America’s fixation with judicial killing is inextricably linked with its racist past and present

Yesterday the so-called leader of the free world once more demonstrated just how unfit it is to hold such an office. It killed two of its citizens, the one to howls of international protest, the other to barely a murmur. Troy Davis, a black man convicted of the murder of an off-duty white policeman, was eventually executed after a bizarre and appalling danse macabre in the face of sustained and vocal pressure from institutions and individuals across the world. Lawrence Brewer, a white man convicted of the racially aggravated murder of a black man, went to his death some hours before. There is much in the disparity of the reactions to these two killings to instruct, and in my view, to shame us.

A great deal of emphasis was laid on the unsafe nature of the conviction in Troy Davis’s case. I am not aware of any such misgivings in the Lawrence Brewer case – unsurprisingly since the former protested his innocence to the bitter end, whilst the latter appeared to revel in his admission not only of his heinous act, but of his willingness to repeat it. But the point at issue here is the death penalty itself, not whether it is worse to kill an innocent or a guilty felon. Whilst everyone was building up a head of righteous steam about Davis, and expressing their doubts as to the facts, serious judges in America were sifting that evidence, and they repeatedly found it persuasive. I have no idea if Troy Davis was guilty or not, and nor do you unless my blog has penetrated the inner sanctum of the American justice system, and you’re a Supreme Court judge. To focus on guilt or innocence is, by implication, to support the death penalty for guilty offenders. I, for one, do not.

But Americans overwhelmingly support judicial killing, and not only the mass of the people (as indeed I fear may also be the case in Britain), but the entire political class across the party divide. Republicans and Democrats may be willing to knock seven bells out of each other over the deficit, or the tax regime, but they enjoy a cosy consensus on killing their fellow citizens. When I described the bald facts of yesterday’s cases at the beginning of this post, I specified the racial origin of both offenders and their victims. Why? Because these are not irrelevant details of a coincidental nature, but rather they lie at the very heart of both the killings themselves, and of the world’s differential reaction to them.

Take the latter point first. By and large (I know this is a generalisation, but it’s not without evidential basis) those who oppose the death penalty are liberals (in the American sense) and it’s liberals too who get most worked up about race. It’s easy to ally one’s liberal conscience with the interests of a black man accused (and perhaps wrongly) of killing a white policeman, but it’s rather more awkward to make common cause with a white supremacist who lynched a black man. But race is central to the former point too. A black man convicted of murdering a white man plays into the consciousness of the many white Americans who believe that black people are inveterate criminals by virtue of their blackness per se. It is still the case in America’s southern states that the law enforcement authorities themselves, and jurors too, include many who believe this quintessentially racist ideology. In the same way, Lawrence Brewer’s crime is steeped in the racist history of lynch mobs, segregation, and slavery. Within my lifetime, the USA operated a system of apartheid. This is not ancient history. It is present reality.

But before those British or other European readers of this console themselves with the smug assumption that this is somehow an indicator of a peculiarly American barbarism, they would do well to consider two important points. First, the American racist killing fields were on their home turf, and not, in historical terms, very long ago. In the British case, we took care to ensure our racist killing fields were in faraway places like Asia and Africa. We did not shit on our own doorstep, as it were. But do not run off with the idea that the shitting we did do was lost in the mists of time. Our Kenyan concentration camps also existed within my lifetime.

And second, the American colonies did not invent their southern slavery. They inherited it. And from where. Er, well, that would be from us, I think you’ll find.

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