The incarceration of Brittney Griner in Russia has become a global story of global inequality and systemic racism in the criminal justice system. As part of Essence’s ongoing coverage of the event, we sat down with noted civil rights attorney Alphonso David, President & CEO of the Global Black Economic Forum, to get his perspective on what the persecution of Brittney Griner tells us about the state of social justice around the world.
ESSENCE: What does Brittney Griner’s case say about how Black people are treated across the world?
“It’s no secret that racism and bias exist all across the globe. It is an unfortunate reality that people of color and other marginalized groups face. At its core, racism seeks to suppress and oppress its target. In the case of Black people, it is rooted in the suggestion that we are less than — not as smart, not as successful, not as innovative. Even in areas where Black people have been historically lauded, racist ideology disregards these successes under the warped theory that our successes are based on genetics and not based on intelligence, hard work, or commitment.”
ESSENCE: What is the culture and environment that Black people face in Russia?
“There has been longstanding recognition that Black people face rampant discrimination on a daily basis in Russia. There have been numerous reports of Black people in Russia being refused cab service, denied access to restaurants and cafes, denied lodging, based on their race, and more. In fact, anti-Black racism in Russia is so pronounced that the Russian language never expelled the word ‘negro’ from its lexicon. They use the word “negro” to refer to an “African” person. The use of regressive language does not operate in a vacuum. A Human Rights Watch investigation revealed that law enforcement authorities in Moscow were not only failing to uphold Russia’s obligations to fight racial discrimination but were conducting a campaign of harassment and brutality against dark-skinned people. The report concluded that state-sponsored abuse of ethnic minorities included a restriction on freedom of movement, arbitrary detention, arbitrary house searches, invasion of privacy, extortion, and physical assault.”
ESSENCE: In this case, should we be looking at racism? Isn’t this “technically” a story about someone carrying a controlled substance?
“On the surface, this is a story about a controlled substance, but as is so often the case in situations like this, the subtext is all about racism and selective enforcement of our laws, including drug laws. This is a playbook we’ve seen time and again, in the United States and around the world.
Let’s first start with the United States. Historically, many drug laws in the United States have been enacted and enforced in a discriminatory way. The legalization of certain types of drugs and the criminalization and enforcement of other types of drugs have been driven by who is affected. Several case studies highlight this point — from the crack cocaine/powder cocaine epidemic to the opioid epidemic to cannabis enforcement.”
“Starting with crack/cocaine, many communities obviously use the substance, but there was a perception starting in the 1980s that more white people took powder cocaine and more Black people used crack cocaine. Congress also adopted the view that crack cocaine was more dangerous and harmful than powder cocaine. The research does not support that view. Nevertheless, Congress enacted federal law that created a disparity between federal penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses, imposing the same penalties for the possession of an amount of crack cocaine as for 100 times the same amount of powder cocaine. Black people disproportionately found themselves behind bars.”
“We have similar disparities with respect to the opioid epidemic. Opioid abuse has been an epidemic for a long time, but not an epidemic for wealthy white people. Once it became an epidemic for that demographic, states and the federal government shifted resources to advance prevention and treatment. Specifically, when the first phase of the opioid epidemic was cresting in 2010, driven largely by prescription pain medications, white Americans were dying of fatal drug overdoses at rates twice that of Black Americans. And as a result, we saw a major shift in the government’s response to the problem. But when it was an epidemic in the Black community, we focused on criminalization and enforcement, not prevention and treatment. Some medical practitioners lamented that if you were Black and had an opioid disorder, you were much less likely to be prescribed medications for opioid use disorder.”
“Cannabis enforcement raises similar concerns. Cannabis use is roughly equal among Black people and White people according to the ACLU, yet Black people are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. As we saw with cocaine, there have been profoundly unequal outcomes in the enactment and enforcement of drug laws. People of color experience discrimination at every stage of the criminal legal system. We are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, convicted, harshly sentenced, and saddled with a lifelong criminal record. This is particularly the case for drug law violations. Nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are Black or Latino. Research shows that prosecutors are twice as likely to pursue a mandatory minimum sentence for Black people as for white people charged with the same offense.”
Those are just three of many case studies that highlight the disparity in how we enact and enforce drug laws. And that disparity finds its way to Russia compounded by its historical mistreatment of people of color. It is well known that Russian authorities utilize the practice of “selective enforcement.” In fact, more than 100 years ago, Russian writer Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin said that “the severity of Russian laws is more than offset by the lack of their enforcement.” The law does not apply to everyone. The government enforces the law differently depending on the target or purpose. It is often said that law enforcement entities can decide whether or not they want to investigate violations of “law.”
And this is important with respect to Brittney’s case because we can only surmise that the results would be different if she was not Black, lesbian, and American during the height of a geo-political battle between the United States and Russia regarding the conflict in Ukraine.”
ESSENCE: Where do we go from here?
“For those of us in the civil rights, human rights, and advocacy spaces, we are fighting for the liberation of marginalized people, including Black people. We are fighting to be free in all aspects of our lives. If we are fighting toward this goal, we collectively cannot continue to operate within the current paradigm. We cannot liberate ourselves if we are focused on the politics of the self. We must focus on the politics of the community. And we must commit to it. This is the inspiration behind the growth and scaling of the organization I lead, the Global Black Economic Forum, which is committed to reimagining what diversity, equity, inclusion, and opportunity look like in corporate America, as well as actualizing the notion of economic justice for the Black Diaspora.
We have seen empowered institutions redefine what is permissible and acceptable to perpetuate their goals against certain groups. We cannot disassociate the well-documented and pervasive racism and bias that exist in Russia against darker-skinned people or its history of selective enforcement from how Brittany is now being treated. And if we do, it will be at our peril and it will extend the promise of true liberation that much further away from us.”