Does Trayvon Martin have anything to do with race and the death penalty? Some may think the senseless killing of an unarmed Black teenager is completely unrelated to the racial discrimination in our capital punishment system. But nothing could be further from the truth. As President Obama recently reminded the country, “[t]he African-American community is . . . knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws.” (1)
We all know the stories. Innocent Black people followed around stores because shopkeepers assume they will steal something. People criminalizing and becoming fearful of even the most successful and famous Black men, including Questlove from The Roots (2), Forest Whitaker (3), and Professor Henry Louis Gates (4). A young black teenager stalked and shot dead for walking home from a store with some iced tea and Skittles. This happens to Black Americans throughout this country on a daily basis. Even the President of the United States has acknowledged that he could have been Trayvon Martin.
The dehumanization of people of color—and Black Americans in particular—have led our nation down the tragic path of criminalizing Black men and children on our streets and sidewalks, as well as Black defendants in our courtrooms. In both instances, Black Americans are immediately perceived as dangerous, suspicious, and criminal because of their race. And such racial stereotyping has a devastating impact on our criminal justice system. Judges, prosecutors, and police officers are just as human as the scores of other Americans who instinctively associate race with criminality. As a result, Black Americans are 10 times more likely than whites to go to prison for drug offenses even though they are no more likely to engage in illegal drug activity (5), and Black men now have a one-in-three chance of going to prison sometime in their lifetime (6). For Black men aged 20 to 34, one in nine are behind bars at any given moment (7).
The death penalty offers one of the starkest examples of how the criminal justice system is infected by racial bias (8). Even though Black Americans make up only 12% of the national population, they comprise over 40% of today’s death row. When looking at all executions for interracial murders since 1976, Black defendants have been executed for killing a White victim 261 times. Meanwhile, only 20 White defendants have been executed over the same time period for killing a Black victim. And even though Black people are just as likely to die from homicides as Whites, only 15% of all executions in the last 37 years were for the death of Black victims, compared to 77% for the death of White victims.
Harris County (Houston), Texas is a perfect case in point. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. is one of the law firms representing Duane Buck, a Black man who was sentenced to death in 1997 after a prosecutor elicited expert testimony indicating that Mr. Buck was more likely to be dangerous because he is black (9). And at the time of Mr. Buck’s sentencing, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office was over three times more likely to seek the death penalty against Black defendants than against white defendants, and the Harris County juries were more than twice as likely to impose death sentences on Black defendants. In other words, Mr. Buck—just like Trayvon Martin—was condemned to die because of his race.
President Obama recently reminded the country that the Black community views the death of Trayvon Martin “through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.” (10) A substantial part of that history is the racial violence experienced by Black people from the brutal days of slavery through the nightmare of lynchings and the violence of Jim Crow. But that racial violence is not just a thing of the past—it still lingers in the persistent dehumanization of Black individuals as inherently criminal. It lingers when a young black teenager is seen first as a criminal, instead of the child and student that he was. It lingers when a Black defendant charged with a capital crime is seen first as violent and dangerous, rather than a flawed human being who deserves an opportunity for redemption. Until our society grapples with this lingering racial stereotype, there can be no justice in our criminal justice system.
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