Reading between the lines – execution and de facto racism

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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  1. says

    Coincidentally, I just posted a small comment in my blog on a Gallup poll released today that shows that support for the death penalty is at a 40-year low. Sadly it is 64%. Not surprisingly, its support is lower among non-whites. I found a Pew poll from last year that had similar results.

    The problem with changing the implementation of the death penalty is that it varies by state, and even in liberal places like my home state of Connecticut, we are dealing with a couple of capital punishment cases, though these guys are white. Unless we get a political elite willing to tackle death penalty we won’t be able to change much, though.

  2. Corvus illustris says

    Given the behavior of our elected government in Lansing, there’s damned little to make one happy to be a Michigander these days (go Tigers!). Nonetheless, Michigan remains the first English-speaking jurisdiction to abolish judicial homicide, in 1835. (Yes, it was on the books for treason against the state of Michigan until the mid-1960s–and where outside of comic opera is such a crime imaginable?) The reason for the abolition was a spectacularly botched public hanging; after that, at a time in history when one might have expected every Xtian denomination to favor capital punishment, only the Calvinists were opposed to its abolition.

    Perhaps a few televised electrocutions would convince the 64%.

  3. Crommunist says

    Fascinating. Disturbing and depressing, but still fascinating.

    (Just FYI I make a habit of cleaning up typos/whatnot in comments and embedding hyperlinks)

  4. says

    Growing up in Iowa and Missouri, I didn’t come in contact with the Deep South or West directly. However, my impression is that people in the West (not the Pacific states) are typically just as passionate about the death penalty, even if they don’t use it as often. It might be confirmation bias on my part.

  5. Gnumann says

    I’ve nothing to add to the core topic I’m afraid – but the topic is in my view very related with what I consider the most applicable* argument against death penalty:

    Courts are made up of humans, who are frequently wrong. And if you’re wrong with the death penalty, you can’t correct your mistake in any way.

    At least with imprisonment you can let the poor guy (or gal) out and give him a sizable compensation.

  6. Crommunist says

    For me the more important question is ‘does the state have a right to your life?’ I would say that while restrictions on liberty are justifiable encroachments, the state does not have the right to declare certain people not worth being allowed to live. Particularly a state that recognizes a person’s fundamental right to life.

  7. Gnumann says

    Perhaps I should have been more elaborate about why I think that it’s the most applicable.

    There are several arguments against the death penalty, but (slightly biased by my law education) I prefer the arguments that points to death penalty being a bad system more than death penalty being inherently wrong.

    From my moral standing it’s certainly wrong too, but others think otherwise and I got no special arguments that counters their opinion. Other than “I think you’re wrong”.

    On the other hand, I can point to the irreversible nature as an argument against the system no matter where the other person stands on the issue of sanctity of human life. It also stands up to other views on the rights of the whole versus the rights of the individual(within reason. Some extreme collectivist would of course say “some innocents are killed, so what” – but there’s no ground for discussion with those anyway).

  8. Beauzeaux says

    ‘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.”‘

    This casual statement in its matter-of-fact tone is so awful that after many years I think I’m finally prepared to give up all hope for the human race. Millions of years of evolution have brought us no further than THIS?

    In my life I’ve seen some pretty dreadful stuff, heard appalling speech, read about even more horrible things, but the above statement positively saps my will to live.

  9. Stacy Kennedy says

    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.

    QFT. And if you say I exhibit bigoted attitudes, I will recoil in horror and play the victim, because how dare you accuse me of such a thing (intentional malice), when everyone who knows me knows I am a nice person who loves kittens and rainbows and believes all humankind are sisters and brothers?

    And thereby racism and sexism and other forms of bigotry become accusations of personal, rather than societal, flaws.

    = = =

    I read Scott Turow’s book Ultimate Punishment some years ago, and recommend it for anyone who’s looking for a balanced, evidence-based, yet sensitive take on the subject of capital punishment. Turow spent two years on Illinois’s Commission on Capital Punishment.

    One of the interesting points I recall from Turow’s book is that, when his commission crunched the numbers, they found that the race of the victim was predictive of whether or not a prosecutor sought the death penalty. Get convicted of killing a white person, die. If the victim is black–go to prison. A manifestation of racism that had not even occurred to me before (OK, I’m naive.)

  10. MCJB says

    As an African American living well below the Mason-Dixie line I would have to say that your information is right on the mark. Because of the justice system in this area I have to be very aware of what kinds of situations that I end up in or what it could look like from an outsiders viewpoint because the last thing I want/need is to have some mob of angry rednecks in a bar overhear something that I say and take the it wrong way and proceed to beat me until I’m unconscious or worse. And the worst part of the whole thing is I know that chances are if there is a situation and there is a conflict with a Caucasian and the police are called that I will more than likely be taken away and viewed as the aggressor, just because of skin color. But I guess that’s what happens when you live where the KKK originated lol.


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