In the wake of the Supreme Court’s widely-protested ruling in Glossip v. Gross, which maintained that execution by lethal injection does not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment,” capital punishment continues to be an issue of national debate. While the partisan divide in death penalty support has been running strong for decades, significant anti-death penalty organizing can now be found on both sides of the aisle.
Last May, Nebraska’s Republican-dominated legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, leading to much optimistic discussion about conservatives’ perceived change of heart on this long-divisive issue. This new wave of activism from non-traditional allies—a marked shift from conservatives’ typical platform of strong support of capital punishment and a “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice—has come as a welcome surprise to many progressives working toward criminal justice reform.
However, while abolishing the death penalty would clearly be a positive step forward, it is a limited and inadequate objective—particularly if achieved without any meaningful discussion of the racism and structural inequalities that produced and continue to drive our modern justice system. Even if the involvement of this small band of conservative anti-death penalty activists manages to finally tip the scales in this decades-long struggle, the changes most likely to be enacted will be purely superficial, culminating in what Dean Spade describes as “formal reforms that mask the perpetuation of the white supremacist status quo.”
The conservative approach to anti-death penalty organizing not only perpetuates this status quo through the promotion of a harmful “post-racial” ideology, but also manages to enhance support for the rest of the carceral system by centering reform around fiscal restraint, rather than on rehabilitation and justice for incarcerated people.
The unsettling truth about the way policing and sentencing are carried out in this country has been established time and time again; it’s clear that no criminal justice movement can make any genuine change without addressing these problems. Some may argue that abolishing the death penalty will put an end to the racial disparities in whom the state decides to execute, but the alternative to being sentenced to death in an execution chamber is being sentenced to die in a prison cell. Eliminating one unjust policy won’t actually change the number of people dying under state control (or the racial disparities that persist among those sentenced to life without parole). In fact, fighting the death penalty without simultaneously fighting the White supremacy upheld by the justice system at every level will likely exacerbate the problem by making it even easier to ignore.
Ignoring White supremacy is a fundamental facet of conservative anti-death penalty organizing. The clearest evidence of this can be found in these activists’ refusal to talk about the role of race in death penalty sentencing or the carceral system as a whole. Grover Norquist, a conservative criminal justice reform advocate and the founder of Americans for Tax Reform, revealingly accused the Left of not taking these issues seriously because of their insistence on discussing how racism is an integral part of the prison industrial complex. “They’ve left the entire area of reform to the right… [the Left] can’t talk about prison reform for 15 seconds before [they] want to yell ‘racist’… People just shut down as soon as you pull that crap.”
Norquist isn’t alone in his resistance to an anti-racist framework, either. When Right on Crime, an organization dedicated to exploring new conservative approaches to criminal justice, details its “Conservative Case for Reform,” there is no mention whatsoever of race. Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty (CCDP) also tiptoes around this issue, focusing on the fact that life or death often boils down to a “lottery of geography,” and that many defendants wind up stuck with terrible lawyers. The effects of geography and inadequate legal representation on sentencing outcomes cannot be separated from race, yet CCDP rather conspicuously refuses to mention it, as though we are living in a “colorblind” society where race no longer matters.
According to journalist Anna Holmes, adopting a “colorblind” perspective means believing that “race relations are soon to be replaced as a major concern,” an attitude that often amounts to “an attempt by white people to liberate themselves from the burden of having to deal with [the U.S.’s racist historical] legacy.” This is what conservative activists are advocating when they focus their efforts solely on the death penalty and refuse to discuss race—an approach that ultimately won’t do much to address the problems that plague our justice system.
Worse yet, their steadfast refusal to acknowledge how the justice system maintains White supremacy facilitates the perpetuation of these systemic injustices. Their methods, especially the way they talk about incarcerated people, reinforces the idea that if you’ve committed a crime, your life is disposable. Marc Hyden, a former NRA representative now working for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, says that “the question is not whether people who commit heinous crimes deserve to be executed - it’s whether we trust the government to efficiently and effectively carry that out.” Senator Caroline McGinn, a Republican fighting for death penalty abolition in Kansas, echoed this sentiment when, speaking about the death penalty, she “urged fellow legislators ‘to think outside the box’ for ways to save money.”
Their focus on fiscal responsibility highlights how the conservatives’ view of criminal justice reform has little to do with rehabilitation, and more to do with swiftly and efficiently keeping criminalized people out of sight and out of mind. Abolishing the death penalty will simply enable the state to continue doing this in the most cost-effective way possible.
The only exception, when conservative anti-death penalty activists have demonstrated significant interest in saving people on death row, seems to be when the condemned is the “right kind” of victim. When Black people are sentenced to die, these activists tend to focus on the injustice of capital punishment in abstract terms of fiscal irresponsibility and excessive governmental involvement, rather than the humanity of those the state wishes to kill. However, when White women are sentenced to die—especially when they’ve experienced a religious conversion—the story is often completely different. This is where the Economic and Religious Right have found a way to come together: both sides can make arguments against capital punishment that support their long-held principles, whether it’s fiscal restraint or the untouchable sanctity of White Christian womanhood.
For example, religious conservatives were vocally opposed to the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, who claimed to have a conversion experience in prison after murdering two people with a pickaxe. With key leaders of the Christian Right like Pat Robertson fighting for her release, she reached near-celebrity status. At the time of her death, polls showed that “despite Texans’ support for capital punishment, those who favor[ed] Tucker’s execution [were] a minority.” More recently, Kelly Gissendaner, another White woman on death row who converted to Christianity in prison, has found a similar outpouring of support from religious conservatives.
The problem is that only a fraction of the people whose lives are taken by the U.S. criminal justice system are White, Christian women. When conservative activism focuses on the humanity of these women but ignores the lives of everyone else, it supports the justice system’s broader lack of concern for the life and well-being of people of color.
If other red states follow in Nebraska’s footsteps, the U.S. will gradually move closer to a national end to capital punishment. The 40 or so people executed by lethal injection each year will instead be sentenced to death by incarceration, but the question of whether any significant change will have been accomplished remains. If conservatives continue their misdirected advocacy without examining the structural inequalities at work within and outside the justice system, the abolition of the death penalty will be a hollow victory. All the mechanisms of mass incarceration will continue to operate as normal, or even with increased public support and fiscal and political resources. Undeniably racist policing and sentencing practices will continue to ensure that race remains a crucial determinant of who goes to jail and who doesn’t. Out of control incarceration rates will continue to tear families and communities apart, contributing to inescapable cycles of poverty that, in conjunction with discriminatory policies in housing, hiring, and lending, make recidivism nearly impossible to avoid. Incarcerated queer and transgender people of color will still be disproportionately subject to sexual violence, often at the hands of prison guards who will never face legal consequences. Incarcerated people will still be denied adequate medical care and could even face coerced sterilization. And prison guards will continue to employ solitary confinement as a means of punishment and control, a process that amounts to nothing short of torture, yet is used with startling frequency. These are the awful, everyday realities of the U.S. justice system, built upon centuries of systemic discrimination, none of which will be disrupted by conservative anti-death penalty activism.
Working to end capital punishment and move toward a less punitive justice system can still be worthwhile, but only if these reforms are part of a much broader strategy to root out White supremacy—in our criminal justice system, and throughout society.