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.


  1. Eric:

    Please review:


    "There is no race of the offender / victim effect at either the decision to advance a case to penalty hearing or the decision to sentence a defendant to death given a penalty hearing."

    "As blacks represent 47% of murderers and whites 37%, we see that whites murderers are twice as likely to be executed for committing murder as black murderers."

    The murder victims are overwhelmingly white in those capital cases where the murderer is executed because the murder victims are overwhelmingly white in capital murder cases.

    Yes, there are about the same percentage of whites and blacks as the victims in ALL MURDER CASES, but CAPITAL MURDERS are quite unique and show cases dominated by white victims, as detailed.

    Folks who know the criminal justice statistics also know that about 95% of black murder victims are murdered by blacks.

    There is an obvious the sky is falling feeling about the way the black lives matter movement treats whites that kill blacks and, specifically, white policeman that kill blacks.

    In that regard, it is a disservice to those who really believe that black lives matter to allow the vast majority of cases to be overshadowed by the vast minority of cases, if black lives matter is your true concern, something that you did not review.

    Note that in one of those I used "murder" and the other I used "kill", as to also emphasize the difference, which is important.

    In the often distressed Ferguson Missouri, both a state and federal review found that the evidence was that the policeman acted in self defense in regard to Michael Brown.

    An undeniably innocent 9 year old girl was murdered while studying in her bed in Ferguson.

    There were no riots nor protests.

    If you cannot see the problem with the black lives matter, in this regard, you are just willfully blind and cannot possibly understand why some folks have non racist problems with that movement.

    It should also be noted that in about 85% of the cases, it is whites that murder whites.

    There is a huge problem in the black community with the high violence rate and there is every reason to have a black lives matter movement, in the context you mentioned, but it denies reality and alleged caring to avoid huge problems, while, at the same time, to blow up important other problems which have less that a 1% impact in black deaths.

    1. As a general point, I want to note that I was looking at the death penalty to exemplify something about our culture as a whole, not because I was calling for the #BlackLivesMatter movement to focus the bulk of its energies there. If you think there is other evidence of the devaluing of black lives that is more powerful, that's fine. But debates about where the movement should direct its energies is a strategic debate that makes sense only once we agree that the movement's purpose is worth pursuing.

      I looked at the blog post you linked to. A couple of points:

      1) Most of what was quoted in that blog was taken from other blog posts or opinion pieces. The exception was the Cornell study, but its conclusion aligned with my contention that the race of the victim was in fact an influence--a conclusion that you dismiss in one sentence with a confident and provocative assertion. Are there reputable peer reviewed studies that have explicitly rebutted that study as confidently as you do, showing that the researchers overlooked what you say they overlooked?

      2) Some of what you quote comes from other blog posts on your cite that reference other peer-reviewed studies. So I started glancing through those posts. But after the third time I found myself suspicious about the interpretation of a quote-out-of-context, I decided that it was too much work to tease from your site what I could trust. I may look myself at some of those studies, but I decided that in general my energies would be better spent looking at critics of my position whose sources and standards of argument I'm more confident of.

      3) The assertion you make in relation to the Cornell study is that most capital murders have white victims and that this is what explains why most death penalty cases feature white victims. If true, this would be significant only if the classification "capital murder" were established in a manner free of significant racial bias. If there are more killers-of-white-people on death row because more of the death-penalty-eligible murders have white victims, but the standards shaping which murders are death-penalty-eligible are in part a function of treating the kinds of killings which more frequently target white victims as more serious because white lives are subconsciously valued more highly, then you've just moved the function of racial bias up one level. In other words, even if your claim is accurate statistically, there is considerably more work to be done.

      But that work strikes me as very interesting and important. There may be a role for a philosopher in examining the standards whereby murders are classified as capital offenses or not, especially with respect to the value presuppositions that go into those classifications. I may take that up at some point in the future.