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Jared Gardner Headshot

Killing to Govern

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We know the statistics because they are so very proud of them: Rick Perry, governor of Texas, has overseen more than 230 executions, the most of any governor in modern history (his predecessor, George W. Bush, still holds the record for executions per year with more than 30). For the right wing of the Republican party, these are numbers to cheer, as recent debates have demonstrated -- and the fact that both governors quite likely executed innocent men and unquestionably executed individuals who were never given a fair trial troubles not a whit the sleep of these men or their supporters.

And then there are the other statistics, which somehow never come up as talking points in Republican debates. In roughly 80% of death penalty cases, the victim is white, even as 50% of all homicide victims are African Americans. In the state of Georgia, where Troy Davis was executed this past week, the vast majority of executions involve white victims even African Americans continue to suffer disproportionately as victims of homicide. Nationally, less than 15% of all death penalty convictions involve African American victims despite the fact that African Americans make up roughly half of the murder victims in the United States. Black defendants are almost 40% more likely to get the death penalty than non-Blacks. Finally, white district attorneys outnumber African American district attorneys in death penalty states, at least as of 2003, by roughly an 80:1 margin. There is simply no way to absorb these numbers and still believe that, as defenders insist, race does not play a major factor in who we kill in the name of the state, and why.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us, responding to the applause that greeted the announcement of Perry's record-breaking execution rate, "This is still the country where we took kids to see men lynched, and then posed for photos." Then as now those receiving "justice" at the hands of the cheering mob were overwhelmingly black men being killed for crimes against whites. When the victims were black, as they were (then and now) in staggering numbers, lynch law had little interest. When the victims were white, then and now, governors ran for office on the backs of the black men they had put to death.

I am not being hyperbolic here. Governor Jeff Davis of Arkansas celebrated the visit by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 by publicly lecturing the president on the virtues of lynching as state policy. In 1913 Governor Blease of South Carolina enthusiastically defended before a governors convention the practice of lynching black men accused of crimes against white women. And three-term Georgia governor (and aspirant to the White House), Eugene Talmadge, was a prime suspect in FBI files for his involvement in a lynching in his state in 1946, just after winning what would have been his fourth term had he not died before resuming office.

Today, governors defend the death penalty in terms not so very different from those earlier defenses of lynching. After all, killing black men in the name of white victims gets one reelected -- or elected president. The sacrifice of an innocent black man does not trouble Rick Perry or those who voted in the majority in the final appeal of Troy Davis to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles -- because the death of a black man brings "closure" and "peace" to white victims and confers the role of dispensers of "ultimate justice" to the politicians who tie their political capital to the body count of their administration.

For those who doubt that the execution of Troy Davis has everything to do with the color of his skin, imagine for a moment an identical scenario where only the racial demographics of the case are reversed: the governor is African American and whites are outnumbered in the district attorney's office by 80:1, the victim is black and the accused is a white man, vigorously protesting his innocence. Here, too, the case against the accused is built on virtually no material evidence, relying instead on the shaky testimony of nine witnesses, seven of whom recant their testimony, citing police intimidation, tricks, or vague promises of lenient treatment in exchange for the testimony. Would the mainstream media or the candidates standing on the stage at the Republican debates have allowed this white man to be executed under such circumstances -- circumstances identical to those of Troy Davis's case save for the color of the principal actors' skin?

Race has everything to do with the execution of Troy Davis and others like him, men who never had a fair trial because, like their forbears under Governors Davis, Blease, and Talmadge, killing black men in the name of "ultimate justice" has always been about the display of white power -- and the candidacies of those men who seek to wield it in America's name.