely had a different composition (race impacts jury selection, even though it’s not supposed to), and the public attention would likely have been different (there is far less attention paid to the deaths of African-American children than white children.) A different case would have been simply different.

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However, the case struck a nerve on what is colloquially called “black Twitter” because it reminds us of a larger trend that is unquestionably a sign of grave injustice: racial inequality in criminal law. Research shows that all things being equal: police, judges and juries treat African-American suspects and defendants much more harshly at every step in criminal law enforcement. African-Americans are the most imprisoned population on the planet.

Moreover, Casey Anthony’s first accusation, that a Latina nanny kidnapped her child, hearkened back to the race-baiting of convicted murderers, Charles Stuart and Susan Smith. Plus, we easily recall the stories of wrongfully convicted African-Americans, innocents who serve years behind bars due to procedural misconduct or flawed evidence, and the teenage petty drug dealers who are sentenced to life in prison before reaching adulthood. In contrast, this white “middle class” woman, who many believe to be guilty of murdering her own baby, will be going free.

But we should all try harder to control our outrage. The heartbreaking reality is that a small child died and was cruelly left in the woods to decompose. Violence against children happens every day, in the United States and across the globe. We must wonder, what kind of world allows us to pretend that this was an anomalous tragedy? It was a very mundane tragedy. In truth, what captured popular attention is that the mother and daughter did not fit the stereotypical images of abuser and abused.

It is false to assume that white and or affluent people do not abuse children, or do not experience abuse as children. What is cruel is when our society only seems to care when those children are abused. And it is a reality that the scourges of extreme poverty and inequality make it harder for families of color in which abuse occurs to find appropriate interventions. Moreover, this reality has a snowball effect, it’s part of the momentum that sustains cycles of suffering, crime and imprisonment. And African-American children are often those who are hardest hit. African-American children are the most likely children in the United States to have a parent in prison, to be in foster care, to be homeless, to live in extreme poverty and to die in infancy.

Casey Anthony was not an endearing defendant. But she also shows signs that she is not an emotionally healthy person. As part of her defense, she testified that she was sexually abused by her father as a child. If this is true, she would be like the majority of those who are convicted of felonies, a victim of some form of childhood abuse.

Additionally, most of those who are convicted of felonies experienced childhood poverty. This doesn’t eradicate responsibility for wrong-doing, but it should make us think hard about solutions.

We don’t serve the interests of children or racial equality by being angry that Anthony wasn’t convicted of murder. We better serve the interest of children to use this case to think about how we reorganize child welfare and public education to better protect and nurture kids and their families. We better serve the interest of racial justice by demanding that prison no longer be used as a punishment for being black and poor, and a death sentence for one’s participation as a citizen. We better serve the interest of both children and our vision of racial equality to open our eyes to the every day violence that goes along with being a poor child of color in the United States, with minimal access to healthy food, adequate education, high quality child care and mental health services for overburdened families.

These are all forms of violence against children in a country as wealthy as ours. With our casual acceptance of gross inequality and poverty, the United States creates perpetrators and victims every single day.

On the other hand, wealth combined with a white majority in this country offers enormous resources for those among them who are vulnerable and damaged — therapy, rehabilitation, second, third, and fourth chances, and many useful interventions. But it also can obscure the existence of abuse and other forms of maltreatment under the veneer of respectability.

We often assume law-abiding and decent behavior for those who live in pristine suburbs with white picket fences. And this is simply an incorrect assumption. But justice doesn’t mean the affluent should be treated like those who are less fortunate. Instead the poor should have access to the care, sensitivity, and presumptions of innocence the wealthy receive. Of course brilliant lawyers and good doctors should not shield sociopaths from consequences, but all of us should be able to avail ourselves of quality resources to better care for children and families, as well as effective legal representation in judicial proceedings.

To honor Caylee’s memory, and that of the many thousands of victimized children who never become household names, let’s re-orient our ideas about justice. Within a short driving distance from where you are right now, it is likely that there are children who are living in extreme poverty. There are parents with inadequate resources to provide care for their children. There are individuals suffering from severe mental illness with inadequate intervention. There are children hanging in a fragile balance, vulnerable to becoming the next Caylee. Don’t we want to step in and catch them now, rather than hanging the murderer later?

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