Sunday, January 15, 2006

Lynching’s lingering legacy

Lynching’s lingering legacy

Kevin Pitts
December 15, 2005

Not long ago, while visiting Atlanta, I had the opportunity to view a photographic exhibition titled “Without Sanctuary,” which presented deeply disturbing images of blacks who were victims of lynchings. I can recall my father and I walking slowly past each black-and-white photo in silence, gazing at the sometimes burnt and castrated bodies of black men dangling from trees, surrounded by smiling and overjoyed white men in Southern states such as the one we were standing in. It was frightening.

Many black Americans have tried to psychologically repress these disturbing images of lynching by reasserting these images are rusty relics of America’s bloody past. But as this nation recently reached the grim milestone of 1,000 prisoners executed, it is time to readdress the injust and arbitrary matter in which capital punishment has been applied in this country across racial lines. It’s also time to readdress the pervasive, institutional racism that defined capital punishment during the era of lynching and continues to define it today.

Recently, a groundbreaking study published in the American Sociological Review paralleled in-depth historical lynching data and recent capital punishment data of 10 Southern states and found the number of death sentences issued for black defendants was significantly higher in states that had a deep history of white vigilante lynching of blacks. They go on to uncover death sentences in these Southern states increased as the state’s population of blacks began to expand. The authors correctly theorize that just as lynching was used as a political tool to handle the apparent racial threat from freed slaves, capital punishment, understood as more socially acceptable, is applied under the disguise of legality as a reaction by paranoid Southern whites who equate black presence with the threat of violence.

Data that address how the death penalty is applied racially buttress the arguments of this study. With regards to the legal application of the death penalty we see in Maryland, a state with one of the highest percentages of blacks on death row, a death sentence is eight times more likely in a white victim case than a black victim case. This is also seen by the fact that blacks represent 42 percent of the inmates on death row, but only 12 percent of America’s population.

Historically, lynching has always been founded on a civil war between the American masculinities of black and white men. White men eager to protect the “purity” of white womanhood from the false mythical notions of the sex-crazed black brute gathered groups of white men and formed lynch mobs. Today, the racist sentiment is not as visceral but the framework of that racist architecture that places the fates of black men in the hands of white men is still very much intact. This is evident when nearly 98 percent of the chief district attorneys in counties with the death penalty in America are white.

The Supreme Court had an opportunity to address the institutional racism that still haunts the death penalty in this country, but it failed to do so in 1987, with McCleskey v. Kemp. In this case, the high court seriously erred and ruled complex statistical studies, similar to the Sociological Review’s report, insufficient as evidence of racial wrongdoing in particular cases.

With this legal avenue closed to the black community, we all must turn to our state-level politicians and urge them to embrace the words of Justice Harry Blackmun and “no longer tinker with the machinery of death.”

In my first column this semester, I wondered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina how much black life mattered to this nation, and with these recent correlations between lynching and capital punishment, I’ve been forced to re-think that question again. If we are to move into 2006 and continue to fight for democracy in Iraq, we must lead by example and abolish the death penalty. We must show the world all citizens, black or white, Shiite or Sunni, are to be treated as equals in the hands of justice.

Kevin Pitts is an English literature graduate student. He can be reached at

© 2006 Diamondback Online


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