We’ve been trained by oversimplification of a complex issue to view racism, indeed any bigotry, as intentional malice springing from some kind of personal defect. If only those darn racists could just be better people (like us), then they’d stop hating and everyone could go hold hands under a rainbow. If the sarcasm dripping off that last sentence wasn’t evident enough, allow me to state plainly that I don’t buy that school of thought for a second. It’s a very handy position to hold, because it excuses the holder from any responsibility to examine her/his own actions for racial bias, and excuses her/him from having to do anything to repair the gulf left by systemic racism. Every time someone approaches me in one of my race discussions, either in person or online, with the tired excuse of “I don’t think I’m racist – race has never been a big deal to me”, I want to shake them violently.
Racism doesn’t show up at your doorstep and announce that it’s there. It is rarely so direct as someone going on a diatribe about lazy Mexicans and how this country was better when you were allowed to lynch an uppity negro for looking at your daughter funny. That kind of racism is, mercifully, fading from popular expression as it becomes increasingly socially unacceptable. That being said, that is only the most egregious aspect of racism – akin perhaps to fundamentalist Christianity. Just because we lock up everyone who tries to bomb an abortion clinic doesn’t mean that the underlying principle of divine permission for all kinds of other, lesser evils is somehow made neuter. We can look at a macro level and see that in the absence of overt (what I call “classical”) expression, racism still operates in a major way in our society.
Today, I thought I’d walk through an example of doing just that:
What has made the South the home base of capital punishment? As you might suspect, executions have their roots in the history of slavery. As noted in A Short History of the American Death Penalty [pdf]:
In contrast to capital punishment in the northern states, capital punishment in the South was not limited primarily to common law felonies. Rather, the death penalty was a powerful tool for keeping the slave population in submission. Crimes that interfered with the ownership of slaves were punished by death. In 1837, North Carolina, which lacked a penitentiary, had about 26 capital crimes including slave-stealing, concealing a slave with intent to free him, second conviction of inciting slaves to insurrection, and second conviction of circulating seditious literature among slaves.
This racially-influenced law-and-order mentality spilled over into other crimes: In North Carolina, stealing bank notes, “crimes against nature” (“buggery, sodomy, bestiality”) and a second offense of forgery and statutory rape came to be considered capital offenses.
Canada abolished its practice of capital punishment in 1976, so this will be one of those posts where I am speaking outside my own back yard. If someone from the southern U.S. (or who is better versed in capital punishment than I am) catches me in a mistake, I hope you will point it out. Like guns, and the Civil War, capital punishment rests in the bones of the American South. It is not something that can be grokked fully by those of us who weren’t raised there, but it is part of the underlying culture. To be sure, just like not every Canadian is a hockey-playing socialist, not everyone from the south is a gun-toting, General Lee-driving, death penalty nut. That being said, if you were looking for such a person, you’d have a much easier time finding them in the South than in, say, Vermont.
The problem with this kind of cultural association is that it shortcuts critical consideration of the issues, relying on heuristics rather than facts to make its case. The South also has a unique relationship with racism that underpins its culture, which evidently intersects with its fascination with capital punishment. When these kinds of cultural assumptions run deep, we end up only being able to observe them by panning our critical camera out, to look at the macro-level trends:
For example, a 2005 Gallup poll was typical in finding that, while there was little difference in death penalty support among different age groups, and only a moderate 12-point gap between men and women, there was a 27-point difference between white (71%) and black (44%) support.
Indeed, recent research [pdf] by Andrew Gelman and Kenny Shirley at Columbia University found that race was by far the biggest factor in explaining differences we see in death penalty support — more than twice as influential as the next two factors, the state where you live and the year the poll was taken. Gender, education level and age ranked even lower.
Scholars of racism often note that members of minority groups are often more adept at spotting racism than white people (one facet of the phenomenon of white privilege). While people of colour (PoCs), surrounded as they are by the culture of the majority, usually understand the underlying context of some action or statement from the point of view of a white person, the converse is rarely true. As such, PoCs are often more amenable to arguments that include evidence of racism, even if it is not against their particular group. White privilege, like all privilege, can be overcome with careful scrutiny and willingness to listen, but in the absence of such scrutiny we see things that give us major cause for concern:
African Americans who originally supported the death penalty responded both to racial arguments (for example, “the death penalty is unfair because most of the people who are executed are black”) and non-racial arguments (“too many innocent people are being executed”) that were offered in opposition.
But whites presented with the same arguments were “highly resistant to persuasion” — in fact, were actually more likely to support the death penalty after learning it discriminated against African-Americans.
Some researchers say these differences are a direct result of open racial bias among whites (see, for example, this study). Peffley and Hurwitz more charitably argue it has to do with whites seeing inequities in the criminal justice system having to do with personal failures rather than systemic problems — more of a racial blindspot than active bigotry (which in the end may make little difference).
I have, in a previous post, discussed why I find the political use of the term “personal responsibility” to be simply an example of coded racism. By explaining disparities in terms of personal failings, we can back-fill blame for racial inequalities by simply asserting that black and brown people are simply not as ‘personally responsible’ as whites. When we do so, however, we immediately bypass any consideration of the multitude of other potential explanations for such imbalances. In the case of the death penalty in the South, racism is problem that is literally killing us, without anyone having to be overtly bigoted and hateful.
Racism is a system we’re all caught in. Whether it is intentional or subconscious is immaterial, and relying on superficial soul-searching approaches or pat answers to the problem only serve to maintain the status quo. We must all engage in the conversation and be willing to confront our own complicity, lest we watch in hand-wringing amazement as we kill ourselves one by one.
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