Recently, the terrorist who shot and killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina was apprehended, giving us a name and face to the crime: Dylann Roof.
As is often the case with highly publicized, clear-cut cases of terrorism, people immediately started calling for the death penalty. Only a month ago, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death in liberal Massachusetts for his participation in the Boston Marathon bombings. In regards to Roof, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley readily stated on NBC, “We will absolutely want him to have the death penalty.” Roof’s own uncle has stated, “I would pull the switch myself” if his nephew was found guilty.
Let us be perfectly clear: the Charleston shooting was a heinous massacre and, possibly, the worst example of white supremacist crime since the Civil Rights movement. That being said, we should categorically oppose the death penalty for Roof, not only for moral and economic reasons, but for reasons of racial justice as well.
Death Penalty by the Numbers
Like nearly all of our punitive policies, capital punishment is not a sentence that is handed out purely to the “bad guys”—it inevitably carries elements of politicization, bias, and racism. The truth is, we disproportionately sentence people of color to the death penalty. While black people only make up approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 35 percent of executions since 1976 and 42 percent of those on death row.
The race of the victim matters as well— while only half of all murder victims are white, 80 percent of death penalty cases involve a white victim. A 1990 U.S. General Accounting Office study showed that, even when controlling for legally relevant factors, such as the crime, the number of victims, and prior criminal record, a defendant was much more likely to receive the death penalty if their victim was white. Recent state studies reflect the same information—in Louisiana, the odds of a death sentence were 97 percent higher if the victim was white than if the victim was black. In Washington state, jurors are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for black defendants than white defendants.
While capital punishment was outlawed for juveniles in 2005, when it was in effect, black children were still disproportionately sentenced. Between 1973 and 2005, 41 percent of offenders in juvenile death penalty cases were black and over two-thirds of the victims were white. Today, the same sort of numbers are reflected in juvenile life sentencing without parole (JLWOP). While there are only four times as many black minors arrested for killing white victims than white minors arrested for killing black victims, the number of black minors who receive a JLWOP sentence for killing white victims is twelve times more than vice versa.
This fits into our country’s overall justice system hierarchy. We punish black crimes inflicted on white victims to a much higher degree. One need look no farther than the myth of the black rapist and the white female victim that has permeated the American consciousness—a stereotype which far supersedes very real instances of white males raping black women.
Parity of Punishment is an Unworthy Goal
The argument can be made that saving Roof, who is white, from the death penalty would only reinforce this racial trend. As recent events would suggest, if a black man were to have murdered nine white victims in a church, he would have almost certainly been given a death sentence—probably by a cop before he ever stood trial. By this token, justice can only be served if Roof dies for his crimes.
The problem with this argument is that it advocates for a society in which people equally suffer under our punitive system. Not only is this not a worthy goal, it is highly unachievable in the current political and racial climate. American racist sentiment informs our economic, social, and judicial policies. The people who suffer the most from punitive policies have always been, and will continue to be in the foreseeable future, people of color. Thus, advocating for the death penalty, in any case and under any circumstances, will continue to punish minorities first and foremost.
This also goes for our other unjust crime and punishment policies, such as stop and frisk, mandatory sentencing, and JLWOP sentencing. These types of punitive policies are some of our country’s greatest tools for expressing racism and suppressing minority populations. Thus, the issue isn’t merely that they are incarcerating minorities at a much greater rate— it’s that these laws, which make up the most bloated carceral state in the world, exist at all. In other words, the solution will never be parity of punishment, but rather eliminating the punishment altogether.
Advocating for the death penalty for Roof will not bring about racial justice. Hundreds of other black men and women and children have been, and are currently being sentenced to their death quietly and unobtrusively. Abolish the death penalty and they won’t be any longer.