Over the past week the race debate in America has focused on affirmative action and higher education. But with more black men in jail than in college, it is important not to overlook other persistent problems involving race in this country. Two recent stories in The New York Times highlight the continuing problem of racial disparity in administration of the death penalty.
In March a committee appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a report urging the state to place an immediate moratorium on all executions because of apparent racial bias in the system. The committee wrote that “at least in some counties, race plays a major, if not overwhelming, role in the imposition of the death penalty.” Philadelphia more than 100 black men on death row, which is more than any other city in the country. According to Robert Dunham, a Philadelphia public defender, “the odds that a black defendant will be sentenced to death in Philadelphia are triple that of a white defendant.”
Racial disparities, which have always been present in the federal death penalty system, may even be increasing under the current administration. Attorney General John Ashcroft has been ordering prosecutors all over the country to seek the death penalty in cases where they might have sought life sentences instead. In the New York region all 12 defendants affected by Ashcroft’s policy are racial or ethnic minorities. Ronald Tabak, a New York lawyer who gave a Silliman Master’s Tea last year, questioned whether this policy is free of racial bias: “What the attorney general is doing raises serious questions as to whether he is creating or exacerbating a pattern of discrimination in the application of the federal death penalty.”
While people of color comprise only 18 percent of the American public, yet they make up 55 percent of death row inmates. Cynics might argue that this statistic does not prove racism in the system, but the Presidential Advisory Board on Race would beg to differ. In 1998 the board announced that racial “discrepancies in the incarceration rate could not be explained solely by the higher crime rates in ethnic communities.” There is also compelling evidence that the race of the victim plays an equally, if not more, important role in determining whether a defendant is condemned to death. Over 80 percent of all death penalty cases involve white victims, while 50 percent of murder victims are white.
These articles and statistics illustrate something many of us have known for a long time — the American criminal justice system is not colorblind. This brings into question the very principle of “equality and justice for all.” In 1994 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote: “Even under the most sophisticated death-penalty statutes, race continues to play a major role in determining who shall live and who shall die.” More reports and more studies are not going to change anything. There have been enough of these to fill a room and still nothing has been done. There is only one way to solve the problem of racism in the capital system and that is to abolish the system itself. To do anything less is to violate the pledge that kindergarteners recite every morning.
Michael Morgan is a first-year graduate student in the History Department. Zoe Palitz is a sophomore in Silliman College. They are members of the Yale Coalition to End the Death Penalty.