October 15, 2020
This month, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation launched an ambitious new online project, Racist Roots: Origins of North Carolina’s Death Penalty.
The project includes essays, poetry, artwork, commentary, and historical documents that place the state’s death penalty in the context of 400 years of history and expose its deep entanglement with slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and modern systemic racism. The death penalty, the project contends, is another Confederate monument that North Carolina must tear down.
“The death penalty began as a way to enforce a racist social order, and as it evolved through the generations, our state never addressed the original sin that lay at its root,” said CDPL Executive Director Gretchen Engel. “Today, the death penalty is the apex of a racist criminal punishment system that cages hundreds of thousands of people and declares human lives, particularly those of Black people, expendable. The clear message of this project is: Any meaningful conversation about race and criminal justice in North Carolina must include the death penalty.”
Racist Roots shows that in every incarnation, from slavery to post-Civil War Reconstruction, to Jim Crow, and to the modern criminal punishment system, those wielding the death penalty have imposed it disproportionately on Black people; valued the lives of white victims above all others; and excluded citizens of color from power by systematically excluding them from capital juries. So, while the precise influence of racism in the death penalty has changed from era to era, its essential nature has not.
Read Henderson Hill’s essential introduction to the project here, and then head over to RacistRoots.org to explore the rest.
The Death Penalty is Another Confederate Monument We Must Tear Down
By Henderson Hill
Right now, our nation is in a moment of reckoning with our criminal punishment system. We are finally seeing clearly what should have been obvious long ago: The system has its knee on the necks of Black people.
In North Carolina, as we begin a long-overdue conversation about the future of police and prisons, we must confront the punishment that sits at the top of that system, condoning all its other cruelties — the death penalty.
When citizens have acclimated to the state strapping a person to a gurney and killing them in front of an audience, it becomes harder to shock them. The death penalty teaches a cruel and inhumane lesson: As long as we brand people criminals, we can kill them.
Meanwhile, there is absolutely no evidence that capital punishment enhances public safety or prevents crime. Instead, it creates more violence and pain, more parentless children and grieving families. I’ve seen this trauma up close as an attorney representing people on death row.
The death penalty’s history is inseparable from our history of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration.
It is time for us to examine not just the daily cruelties of today’s death penalty, but to see its true nature. And to understand that, we must understand its history.
This report lays bare what too many people, lulled by the myth of a post-racial society, have allowed themselves to forget. The death penalty’s history is inseparable from our history of slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. Even as the number of executions and death sentences declines, it remains a powerful symbol of white supremacy.
When we open our eyes to the history of capital punishment, the conclusion becomes inescapable. The death penalty is just one more Confederate monument that we must tear down.