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Alexander Mikulich, Ph.D.

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The 'Lynching' of Troy Davis and White Christianity

Posted: 09/26/11 05:00 PM ET

On Sept. 21, Texas executed Lawrence Brewer for the murder of James Byrd in 1998, and on Sept. 22, Georgia executed Troy Anthony Davis for the murder of a white police officer, Mark MacPhail, 22 years ago. None of these murders can be justified. Yet, for all the apparent differences between these two cases, both shed light on the enduring legacy of racism and lynching in America.

While Davis' case gained international attention -- the Pope, former President Carter, the former FBI Director William Sessions and eight former prison wardens all called for a stay of execution, given the lack of physical evidence connecting Davis to the crime and the overwhelming doubt cast by seven witnesses who recanted their original testimony -- the cases appear vastly different, in part because Davis' sympathetic character stands in stark contrast to Brewer, the self-avowed white supremacist.

Yet both cases instruct us about white American racial amnesia. As James Cone writes in his recent book "The Cross and the Lynching Tree," "what it invisible to white Christians and their theologians is inescapable to black people."

What is invisible to white Christians and their theologians is the history and enduring legacy of lynching in the 21st century.

What is invisible to white Christians is the connection between the crucified peoples in America -- including Troy Davis -- to the cross of Jesus Christ. Disproportionate arrests, prosecution, capital sentencing, and application of the death penalty against African Americans and Latinos belies any claim that the administration of the capital punishment is rational or fair.

In its recent study, "Struck By Lightening: The Arbitrariness of the Death Penalty 35 Years After Its Re-instatement in 1976," the Death Penalty Information Center is clear that race and geography too often play dominant roles in the application of capital punishment. The influence of race in who is prosecuted for the death penalty and who is not, racial bias in sentencing, unfair jury selection processes, and appeal and post-conviction processes prone to irreversible error result in a death penalty system that disproportionately selects brothers and sisters of color and those who have killed white victims.

More than 75 percent of murder victims in cases resulting in an execution were white, even though nationally roughly 50 percent of murder victims are white.

Of 138 people exonerated since 1976, more than 60 percent are men of color, predominantly black and brown and economically poor. Illinois did not place a moratorium on the death penalty until it realized that it was about to execute 13 innocent men of color in 2000. It is high time for the nation to follow the example of Illinois and execute the death penalty itself.

According to a 2011 National District Attorney's Association study, nearly 98 percent of district attorneys in states that apply the death penalty are white. In my home state of Louisiana, 97.5 percent of DAs are white and only 2.5 percent are African American. Of 291 Louisiana state judges, only 18 percent are African American. White Americans tend not to have any clue why these numbers ought to be disturbing in a so-called "post-racial" society.

Given the history of our nation, the pervasive ways that we are taught to associate whiteness with innocence and blackness with criminality, we need to shift our collective assumptions about racial bias in the entire judicial system, including legal education. There is too much data pointing to the fact that even whites who claim to hold values of racial equity actually act out of racial bias. Scholars, such as Michelle Alexander in "The New Jim Crow" and Devah Pager in "Marked: Race, Crime, and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration," have demonstrated how white racial bias permeates U.S. society.

Studies of the death penalty in Louisiana, among many other states, find that those who kill whites are two to three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed blacks. In California, those who killed whites were four times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who killed Latinos. Although African Americans constitute 13 percent of U.S. population, 41 percent of all death row inmates nationally are African American. This disproportionate application of the death penalty to African Americans is even greater in death penalty states that have a history of lynching, including Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

Brewer's case may seem less obvious in how it represents the enduring legacy of racism and lynching in America. Yet, how many Christian congregations and theologians remember that James Byrd, a black man, was dragged to death behind a truck by Brewer and his white friends? How many know that it is rare for a district attorney to prosecute cases involving an African American or Latino victim?

While most white Americans and their churches do not support the overt white supremacy of Lawrence Brewer, the deafening silence of white Christians in the face of a system that disproportionately imprisons and executes men of color is chilling. The relative silence of white Christian America ought to be terrifying.

It is time to find our religion, white America. It is time to find that our redemption is fundamentally linked to our brothers and sisters of color, who we incarcerate and execute. It is time to contend with our complicity in the enduring legacy of lynching in the contemporary practice of the death penalty and how this contradicts our claims to be Christian and democratic.

 

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