Friday, August 21, 2015

#BlackLivesMatter, Abortion, and the Death Penalty

As the #BlackLivesMatter movement has taken off--largely fueled by a series of controversial cases involving police shootings of black civilians--I've been trying to get into the skin of those who are bothered by the movement.

Some are people I know. Some have been my students. And as I start another semester, in which I'll be teaching my students to think about such moral controversies as abortion and the death penalty, it occurs to me that abortion and the death penalty might offer some useful touchstones for thinking clearly about the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

As I see it, this is a movement that begins by identifying a social pattern--one in which black lives are given less weight, less importance, than white lives. And in the face of this pattern, the movement lifts up those devalued lives and says, "No. These lives matter, too."

I can see why such a movement would raise the hackles of overt racists, that is, those who really believe that black lives don't matter as much as white lives. But not everyone who is bothered by this movement is overtly racist. I'm talking about those who bristle or shift uncomfortably when they hear, "Black lives matter!" And they respond, "Shouldn't we say instead that all lives matter?"

One explanation for their discomfort is that they fail to see why it's so important to single out black lives, to say of those lives that they matter, as opposed to offering the more generic, "All lives matter."

Here, a simple analogy might be helpful. Some (many?) of those who respond suspiciously to the #BlackLivesMatter movement are strongly pro-life. They think that the lives of fetuses are being devalued by social policies that permit abortion-on-demand. In the face of this concern, they are ready and willing to say things like the following: "Fetal lives matter." (Well, okay, they don't usually put it in precisely those terms, but that's the clear message.)

Now imagine that you're pro-life, and you say something like this, and another person in the room responds with, "Well, all lives matter." Doesn't that response kind of miss the point? It isn't all lives that are being threatened by abortion-on-demand. The point of singling out the lives of fetuses is not to say that fetal lives are more valuable than other lives (although some critics of the pro-life movement argue that it sometimes looks that way). The point is to lift up those lives that you see as being devalued and say, "No. These lives matter, too."

In this context, "All lives matter" seems to be a way to deny that there is a special threat to fetal lives. "Of course all lives matter," the pro-life advocate is likely to answer. "But infants and toddlers and children and adults who have already left the womb aren't having their lives deliberately terminated in nearly the numbers that abortion statistics tell us is going on with the unborn."

Those who identify as pro-life see a society where fetal lives are systematically devalued. In response, they explicitly affirm those lives, lifting them up in an attempt to counteract the social forces that push them down.

As such, anyone who is pro-life has a ready model for understanding what is going on with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and a clear basis for understanding why the "All lives matter" rejoinder is problematic: If you think there is a real pattern in our society in which fetal lives are systematically devalued, you're going to want to lift up those devalued lives--and the "All lives matter" response will seem like a way to whitewash the problem you're concerned about.

Likewise, if you think there is a real pattern in our society in which black lives are systematically devalued, you're going to want to life up those devalued lives--and the "All lives matter" response will seem like a way to whitewash the problem you're concerned about.

But this leads to another issue. Maybe some critics of the #BlackLivesMatter movement are neither racist nor confused about the implications of the "All lives matter" rejoinder. Instead, maybe they just don't see a pattern in which black lives, as black, are systematically devalued. Maybe they think the problem is overblown, and that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is responding out of proportion to the reality of the situation.

Here's where the death penalty comes in--because some of the best evidence that our society devalues black lives in a systematic way comes from how the death penalty is imposed.

When studying death penalty statistics in preparation for teaching my classes, what I found most staggering wasn't the fact that blacks are more likely to be sentenced to death than whites. They are, and that may certainly speak to the devaluing of black lives. But there is another death penalty statistic that, to my mind, more unambiguously highlights the social problem that #BlackLivesMatter stands against.

The statistic has to do with the race of murder victims. By an overwhelming margin, since the death penalty was reinstituted in the 1970's in America, the majority of convicts put to death were executed for killing white people. To be precise, in 77% of executions since 1977, the victims were white. The victims were black in only 15% of the cases.

Now this wouldn't be a shocking statistic if roughly 77% of murder victims in that time period were white and 15% black. But in fact, the evidence indicates that the number of white and black victims in that time period was roughly equal--this despite the fact that the black population remains a minority one in the US. The fact is that if you are black in the US you are far more likely to be murdered than if you're white. And if you are murdered, your killer is far less likely to receive the most serious sentence available in those states that impose the death penalty.

Other studies support this conclusion. A University of Maryland study a few years ago found that prosecutors are more likely to seek the death penalty in cases where the victim is white. A Yale Law School study showed a similar propensity for death penalty decisions to be influenced by the victim's race.

I'm not pointing this out because I think killers of black victims should be put to death at a higher rate than they are. I'm opposed to the death penalty. But the death penalty is the ultimate punishment, reserved in this country for murders that outrage us the most. The point here is that our country tends to be more outraged by the killing of white people than by the killing of black ones.

This isn't because prosecutors and juries are overtly racist. It isn't because they consciously believe that white lives matter more. It's because, all else being equal, on a gut level they are more outraged, more indignant, more horrified when the victim is white. They probably don't even notice this themselves. The whiteness of the victim doesn't leap out at them as a special reason to be horrified. They may consciously strive for impartiality and achieve it most of he time. But the judicial process is filled with judgment calls, gut-level decision-making where no mechanistic rules or objective measures can be applied. Unconscious prejudices, however small and minor, can creep in at every stage--and the cumulative effect of lots of small nudges by unconscious bias can be great.

And that is what the #BlackLivesMatter movement is about. It's about counteracting this unconscious bias by consciously affirming black lives. It's about calling attention to the fact that we live in a culture where, when we hear about a tragedy, our sense of its severity is influenced by the victim's race. And then inviting us to work towards changing that.