Opinion: U.S. Should Follow Pope’s Leadership on the Death Penalty
By Anna Arceneaux
While waiting to meet with a client on death row recently, I was chatting with a corrections officer who had been working at this state’s notorious maximum security prison for more than two decades. He told me that he preferred working on death row over the prison’s general population. The death row prisoners, he said, are the easiest ones to manage. They’re rarely serial criminals. They’re not the prison’s troublemakers. For the most part, he said, death row is made up of people who made one horrible, tragic mistake.
While it isn’t always that simple, this officer sees that the prisoners he interacts with are people — damaged people, but people who can be punished safely and effectively without the government taking their lives. Pope Francis recognized this earlier this month when he announced that the Catholic Church would no longer defend the death penalty in any circumstances, and the church would work “with determination” to end the practice.
As Pope Francis acknowledged, at its core the death penalty is an affront to human dignity. Our criminal justice system should instead value rehabilitation and redemption. We should not as a society turn our backs on the least among us. I’ve seen the power of redemption with my clients who have accepted life sentences to avoid a death sentence. One client obtained a janitorial certification in prison, describing it as his life’s proudest accomplishment. Another, inspired by his Christian faith, creates beautiful works of art and shares them with ministers who visit the prison, to share with their congregants.
Pope Francis’s rejection of the death penalty does not absolve people who commit homicide of punishment altogether. He acknowledges rather that there are suitable, safe alternatives to the government taking another life to address the harm to society.
The death penalty in the United States offends human dignity because it cannot be divorced from our country’s legacy of lynching and racial terror. People of color are still disproportionately sentenced to death, especially when the victim is white. And black defendants are still sentenced to death by all-white juries.
The death penalty also offends human dignity because it does not deter. States without the death penalty have lower homicide rates than those that retain it. It should come as no surprise that the cycle of violence — both individual and institutional — perpetuates more violence.
The death penalty also offends human dignity because it has proven an unreliable and failed experiment, where scores of innocent people have been sent to death row for crimes they did not commit — now up to 162, and counting.
Pope Francis did not emerge with this view from a liberal enclave. There is growing conservative opposition to the death penalty in the United States. And of course, the Catholic Church has long taught that the death penalty should be reserved for the rarest of cases, when no other punishment was practicable.
I came to oppose capital punishment from my own Catholic upbringing. As a child, I toured my local parish jail with Sister Margaret McCaffrey, “North Louisiana’s Mother Theresa,” as Sister Helen Prejean once described her to me. I saw what so many people never have a chance to see: that the people locked up were — people.
They were brothers, sons, fathers, cousins, neighbors. They were broken, frail people who had made mistakes, sometimes very serious ones. But they were people who were capable of redemption. People who, the church taught us, as the least among us, should be shown love, compassion and dignity.
Pope Francis’ announcement aligns with the sentiments of a growing number of people in the United States. Prosecutors and jurors across the country continue to reject the death penalty in favor of life sentences, with death sentencing at an all-time low. Several states have abolished the death penalty in recent years, and politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to introduce new legislation to curb or end its use.
Still, the United States stands alone among Western democracies in its retention and heavy use of the death penalty. Catholics, and all people in the United States, should reflect on this failed government institution, and like Pope Francis teaches us, reject it in all circumstances.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Anna Arceneaux is senior staff attorney for the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.
by Mel Gurtov
Writing on democracy, I’m reminded of a great old Stevie Wonder song, “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” Democracy is in need of love today: It is taking a beating nearly everywhere, including right here. Remember the optimism that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later? Democracy was going to sweep across eastern Europe, the new Russia was going to undergo dramatic changes under glasnostand perestroika. There was great hope for democratic change in Africa and Latin America. And then the backlash came, and we see what has happened in all those countries, starting with Putin’s Russia.
But then came the Arab Spring in 2011, and suddenly optimism was back in vogue. From the Persian Gulf to Tunisia, and from Syria to Egypt, it seemed that momentous change was about to unfold. Not so fast. The Syrian civil war turned ugly, Egypt gave way to the military, the ultra-conservative monarchies survived in the Gulf states, and Libya imploded following the overthrow of Gaddafi. Terrorism, real and imagined, became the new basis for concentration of power and the derailing of reform efforts.
Now the locus of de-democratization is Eastern Europe, principally Hungary and Poland. Constitutional rule is eroding in both countries, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are on the rise, political leadership is increasingly authoritarian, liberal voices are being squelched, and the European Union’s democratic norms are being disregarded with impunity. Putin is suddenly in favor in those countries and elsewhere in Europe, including the French and Italian right wing. So is Trump: He and Putin represent the ascendance of white Christian nationalism, as well as point men in the erosion of the EU.
Trump’s foreign and domestic actions surely contribute to the worldwide assault on democracy. For one thing, he has been fulsome in praise of despots, legitimizing their rule by embracing them as Nicholas Kristofand others have observed. The list is long, and includes Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi, the Philippines’ Duterte, Egypt’s al-Sisi, Turkey’s Erdogan (until just recently), Myanmar’s military, Cambodia’s Hun Sen, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, and (most extraordinarily) North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Trump has made perfectly clear that democracy, including respect for human rights and accountable, transparent government, is irrelevant to friendship with America. Only the deal, usually meaning money, counts. That standard has led Trump to allow relations with democratic governments in Europe, East Asia, and elsewhere to deteriorate. Who needs NATO, the EU, security alliances, or the World Trade Organization if America can’t get its money’s worth? Traditional US allies must now put up with Trump tactics such as trade wars, demands for more military spending, direct criticism of their leaders, and efforts by Trump minionssuch as Stephen Bannon, Nigel Farage, and their so-called Movement to elect more anti-EU “populists” to the European Parliament next spring.
Meantime here at home, it goes without saying that Trump is defying democratic norms on numerous fronts. Collusion with the Russians and obliviousness to their hacking is the hallmark of the Trump era, for however long it lasts. The rule of law is under assault as Trump disparages every adverse decision, and every judge who rejects his executive orders. The independent media is the “enemy of the people.” Undisguised racism and misogyny play to his white nationalist supporters. The Supreme Court is becoming a tool of executive authority. The right to vote is being sliced away by pro-Trump governors and state legislatures. And in-your-face corruption is rampant at every level of government, with the Trump family taking the lead and literally looting the public treasury every chance it gets.
Perhaps most troubling in these times is the absence of a well-organized opposition to the destruction of democracy here or abroad. The Democrats rant and rave but have no powerful center or decisive leader. The Republicans who might be sympathetic to democracy’s decline cave in to the administration whenever it needs their vote to push through its agenda of greed and self-interest. The mainstream media, the intelligence community, and the FBI are subject to relentless attack from Trump and the far right, gradually chipping away at both their authority and their credibility. And abroad, the EU seems unwilling to risk its cohesion by standing up to those members that reject its fundamental values.
The fight to stem and reverse the tide of authoritarianism posing as populism begins at home. We need an abundance of progressive victories at the polls, and there’s every indication we’re going to get them. The impact of defeats of pro-Trump candidates and office holders will resonate worldwide, because they will make clear to democratic publics everywhere that Trump’s agenda can be stymied and his presidency brought to a brief and inglorious end.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.
Charlottesville belies racism’s deep roots in the North
August 16, 2018
Brian J Purnell
Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History, Bowdoin College
Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Brooklyn College
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Bowdoin College provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.
A southern city has now become synonymous with the ongoing scourge of racism in the United States.
A year ago, white supremacists rallied to “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, protesting the removal of a Confederate statute.
In the days that followed, two of them, Christopher C. Cantwell and James A. Fields Jr., became quite prominent.
The HBO show “Vice News Tonight” profiled Cantwell in an episode and showed him spouting racist and anti-Semitic slurs and violent fantasies. Fields gained notoriety after he plowed a car into a group of unarmed counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Today this tragedy defines the nature of modern racism primarily as Southern, embodied in tiki torches, Confederate flags and violent outbursts.
As historians of race in America, we believe that such a one-sided view misses how entrenched, widespread and multi-various racism is and has been across the country.
Jim Crow born in the North
Racism has deep historic roots in the North, making the chaos and violence of Charlottesville part of a national historic phenomenon.
Cantwell was born and raised in Stony Brook, Long Island, and was living in New Hampshire at the time of the march. Fields was born in Boone County, Kentucky, a stone’s throw from Cincinnati, Ohio, and was living in Ohio when he plowed through a crowd.
Jim Crow, the system of laws that advanced segregation and black disenfranchisement, began in the North, not the South, as most Americans believe. Long before the Civil War, northern states like New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania had legal codes that promoted black people’s racial segregation and political disenfranchisement.
If racism is only pictured in spitting and screaming, in torches and vigilante justice and an allegiance to the Confederacy, many Americans can rest easy, believing they share little responsibility in its perpetuation. But the truth is, Americans all over the country do bear responsibility for racial segregation and inequality.
Studying the long history of the Jim Crow North makes clear to us that there was nothing regional about white supremacy and its upholders. There is a larger landscape of segregation and struggle in the “liberal” North that brings into sharp relief the national character of American apartheid.
Northern racism shaped region
Throughout the 19th century, black and white abolitionists and free black activists challenged the North’s Jim Crow practices and waged war against slavery in the South and the North.
At the same time, Northerners wove Jim Crow racism into the fabric of their social, political and economic lives in ways that shaped the history of the region and the entire nation.
There was broad-based support, North and South, for white supremacy. Abraham Lincoln, who campaigned to stop slavery from spreading outside of the South, barely carried New York state in the elections of 1860 and 1864, for example, but he lost both by a landslide in New York City. Lincoln’s victory in 1864 came with only 50.5 percent of the state’s popular vote.
What’s more, in 1860, New York State voters overwhelmingly supported – 63.6 percent – a referendum to keep universal suffrage rights only for white men.
New York banks loaned Southerners tens of millions of dollars, and New York shipowners provided southern cotton producers with the means to get their products to market. In other words, New York City was sustained by a slave economy. And working-class New Yorkers believed that the abolition of slavery would flood the city with cheap black labor, putting newly arrived immigrants out of work.
‘Promised land that wasn’t’
Malignant racism appeared throughout Northern political, economic, and social life during the 18th and 19th centuries. But the cancerous history of the Jim Crow North metastasized during the mid-20th century.
Six million black people moved north and west between 1910 and 1970, seeking jobs, desiring education for their children and fleeing racial terrorism.
The rejuvenation of the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th century, promoting pseudo-scientific racism known as “eugenics,” immigration restriction and racial segregation, found supple support in pockets of the North, from California to Michigan to Queens, New York – not only in the states of the old Confederacy.
The KKK was a visible and overt example of widespread Northern racism that remained covert and insidious. Over the course of the 20th century, Northern laws, policies and policing strategies cemented Jim Crow.
In Northern housing, the New Deal-era government Home Owners Loan Corporation maintained and created racially segregated neighborhoods. The research of scholars Robert K. Nelson, LaDale Winling, Richard Marciano and Nathan Connolly, through their valuable website, Mapping Inequality, makes this history visible and undeniable.
Zoning policies in the North preserved racial segregation in schools. Discrimination in jobs contributed to economic underdevelopment of businesses and neighborhoods, as well as destabilization of families. Crime statistics became a modern weapon for justifying the criminalization of Northern urban black populations and aggressive forms of policing.
A close examination of the history of the Jim Crow North – what Rosa Parks referred to as the “Northern promised land that wasn’t” – demonstrates how racial discrimination and segregation operated as a system.
Judges, police officers, school board officials and many others created and maintained the scaffolding for a Northern Jim Crow system that hid in plain sight.
New Deal policies, combined with white Americans’ growing apprehension toward the migrants moving from the South to the North, created a systematized raw deal for the country’s black people.
Segregation worsened after the New Deal of the 1930s in multiple ways. For example, Federal Housing Administration policies rated neighborhoods for residential and school racial homogeneity. Aid to Dependent Children carved a requirement for “suitable homes” in discriminatory ways. Policymakers and intellectuals blamed black “cultural pathology” for social disparities.
Faced with these new realities, black people relentlessly and repeatedly challenged Northern racism, building movements from Boston to Milwaukee to Los Angeles. They were often met with the argument that this wasn’t the South. They found it difficult to focus national attention on northern injustice.
As Martin Luther King Jr. pointedly observed in 1965, “As the nation, negro and white, trembled with outrage at police brutality in the South, police misconduct in the North was rationalized, tolerated and usually denied.”
Many Northerners, even ones who pushed for change in the South, were silent and often resistant to change at home. One of the grandest achievements of the modern civil rights movement – the 1964 Civil Rights Act – contained a key loophole to prevent school desegregation from coming to northern communities.
In a New York Times poll in 1964, a majority of New Yorkers thought the civil rights movement had gone too far.
Jim Crow practices unfolded despite supposed “colorblindness” among those who considered themselves liberal. And it evolved not just through Southern conservatism but New Deal and Great Society liberalism as well.
Understanding racism in America in 2018 means not only examining the long history of racist practices and ideologies in the South but also the long history of racism in the Jim Crow North.