In their important piece "Is the United States a ‘Racial Democracy’?" (New York Times, Opinionator), JASON STANLEY and VESLA WEAVER note that "Starting in the 1970s, the United States has witnessed a drastic increase in the rate of black imprisonment, both absolutely and relative to whites." Thus, in the decade after "the civil rights movement in the 1960s," in which blacks gained equal formal rights under the law Stateside, the law increasingly removed blacks from the streets and (because of voting rules governing felons and ex-felons) the body politic. Stanley and Weaver name this "a racial democracy," that is, a state that "unfairly applies the laws governing the removal of liberty primarily to citizens of one race, thereby singling out its members as especially unworthy of liberty, the coin of human dignity."
Even if the laws were not officially designed or enacted with this purpose, the pattern of consequences has long been visible in the statistics. Given human nature, it is likely that some (the insiders such as law-enforcement, corrections' staff/contractors, certain politicians, media, etc. ) that benefit from this consequence probably noticed it before the people who do not obviously benefit from the new regime. Human nature being what it is, often the disadvantaged outsiders are the first to speak up about the unintended side-consequence. The outsiders are at a disadvantage when they do so because if the side-consequence is really harmful they fight it with relatively slender resources while trying to figure out what the hell is going on. Meanwhile, the insiders can believe they have clean hands. While they actively benefit from an outcome pattern, they can always claim that none of them intended it or actively promoted it.* Moreover, if the outcome pattern is endorsed by justice, why would one even imagine that something is amiss?
Stanley and Weaver deploy the idea (attributed to Elizabeth Anderson) that sometimes our ideals prevent us from seeing the gap between our ideals and reality. This is really common sense: our most important commitments can cloud how we experience the world: our beloved is beautiful, our religion noble, our sports team best, etc. When our ideals also serve our interests this dangerous gap is even more likely.
Every political community needs some such mix of ideals and interest; these commitments provide the ongoing background stability of the right sort so that we can count on shared expectations. Some such expectations are, as Adam Smith argued, part of the psychological mechanism which facilitate our commitments to justice that govern the countless interactions and transactions that fall below the radar screen of the law and the variety of government surveillance. So, one can't easily promote a change in the application of the ideals without either confronting opposing interests or the stability of the community (or both). Once stability is threatened many of the well-meaning prefer the status quo, which is one reason why fear-mongering can be an effective tactic for regimes that are worried about their survival, or even relatively modest change.
In their piece, Stanley and Weaver are careful not to attack the ideals, which they praise, themselves. While they are explicit about the political effects of racial democracy, they are careful not to blame the variety of agents and mechanisms that bring these effects about. For in a democracy the blame can be traced to one's fellow citizens (i.e., the active insiders and the majority of voters that support them). If one wants to reform one cannot insult one's potential allies and supporters. So, in a democracy it is not just our ideals that makes us miss-perceive reality; we also have strategic reasons to keep quiet. But without some such publicity or gentle reminder from those that have worked through the social chain of causes, many of us will never see or grapple with the problem in full even if somewhere in the intellectual division of labor the information is fully available. So, the gap between ideal and reality may be kept somewhat wide for political reasons even by would be reformers. While truth-speaking is a norm of democracy, there are ways in which democracy may incline us not to say the whole truth.
Instead, Stanley and Weaver name the problem, describe the effects, and appeal to their readers' sense of fairness (a key word in their piece). The advantage of fairness is that it motivates in name of the very same ideals that are part of the problem. Machiavelli taught would be rulers to govern the passions by other passions. One can say that would be reformers attempt to improve the ideals by nearly identical ideals. As the history of successful reform suggests, this strategy can work very well. But in looking back at the transition between the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the increasing incarceration of blacks from the 1970s onward, one can also learn that if one fails to destroy the political powers that can cause oppression, one might just substitute one form of injustice with another.
* Recall this post on the TEDI (The-Everybody-did-It) Syndrome--a term that I developed in joint work with Merel Lefevere.