As much as liberals complain about the death penalty, the majority of Americans support it. This is especially true for white voters, who support it in higher numbers than Hispanic and black Americans. The reason for this? According to Slate blogger Jamelle Bouie, it’s the old liberal standby: racism, of course! It’s all a way for the white folks to subjugate the blacks and keep them down.
There’s no separating capital punishment from its role, in part, as a tool of racial control. As Stuart Banner explores in his book The Death Penalty: An American History, one of the earliest American-made capital statutes—as opposed to ones borrowed from England—was passed in New York in the aftermath of a 1712 slave revolt.
Likewise, in Southern colonies like Virginia and South Carolina (where enslaved blacks were close to half the population), legislatures imposed the death penalty for a long list of offenses. For blacks to do anything to interfere with their enslavement was to court death. “In 1740,” writes Banner, “South Carolina imposed the death penalty on slaves and free blacks for burning or destroying any grain, commodities, or manufactured goods; on slaves for enticing other slaves to run away; and on slaves maiming or bruising whites.”
Wide use of the death penalty against blacks would continue through the 19th century and into the 20th, pushed by Southern whites who saw capital punishment as necessary to restrain a dangerous black population. “If the death penalty were to be removed from our statute-books,” explained former Arkansas governor George Hays in 1927, “the tendency to commit deeds of violence would be heightened owing to this negro problem.” One pro-lynching activist, speaking in 1897 during the heyday of lynching—an extrajudicial form of capital punishment—was more explicit: “If it takes lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening human beasts … then I say lynch a thousand a week if it becomes necessary.”
Indeed, it’s noteworthy that as late as 1954, rape was a capital offense in every state of the former Confederacy, and five retained the death penalty for arson. Even now, most executions happen in the South, and Southern whites continue to show strong support for capital punishment.
The way Bouie tells it, it’s as if white Americans invented the death penalty solely to control and terrorize black Americans. Of course, if anyone took more than two seconds to think about what Bouie is actually saying, his entire argument falls apart.
What Bouie points out about slaves and later, black Americans, being unjustly killed isn’t false. But how is it relevant to the discussion of the death penalty today? The death penalty is hardly an American invention. Almost every society throughout history, regardless of race or ethnicity, has practiced capital punishment. Bouie slams the United States for allowing rapists to be executed in the past, but again — this is hardly an original or unusual practice. Countries and cultures around the world, both throughout history and today, have executed people for any number of reasons: as punishment for crimes such as murder and rape, to silence political dissidents, for committing the crime of renouncing the official state religion. It goes on and on. Britain used to execute people for all kinds of petty crimes, including shoplifting, right up through the 1800s. That doesn’t mean that any of those reasons are inherently acceptable or unacceptable — it just goes to show that this idea of Americans coming up with this novel approach of using the death penalty for reasons other than punishment for murder is absolutely ludicrous. Over 50 countries still have the death penalty, and they aren’t all lily white countries executing poor, innocent black men.
Of course, we’re talking about the United States. Why is it that there are more black men being executed than white men? Well, the fact that black men commit murder 14 times more than white men do probably has something to do with it. Violence is endemic among young black men right now, as they’re more likely to either murder or be murdered than any other race. We can debate about the reasons why, we can claim that it’s an oppressive society that forces black men to live a life of crime, phrase it however you want. But the facts are the facts: black men are more likely to murder than white men are, and they’re also more likely to be murdered. Much of it is due to gang violence. Too many young black boys grow up without a father in the home, so they look for another male authority figure and find it in gang members, which leads them to a life of violence and crime. And the black community overall doesn’t shy away from this, even among those who don’t live it. Instead, this lifestyle is glorified in rap music and movies purporting to be gritty and realistic. Even kids who grow up in boring, middle class lives listen to Jay Z and Lil Wayne praising the gangster thug life.
With that in mind, consider Bouie’s closing statements:
Their findings with whites, on the other hand, were disturbing. Not only where whites immune to persuasion on the death penalty, but when researchers told them of the racial disparity—that blacks faced unfair treatment—many increased their support.
It sounds glib, but if you needed a one-word answer to why whites are so supportive of the death penalty, “racism” isn’t a bad choice.
Is it though? Bouie never defines what exactly he means by “unfair treatment” of blacks, but presumably he means the fact that more blacks are on death row than whites, considering he mentions it in his column. So the facts at hand are that we have more black men on death row, but there are also more black men committing murder than white men. Maybe it’s crazy, but wouldn’t that explain the disparity? And by Bouie’s own admission, 40% of Hispanics and 36% of blacks support the death penalty as well. Are they all racists, too?
The issue of race, law enforcement, and the death penalty is of course more complex than just saying 1 + 2 = 3. But that also doesn’t mean that we can completely ignore reality, either. Black men may very well find themselves more often in near impossible situations, growing up without fathers, surrounded by violence and gangs, with seemingly no way out. That doesn’t give them free license to commit crimes, though. Whether or not someone who murders another human being should be executed certainly should be up for debate. But smearing people who support the death penalty as inherently racist simply because the death penalty was used to control blacks in one country, at one rather short period in history, is insane and idiotic. Perhaps the reason that people support the death penalty is because they feel that someone who takes a life deserves to have theirs taken in return. An even crazier notion would be that you can’t declare an entire group of people to be racist just because you disagree with them. But then, that idea goes against everything liberals hold dear, doesn’t it?