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Race and Ethnicity - Race In U.s. Legal History

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In the United States as in other countries, recent immigrants are always suspected of the latest crime waves. In the early twentieth century white ethnic immigrants from Italy and Ireland were the focus of concern including Irish, Italian, and Polish youth gangs. As more Hispanics migrated from Mexico, the emphasis shifted to people of color in the 1930s and 1940s. Then with the rise of the Civil Rights movement, fears shifted toward black Americans in the 1950s and beyond. Throughout this time white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, often referred to as WASPs, dominated the criminal justice system and determined targets for crime fighting.

Race has also always been central to American laws. Prior to the Civil War most blacks were slaves. In legal terms they were considered property, not humans. Slaves could not bring lawsuits, marry, vote, enter into business contracts, or testify in court except against another slave. Immediately following the Civil War, between 1865 and 1866, Southern states quickly adopted Black Codes to limit the rights of the newly freed slaves.

The Black Codes were followed by Jim Crow laws in the early twentieth century strictly enforcing public racial segregation (keeping the races separate in public places). By the late twentieth century numerous laws and court rulings had guaranteed the rights of minorities to equal access of opportunities, equal protection under the law, and due process (given fair treatment) in criminal justice systems.

Native Americans

Though a relatively small portion of U.S. society, Native Americans are a fast rising population increasing from two million in 1990 to around four million in 2000. American Indian communities on reservations are establishing their own tribal criminal justice systems. Some 135 tribal law enforcement agencies and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents police Native American lands. For this reason, statistics involving Native Americans and crime are split between the different systems. Depending on the crime, where it occurred, and against whom, American Indians may be prosecuted in tribal, state, or federal courts.

Crime is a major issue in Indian Country as tribal communities face poverty, high unemployment, isolation in remote areas, suicide, and alcoholism. Some 5 percent of Native Americans eighteens year old and older is involved in the U.S. criminal justice system, twice the rate of white Americans but half the rate of black Americans. American Indians, however, experience violent crime at over twice the rate of blacks and whites. Some 124 Indians per 1,000 residents over twelve years of age experienced violent crimes including sexual assault, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The homicide rates in particular are triple the general population. By the late 1990s, youth gangs were reportedly forming in the remote reservations.

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