Prejudice on Death Row

Because I conduct writing workshops every week in juvenile hall, and because I have far more experience with the death penalty than any civilized person should have, I was asked to come into the maximum control units of one Bay Area County juvenile hall on Tuesday morning, Dec. 13, to help diffuse the anticipated emotion generated by the execution just hours before of Stanley Tookie Williams.

For many -- especially the African-American young men who comprise the majority of the children locked away in this juvenile hall -- Mr. Williams was a kind of folk hero. Most had read one or more of the books he wrote on death row urging youths to abandon their gang affiliations and to recognize the humanity that each of us possesses. Almost all had heard the thoughtful interviews he did on various radio shows. A few had even spoken with him on the phone when a staff person had arranged a call from death row.

To prepare for my standup routine, I went through California's recent experiences with executions and came up with some startling statistics I thought these young men in particular would find relevant. Since the modern era of executions was inaugurated in California with the gassing of Robert Harris in 1992, the state has put to death 12 men. Mr. Williams' execution marks only the second time an African-American was the victim of the death chamber. (In addition, eight of the 12 were white; one was Asian; and one was Native American.)

My listeners were surprised to learn that the majority of those we Californians have put to death have been white. But they were astonished when I added this statistic: Among the 27 victims of these 12 condemned prisoners, not a single one was African-American! (Five were Asian; three were Latinos; and 19 were white.)

The shameful truth is that had Mr. Williams' four victims been black, the overwhelming likelihood is that he would still be alive today, one of the many anonymous convicted murderers who occupy our state prisons.

The fact that not a single person has been executed in this state for killing an African-American is consistent with studies across the country that show the death penalty is reserved primarily for those who kill white people. The California study, "The Impact of Legally Inappropriate Factors on Death Sentencing for California Homicides, 1990-'99," found that 80 percent of executions in California were for killers of whites, though non-Hispanic whites make up just 47 percent of all Californians, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Those who kill whites are more than four times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill Latinos, and over three times more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill African-Americans.

As African-American young men who have had to negotiate both systemic racism and the mean streets they live on, these young detainees were not surprised to learn that the system devalues blacks. But as the discussion veered from the execution this morning to Saddam Hussein to Hitler, one young man asked me about Jack the Ripper. I told him that those crimes were committed in England more than a century ago, and that the man who did it was never caught. And when I added that his victims were prostitutes, the young African-American said, "Oh well, who cares? They were just prostitutes."

This observation brought the discussion back to where we had begun. When I connected his belief about prostitutes with the first theme -- how the criminal justice system devalues some people by placing extra value on others -- he asked if I were accusing him of racism. I answered: "I am accusing you of ignorance, which is the prerequisite to racism. You have decided a class of people -- prostitutes -- are of less worth than you, just as the criminal justice system decides through its daily decisions that you are worth less than me."

In 1988 in Texas, Judge Jack Hampton sentenced a convicted murderer of two homosexuals to 30 years in prison, announcing as he did: "I put prostitutes and gays at about the same level, and I'd be hard put to give somebody life for killing a prostitute." The ultimate expression of his shocking admission is the fact that not one killer of a black person has been put to death in California in the modern era.

One lesson of war is that if we can objectify our enemies as worth less than us, then we can kill them. It could be prostitutes, as it was for the young man interested in Jack the Ripper; it could be gays as it was for that Texas judge. It could be Arabs or Jews or homeless or ... You fill in the blank. The sad truth is that as long as we classify groups of people under labels that strip them of their individual worth -- whether it's the Crips labeling their victims as "enemies," or the state labeling its victims as "gang bangers," etc., -- we can dispose of them.

Stanley Williams' execution just past midnight is merely the latest expression of our collective prejudices.


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