As people across the country are rising up against police violence and mass incarceration, we at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty are reminded of the ways our work fits into the struggle for racial justice.
In her book Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” In plainer terms, racism creates a society in which people of color die earlier and more often than White people. This refers to indirect causes of death, such as poverty and inadequate health care, as well as direct physical violence such as police and vigilante murders, abuse by prison officials upon the nearly 1 million incarcerated Black Americans, and disproportionate executions of Black people. We approach the death penalty as one manifestation of racist, state sanctioned violence that plagues our country.
The modern death penalty is rooted in slavery and lynching. Around 80% of executions take place in the South, which has historically used violence and capital punishment to control its enslaved and free Black populations. Even after Emancipation different standards for Black and White people allowed Black people to be executed for crimes as minor as property destruction and administering medicine. According to the Institute for Southern Studies, “In the 1830s, Virginia had five capital crimes for Whites but an estimated 70 such crimes for Black slaves.” The state and extra-legal killing of Black people were closely related; lynching was passively approved by the government, which did not prosecute those who organized and participated in lynching. Many scholars tie the decline of mob violence to the growing dependence on the criminal justice system for racial control. As state executions, which in many places remained public into the 20th century and were often decided upon by all-white juries, increased in the 1920s and 1930s, lynching declined. A 2007 study shows that states with a history of lynching have higher numbers of death sentences today, especially those handed to Black defendants. The historical patterns continue today, with “at least one in five of the African Americans executed since 1977 convicted by all-white juries, in cases which displayed a pattern of prosecutors dismissing prospective African American jurors during jury selection.” Black people make up about 15% of victims in capital sentencing cases, but around 34% of those executed. The death penalty in America has always been and remains tied to the nation’s racial discrimination and control.
The racial discrimination apparent in the death penalty is not an anomaly. Capital punishment is one tool of a criminal justice system not “primarily concerned with the prevention and punishment of crime, but rather with the management and control of the dispossessed.” We cannot disconnect the executions of 485 Black people since 1976 from the deaths of Michael Brown, Aiyana Jones, Tamir Rice, Tyisha Miller, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner and the countless other Black people killed every 28 hours by police, security guards and vigilantes—they are part of the same system of violent racial control.
Radiating from Ferguson across the country, people are asserting the value of Black lives. They are contesting a status quo in which Black Americans are incarcerated at 6 times the rate of Whites, a twelve year old boy can be shot for playing with a toy gun, and police officers who kill innocent people are not held accountable. The fact that 78 of the 150 death row exonerees have been Black demonstrates America’s willingness to throw away innocent Black lives and that our criminal justice system does not value the lives of our citizens enough to uphold legal standards. Through the death penalty, police killings, and mass incarceration American society insinuates that Black lives do not matter. When we execute people—guilty and innocent alike–we declare these people as worthless to society, and as beyond hope of transformation or redemption. At NCADP we contest the government’s right to devalue its citizen’s lives, and thus do not only oppose the death penalty, but all racist and unjust aspects of our criminal justice system and our society. We are concerned with the ways the criminal justice system is failing the Black community at all levels; the forthcoming article “#BlackLivesDon’tMatter: Race-of-Victim Effects in US Executions, 1976-2013,” finds that “Capital punishment is very rarely used where the victim is a Black male, despite the fact that this is the category most likely to be the victim of homicide.” We protest not only state murder of Black people, but also a government that does not genuinely seek to keep all people safe.
While our primary objective is to end the death penalty, our vision extends beyond the absence of the death penalty to the creation of safe and just communities. We push toward a society rooted in compassion and safety rather than retribution and violence. Many propose disposing of the death penalty in favor of life sentences without parole. While we acknowledge this as preferable to the final act of killing, we contest the idea that locking people up for life is an effective or humane form of justice. At NCADP we believe that restorative justice, mental health treatment and genuine investment in education and communities will keep us far safer than a criminal justice system that is killing its own citizens.