(Updated with new statistics.)
Look at that fresh new Oscar nominee. Cute? Yes. Leading us all deeper into the moral wilderness? Definitely. I’ll get back to her.
If things go according to plan, the state of Georgia will kill a man this evening around 7. What follows is part of why.
Quick experiment: How many of the victims of the shooting in Arizona can you name?
I can only name one, Gabrielle Giffords, and it must be remembered that she is still alive, while six died in the shooting. The Los Angeles Times told us that “the bullets did not discriminate,” but we did, surely, in our coverage of and reactions to the event.
For instance, you may remember that another of the victims was a federal judge, and that another was the little (white) girl born on September 11. Journalists also scurried to inform us that three of the victims were retirees, and one was a soon-to-be-newlywed.
We are told these things, as we know, because all victims are equal, but some are more equal than others. It is more sad when the little girl who was born on 9/11 is killed than it is when a 52-year-old businessman is killed. Don’t worry, age catches up; for some reason, the killing of the elderly is also particularly weighty. Watching the documentary Young at Heart and watching an old man die of cancer, you may say, as did my companion at the time, well, old people die. But hear about a grandfather of six getting beaten to death with a tire iron, and again this seems heavier than the twenty-something stabbed in the park.
For this reason, in the spirit of unfuzzying English, I propose that journalists and writers, when covering stories of crime, abuse, and death, use a capital-V Victim to distinguish those whose deaths matter the most.
After all, we do this when distinguishing our particular Mother from the mothers at large, and we capitalize other titles and proper nouns when distinguishing them from the huddled masses. And if we’re really going to engage in this work, which is a good way for us to be more honest with ourselves, we’re going to have to acknowledge that race plays a major part in who gets this V-card, both culturally and personally.
I mentioned that Georgia is set to execute today. Emmanuel Hammond was convicted of killing Julie Love in 1988. Alright. Now, Julie Love was a “27-year-old preschool fitness teacher,” the AJC reports. She was brutally raped and murdered. She looked like this:
Her killer, Emmanuel Hammond, is a black man (or was, if you’re reading this after 7pm, most likely). It is not true that most of the people executed in this country are black. In fact, most of them are white men. This is to be expected, as, despite what Pat Buchanan might want you to believe, white people are still a large majority of this country’s population. It is true, however, that black men account for a higher percentage of death row inmates than one would expect based on their percentage of the general population.
But, and this is what anti-death-penalty folks don’t really want to get into, if we let our syringe-fingers follow the numbers, we ought to be killing more black guys.
I am not a statistician, although sometimes I wish I were one. And I have only done some very basic research on this, but the numbers are out there. To come up with what I’m going to tell you, I used statistics from Department of Justice and from a very interesting (and incredibly thorough) pro-death penalty website operated by a prosecutor in Indiana.
6,240 people were convicted of murder in 2006. That doesn’t count the murders for which there were no convictions. 46 people were executed in 2006. Yes, they were convicted of crimes in earlier years, but still, look at that. That’s 0.73%. What kind of terrible lottery did those executed criminals win? There are many factors that go into who gets killed and who doesn’t – money being a major one – and the traits of the murdered are right up there.
Among the executed, 26 (56.5%) were white males, and 14 (30.4%) were black males.
According to census.gov, whites are about 79.6% of the population (this number seems to overlap some with Hispanics) while blacks are 12.9%. 12.9 goes into 30.4 more than twice, so black men were more than doubly represented according to population data.
That doesn’t sound good unless you want to take into account that the DOJ also reported in 2005 that black men accounted for 52.2% of homicide offenders. So if the punishment tended to fit the crime, shouldn’t we be seeing even more black men executed?
But let’s look at the victims. The most represented demographic in my homemade study, just nudging out the white man, is the white female, who accounted for 19 of the victims of executed convicts in 2006.
Contrary, perhaps, to conventional wisdom, or conventional crime stories, where the victim is generally dressed up to look just like your daughter, 76.5% of homicide victims are men. But female victims accounted for over 45% of the body count for executed killers in 2006. When it comes to the ulimate punishment, women are plainly overrepresented in victimhood.
Then they are underrepresented as criminals. Only one woman was executed in 2006, about 2% of the total, while the DOJ reports that women account for over 11% of homicide offenders.
Maybe the most damning statistic is that in only one case was a white person put to death for killing a person of color. In every single other case, the convicted had killed either a member of his/her race, or a member of a race higher on the old pecking order (a Latino man killing a white man, for example).
Only one case broke this pattern. William Joseph Berkley was executed for the murder of Sophia Martinez. Why? Well to begin with the crime was heinous. Ms. Martinez was raped and shot five times in the head. She was also eighteen years old. There’s also the fact that this happened in Texas, and they’ll kill anybody. Texas killed 464 people from 1976 to 2011, accounting for more than one third of the 1234 who were executed in the entire country. Add to this that Mr. Berkley was German-born, hardly a good old boy. And I would like you to consider the photo circulated in the press.
This we can all recognize as a senior photo. Not only was Ms. Martinez pretty, but she was, presumably, about to graduate high school. On to bigger and better things. Not a waitress at Waffle House. Capital V, please.
One reason for this lack of racial crossover could be that most homicides are intraracial – black on black or white on white crime, 86% for whites and 94% for blacks. But this gets us back to the same point: more killers are black but we execute fewer because they mostly kill black people. We’re not letting them off the hook; we’re looking the other way, because many of those homicides are drug related, and we just don’t care.
Look, for some reason people tend to get defensive when you tell them they value certain human lives more than others. I don’t know why. It’s only natural. I care more about the assassination of Bobby Kennedy than I do about the death of a drug dealer. Those in public service are (in theory) serving us, and we do not like to see them punished for being our voices, our symbols. This is why Giffords gets attention, and being a white woman helps.
I mean, somebody touches a hair on Emma Stone’s head, you better believe I’m giving that some serious strongly-worded ink.
And it isn’t just race, either. It’s not just that we identify more strongly with those who look like us. It’s almost certainly that we identify more strongly with those we’ve been around, those we’ve had meaningful relationships with. It’s the plot of countless stories involving race relations – honky hates darky; honky develops relationship with driver/hairdresser/long-lost relative/ – oh who am I kidding, Morgan Freeman. It’s always Morgan Freeman. White person meets Morgan Freeman and isn’t as scared anymore. Lovely. White person then would be quite upset to see Morgan Freeman’s picture in newspaper next to “murdered.”
So, okay, think of it not as all of us being racists. Think of it as all of us being products of our environments. Then there’s something we can do about it. Barbara Kingsolver writes “time erases all whiteness” in The Poisonwood Bible, and we can erase the white (or whatever) preference in our psyches, maybe, by strengthening our Morgan Freeman mental muscles.
I’ll do it if you do it. I freely admit I do not consider all people equal in my regard. No one does. But I will take my personal predilections for people like Emma Stone and Robert Kennedy and I will find pictures of the most dissimilar people imaginable. I can already tell you that person will probably be wearing an oversized white t-shirt, because for some reason those just drive me up the wall. And I will spend, I don’t know, maybe twenty seconds a day looking at the picture and saying, “This person has value. This person has value.”
It won’t diminish the value of Ms. Love and Ms. Martinez. There’s no need to care less about them. Empathy is not zero-sum; it cannot be. As Juliet says of love, “The more I give to thee / The more I have, for both are infinite.” If we work enough to care enough about enough of the people in this world who suffer, we may then care enough not to kill even the ones who inflicted the suffering.
Because the only other option is to end the hypocrisy and own up to the fact that some lives, because of race and gender, are worth more. It’s an unspoken secret already – look at Natalee Holloway – and I think we should bring it out in the open, write it into our very language.
The Coen brothers have remade True Grit. I won’t spoil anything by telling you that there’s a scene in which the precocious young white woman of the film chats with Matt Damon’s lovable Texas Ranger about some fine points of the law. Damon uses the terms malum in se and malum prohibitum. Both describe things that are wrong, or bad. One is bad in and of itself (in se) while another is so only because society has deemed it so by law (prohibitum). Example? Driving without your seatbelt on is malum prohibitum. Rape is malum in se.
Except, as one law website points out, “the distinction is somewhat slippery.” Because circumstances are everything.
“Yes, they deserved to die, and I hope they burn in hell!” Samuel Jackson is all about malum prohibitum. As is pretty much every other vigilante movie – and there are a ton, aren’t there? – including True Grit, where lots of folks die because they done the little white girl wrong. I think this spirit is best captured in True Lies, when Jamie Lee Curtis asks her husband, the huggable Governator, if he ever killed anyone, and he says, in accent, “Yes, but dey were all bad.”
We make exceptions for malum in se all the time, or we set up pyramid ranking schemes for bad acts. Killing women is worse, so we punish their murderers more and we punish female offenders less. Killing black people is better, so we cut black intraracial murderers a break. There is victim and Victim, and furthermore since we kill an arbitrary population of our criminals each year, we don’t even consider murder to be a wrong in itself. The death penalty’s application in this country makes our sense of right and wrong appear very fuzzy indeed.
What happens because of all this? The last image of True Grit is of a tombstone and a woman who’s lost an arm.
We all lose in this system. We’re all made less human. Check your watch; check your news. Did it happen? Were you a supporter of the act?