crime and punishment

How Dylann Roof’s death sentence justifies a shameful history of killing black people

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On Tuesday, 22-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof was sentenced to be executed for killing nine black churchgoers a year and a half ago in Charleston, South Carolina. Since its inception, the United States’ criminal justice system has been grossly contaminated by racism, a disease that has killed its black citizens, many for crimes they did not commit or for crimes their white counterparts don’t get put to death for. Roof’s death sentence is a moral judgement that upholds the unrelentingly flawed practice of state-sanctioned killing. And it is also a tacit acknowledgement from the federal government that the death penalty is justified. Which means the deaths of hundreds of black people since Jim Crow are also justified.

Black anti-lynching activist and journalist Ida B. Wells famously said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Putting Dylann Roof to death will only preserve a system that does exactly what Roof did: kill black people who don’t deserve to die.

Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated, the state has killed 496 black people, accounting for nearly 35% of all executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit that provides information to the public on capital punishment. But African Americans make up only 13% of the U.S. population. And while almost 56% of executions have been of white people, that group makes up 72% of the country’s population. White victims are also more likely to “get justice.” Over 75% of executions since 1976 occur in cases where the victim is white, compared with 15% in cases of black victims. Simply put, white lives matter more than black lives.

The point, that white lives matter more than black lives when it comes to the death penalty, was made, ironically, by Senator Ted Cruz just an hour before Roof was sentenced to death. Cruz, arguably the most conservative Senator in the Judiciary Committee, conceded that white people don’t get executed for committing crimes against black people in Alabama. During Senator Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing for attorney general Tuesday, Cruz called our attention to the story of when Sessions, who has been labeled for decades as a racist, was U.S. Attorney in Alabama and sought the death penalty against Henry Hays, a Ku Klux Klan member who murdered Michael Donald, a black man, in 1981. In his facile soliloquy, Cruz noted that Sessions’ was largely responsible for “the first white man executed in Alabama for murdering a black person since 1913.” And addressing him directly, Cruz said, “When you were the Attorney General of Alabama, you later argued to uphold Hays’ death penalty. And in 1997, five months after you joined this body as a Senator, Hays died in Alabama’s electric chair.” (In reality, reports Adam Serwer at The Atlantic, many of the claims put forth by Sessions’ supporters about the case have been exaggerated.)

Roof is an anomaly, an exception to a rule that disproportionately punishes black Americans. During the Jim Crow era, after Reconstruction’s end, black men and women were rounded up indiscriminately for crimes they did not commit. Those white people responsible for lynching innocent black people were never “brought to justice.” And the practice continued even after the civil rights movement. Since 1989 when the first DNA exoneration took place, a total of 215 out of 347 people who have been absolved of their crimes were black, according to the Innocence Project. And Roof’s crime was so objectively horrific that, much like the story of Henry Hays and his accomplices, the federal government felt it needed to be prosecuted to the highest degree.

In a piece for the New York Times that argued against handing down a death sentence to Roof, Christina Swarns of the NAACP wrote, “The reality is that the death penalty has not only failed to serve the black community well, it has failed to serve any community well.” The decision to prosecute Roof to the fullest extent of the law not only diverts attention from the practice’s racist reality, but it was one made despite requests from the victims’ families and the desires of black South Carolinians. Only 3 out of every 10 black residents in South Carolina thought Roof should get the death penalty, compared with more than 65% of the state’s white residents.

It might seem peculiar that those aggrieved do not want to see a terrorist die for his crimes, and that those who are not aggrieved do. Perhaps it’s because black people know something white people have not yet begun to understand: that punishment by death doesn’t cure racism. It hasn’t for black people, and it won’t for white people either.