Systemic Racism & the “Race to Execution”

The New York Times reported recently that a leading group, The American Law Institute, which created the intellectual framework for the current system of capital punishment almost 50 years ago, pronounced the project a failure and walked away from it (h/t to Sister Scholar).  Even though there were other important changes in news about the death penalty last year, including that the number of death sentences continued to fall, Ohio switched to a single chemical for lethal injections and New Mexico repealed its death penalty entirely,  but none of these changes was as significant as the institute’s move, which represents “a tectonic shift in legal theory.”  The WSJ has more analysis of this issue here, suggesting we’re the throes of an upheaval in the administration of the death penalty.

We write here often about systemic racism and what that means.  For compelling evidence about how race is built in to the very fabric of U.S. society, one needn’t look much further than the evidence about the race and the death penalty.    Race is the single greatest factor in who lives and who dies when it comes to death penalty cases. A black defendant who kills a white victim is up to 30 times more likely to be sentenced to death than a white defendant who kills a black victim.

The imposition of the death penalty is even more likely when there is a black defendant and a predominantly white jury.  Most minority defendants, especially in death penalty cases, are judged by predominantly white jurors.   White male jurors can be especially persuasive in death penalty cases.  Researcher Bowers, Steiner and Sandys (2001) analyzed cases in which a black defendant was accused of murdering a white victim found that the racial composition of the jury matters in death penalty cases.  Once the proportion of white male jurors reaches 70%, the death penalty is far more likely.

The U.S. Supreme Court took this kind of data into consideration when it ruled in 1972 in the Furman v. George case and struck down the death penalty as “arbitrary and capricious.”  Then, in 1987, the Supreme Court ruled again on the death penalty.  In the McCleskey v. Kemp case, the court refused to overturn an individual decision to execute a particular man solely based on the bias in the system.   Basically, what the Supreme Court basically decided that it didn’t want to look at the “statistics about race” because it wouldn’t consider the social science evidence in the case.  The evidence, had they considered it,  overwhelmingly showed a pattern of racial bias in who lives and who dies in death penalty cases.

instead, what the Supreme Court was suggesting was that they wanted to look at whether race played a role in each individual case, not at systemic racism.   In some ways, what the Supreme Court was doing with this case was rejecting social science in the law and declaring that racial inequality is ineradicable and inevitable.

This is where the The American Law Institute comes in. They were attempting to “fix” what had been broken with the 1987 McCleskey v. Kemp decision, and see if there was some way to administer the death penalty in way that didn’t just reinforce racial discrimination already in place.  Now, the organization has decided to abandon the project and admitted it was a failure.  Another way of looking at this news is that this is further evidence that the death penalty is deeply, systematically racist and should be abolished.  

There is a powerful documentary that tells this story in a fresh way called “Race to Execution” and it’s directed by Rachel Lyon, narrated by Charles Ogletree. While it’s been out a couple of years now, it recently re-aired on my local PBS station and I was moved by it once again.   It’s a really powerful, and nuanced, telling of human stories of those affected by the death penalty interwoven with the court cases and social science research about race and the death penalty.  (If you’re considering it for the classroom, there is lots of great additional material here.)

If race is the single greatest factor in who lives and who dies, and now the leading legal organization in the nation has admitted defeat in trying to change that, isn’t it time to abolish the death penalty and put an end to state-sponsored racism?

Muting Rihanna and Commercializing Domestic Abuse

January’s GQ Magazine features singer Rihanna on the cover, with a story about her recent experiences and upcoming CD. As has been widely reported in the press, earlier this year Rihanna was badly eaten by her ex boyfriend, singer Chris Brown.   Claire Renzetti wrote about social class, race and intimate partner violence  here last March.

Since then, Chris Brown has pled guilty to charges of felony assault, is attending domestic violence classes, and is currently on probation. He has apologized for beating Rihanna and has appeared on several news outlets to discuss the events.

Rihanna’s GQ cover is one of a few cases where she’s talked publicly about the events of “that night.” (She spoke to news correspondent Diane Sawyer prior to sitting down with GQ.) In GQ, she says that she welcomes the opportunity to speak to young women and to give them insights, that she finds discussing her situation liberating, and that doing so helps her to “move on” and to avoid being defined by this one event. This is an admirable goal, but in the article, there are precious few examples of the insights that she wishes to share with young women. When asked specifically, she says that the biggest insight she learned is

“really really really that love is blind. It took a lot of strength to pull out of that relationship. To finally just officially cut it off. It was like night and day. It was two different worlds. It was the world I lived for two years, and then having the strength to say, ‘I’m gonna step into my own world. Start over.’”

She also states,

“I didn’t realize how much of an effect it had on young girls’ lives, and that’s part of the insight that I wanna give. Stop blaming yourself for that outcome. There’s nothing you can do, ever, to excuse a man’s behavior like that.”

The reporter goes on to ask Rihanna if she ever blamed herself, to which she replies that

“I never blamed myself, but I wondered, what, what did I do to provoke it?” (italics in original.)

At this point, Rihanna’s manager tells the reporter to move on to a different subject.

I found this interview rather troubling on a number of levels. For one thing, there can be no question that Rihanna’s choice to speak out now about her abuse does not just happen to coincide with the release of her new album. GQ speculates as much when they assert that “in the record business, domestic violence isn’t just a tragedy; it’s an image crisis. So now Team Rihanna had to decide how to ‘handle it.’ Their plan was this: She’d talk about it for the release of the album. She’d do Diane and Glamour and announce that she wanted to help young women who’d been in her position. Even if that meant addressing what really happened that ugly night last February” (pp. 56). This isn’t hard to believe, given that Rihanna didn’t immediately discuss her abuse at Chris Brown’s hands, and the more obvious likelihood that she’d be reluctant to offer such a painful, traumatic incident up for public consumption. However, by talking about her experiences with various media outlets around the time that her album is released, she is doing just that.

What I find problematic is that by encouraging Rihanna to do interviews based on the expectation that she’ll discuss her abuse—but then cutting off interviewers who attempt to discern her insights about it—her experience becomes trivialized and commodified in the worst way. What insights are young women supposed to gain from Rihanna if handlers only allow her to repeat platitudes about domestic violence (e.g., it’s never your fault, it’s hard to leave)? Essentially, these interviews lure people to buy the magazines or watch her interviews with the expectation that they’ll hear Rihanna share the salacious details of what was probably one of the worst nights of her life. They get a teaser that fortunately spares us the worst, but also doesn’t provide much in the way of actual insights or inspiration. What does emerge is a carefully calculated, if transparent, effort to use Rihanna’s tragedy to encourage people to buy her CD.

The tragedy of this is multifaceted. It’s horribly unfortunate that a young woman’s trauma is seen as something to be “handled” and “managed” as a way to boost record sales. What’s equally significant is that Rihanna’s abuse touched on many racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes that go unaddressed when her discussion of it becomes cynically packaged and sold as currency. Following the initial stories that Chris Brown had beaten Rihanna, many blogs, discussion circles, and conversations resonated with the predictable discussions over whether she “brought it on herself,” but also evoked comments that “island women are crazy” and that black men’s shortcomings and mistakes receive more attention and criticism than those of their white peers. All of these points warrant greater analysis and/or debunking, but using Rihanna’s experience so callously precludes her from actively being part of this. Perhaps most tragically, some of these statements about Rihanna’s culpability in her assault came from young women of color, who are disproportionately likely to experience domestic assault from boyfriends, lovers, and husbands. They are also the women who are usually overlooked if and when the media does decide to focus on issues of domestic abuse and violence. Ironically, then, some of the very women who maligned Rihanna are perhaps those who might benefit the most if she were to make the informed, autonomous decision to offer whatever insights she’s gained.

This is not to say that Rihanna should now be obligated to take on this role. I think if she wants to maintain her privacy about this, she should be entitled to do so. But it does a disservice to Rihanna and to all women to commodify abuse in an effort to climb the charts, and it obscures rather than drawing attention to the depth and extent of domestic violence and abuse among women of color.