[from the blog Conscious Prisoner: The Evolution of Uhuru B. Rowe (Jan 4, 2021); published text at https://consciousprisoner.wordpress.com/2021/01/04/racism-then-racism-now/]
Many of you may already be aware of the facts and circumstances of my case and that the sentencing judge in my case was a racist. But that shouldn’t be a surprise to you because this is America and America was built on racism and perpetuates itself with racism. And in order to understand the racism in my case, one only has to examine what I believe to be the first case of racism in the punishment system long before the British colonies became the United States.
In 1640, John Punch, an enslaved Afrikan, and two white indentured servants by the name of James Gregory and Victor (whose last name is unknown), ran away from their master in Virginia and were later caught and whipped. The two white indentured servants were subsequently sentenced to 4 additional years of servitude while Punch was sentenced to servitude for the rest of his life. Again, I believe this was the beginning of a dual system of criminal punishment based on differentiating between crimes committed by whites and crimes committed by blacks, where Black people are treated more harshly than our white counterparts for committing the same crime.
Other examples of this dual system of criminal punishment include “An Act Against Stealing Hogs,” the penalty of which was 25 lashes on a bare back or a ten pound fine for white offenders whereas black offenders (enslaved or free) would receive 39 lashes with no chance of paying a fine in lieu of the lashes.
There was the death penalty legislation passed in Pennsylvania in 1697 for Black men accused and convicted of raping a white women and castration for black men convicted of attempted rape. White men convicted of the same offense were fined, whipped OR imprisoned for one year.
We also have the infamous Black Codes (or Slave Codes) passed by president Andrew Johnson in 1865, which criminalized the everyday behavior of newly freed Blacks.
J. Edgar Hoover’s Counterintelligence Program in 1967 targeted Black revolutionary leaders and thinkers, particularly the Black Panthers, for frameup convictions and assassinations simply for teaching black people how to organize to legally defend themselves against state-sanctioned racist violence.
In early 1970 there was the creation of Rockefeller drug laws and Richard Nixon’s war on drugs, and in 1994 there was President Clinton’s $30 billion crime bill, all three of which disproportionately impacted Black communities leading to the mass incarceration of and violence against black bodies.
In 1986 President Reagan signed into law the bipartisan Anti-Drug Abuse Act/Controlled Substance Act where those caught with crack cocaine, a drug associated with Black and poor people, would receive a 5 year mandatory minimum sentence while those caught with power cocaine, a drug associated with white and wealthy people, had to get caught with 500 grams in order to receive the same 5 year mandatory minimum sentence.
Fast forward to 1998 where a study was conducted by and published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch showing that the sentening judge in my case, Judge James B. Wilkinson, was sentencing Black defendants convicted of felonies to sentences there were 39% longer than their black counterparts in the other court. The study also showed that Judge Wilkinson was sentencing white defendants convicted of felonies to sentences that were 13% shorter than their white counterparts in the other court.
The racism displayed by the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Marcus-David Peters is obvious and well-known because they are often recorded, become viral on social media, leading to a groundswell of nationwide protests. But the anti-black, anti-brown racism in America’s courtrooms is largely unknown because it is subtle, hidden and cannot be captured on a smartphone to be uploaded and shared on social media. And so, nobody is marching or protesting in the streets for us even though on any given day in the U.S., a Black person is overcharged, a Black man is sentenced to death, a Black teenager is sentenced to life without parole, a Black person is tricked into pleading guilty, a Black person is pressured or beaten into giving a false confession, and a Black person is convicted by an all-white jury, simply because of the color of our skin.
This is why getting the Governor of Virginia to establish a commission to review judge Wilkinson’s sentencing of black defendants is so important. It brings anti-Black racism out of the courtroom and into the spotlight for public scrutiny and remediation. So I hope that you will assist us in organizing, not just around my clemency petition, but around pushing for this commission, because there are many other Black and Brown people like me who may die behind these walls simply because we are black and poor.