Apartheid, Petit Essay

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The theory of “petit apartheid” was introduced by criminal justice scholar Daniel E. Georges-Abeyie in 1990 to refer to the subtle discrimination, prompted by an individual’s race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, or nationality, embedded within the criminal justice system. Such discrimination often takes the form of discretionary decisions and actions that do not appear in public records, and is thus hidden from public view.

While Georges-Abeyie uses “grand apartheid” to refer to an official, legally enacted system of oppression, such as the South African apartheid laws or the American slavery and Jim Crow laws, he uses “petit apartheid” to refer to the informal and more subtle discriminatory norms, customs, and attitudes that persist after the dismantling of grand apartheid. Along with overt discriminatory actions, such as using a racial epithet or committing a racially motivated act of violence, more insidious, subtle forms of racism, or “micro aggressions,” continue to be embedded within the society, including the criminal justice system. Micro aggressions consist of the nonviolent verbal or nonverbal communication of slights or insults to members of a different group, or otherwise conveying an attitude that such persons are inferior or less capable. Examples of more subtle micro aggressions include failing to extend common courtesies, such as holding open a door for or acknowledging the presence of a person of color; asking a person of color to speak on behalf of his or her race; or asserting “color blindness” or minimizing racial cultural issues. Both overt and subtle discriminatory treatment continues because it advantages the dominant group and maintains that group’s power, while disadvantaging all others. The existence of such discrimination challenges the core values of the system of justice.

Petit apartheid in the criminal justice system takes a multitude of forms. It can be seen, for example, in the racial profiling of different groups by law enforcement officers, the acceptance of less evidence to convict a person of color versus a white person, the promotion of a white officer over an equally qualified Hispanic officer, or the use of excessive force against a suspect of color. Petit apartheid is also manifested in the subtle treatment of a suspect of color by a judge in a courtroom or by a law enforcement officer on the street in ways that communicate that the suspect is inferior or not worthy of belief or respect. Consciously or unconsciously, petit apartheid also influences a multitude of discretionary decisions made by legal actors, such as the decision of a police officer about whom to stop and question about a crime, the decision of a prosecutor about how serious a charge should be filed against a suspect, or the decision of a judge about what language to use in framing legal instructions to a jury. Ferreting out these subtle instances of petit apartheid is challenging, because such discretionary decisions are not subject to official record keeping requirements and are thus hidden from public view.

Traditionally, studies of racial bias in the criminal justice system have focused on one or more specific steps in the criminal justice process, such as arrest, bail, jury selection, conviction, or sentencing, in which a definitive, public action occurs that is clearly recorded. Studying a specific action that is recorded in an accessible public record is much easier than trying to delve into more complex behaviors and decisions that occur behind the scenes of such public events, such as the decision by a police officer to stop and question someone on the street or the decision of a prosecutor to seek the death penalty. These publicly recorded actions lend themselves to quantitative, statistical analysis that reveals only a small part of the entire criminal justice system; therefore, studies that examine only these discrete events ignore a broad spectrum of more subtle daily interactions and discretionary decisions.

Petit apartheid provides a theoretical basis for expanding research into areas of the criminal justice system that are not visible to the public because they are not subject to official record keeping. These hidden areas of the criminal justice process can be investigated to determine where race-based decision making might occur. Studies of racial bias could be expanded to look beyond official public records and investigate how a multitude of discretionary decisions by various legal actors are made, using, for example, observations of criminal justice processes and interviews with individual actors, such as police or prison guards.

Racial bias studies could also be broadened to examine not only the race of a victim and an offender, but also the race of an arresting officer, a judge presiding at trial, and the jurors deliberating on the guilt or innocence of a suspect. Both verbal and nonverbal communication occurring during criminal justice processes, such as police interviews or judicial comments during a trial, could be studied to determine whether subtle racial slurs or other discriminatory messages are conveyed. These types of qualitative studies might be criticized as being too subjective and less reliable than the objective data obtained through quantitative methods; however, a combination of broader qualitative information with quantitative data could provide a much more accurate picture of racial bias within the criminal justice system.


  1. Georges-Abeyie, Daniel E. “Defining Race, Ethnicity and Social Distance: Their Impact on Crime, Criminal Victimization and the Criminal Justice Processing of Minorities.” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, v.8/2 (May 1992).
  2. Georges-Abeyie, Daniel E. “Race, Ethnicity and Social Distance Severity.” Western Journal of Black Studies, v.30/2 (Spring 2006).
  3. Milovanovic, Dragan and Katherine K. Russell. Petit Apartheid in the U.S. Criminal Justice System: The Dark Figure of Racism. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2001.
  4. Russell-Brown, Katheryn. “‘Petit Apartheid’ in the Justice System.” In Underground Codes: Race, Crime and Related Fires. New York: New York University Press, 2004.

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