Growing up in a conservative household, there were a few things I always knew to be true: government is fallible, government is ineffective, and government is, oftentimes, corrupt.
Contrary to the popular opinion of the left, or the frequently maligning narrative presented by the media, it is for these reasons that conservatives believe in a limited government — not because we do not care about other people. We know government frequently does more harm than good and is the least capable entity of fixing our social ills.
Despite these foundational beliefs, though, many conservatives who are well-aware of government’s flaws would stringently push back on the notion that racism could be found anywhere in our structure. The cognitive dissonance is jarring.
Our laws were first written by people who did not consider Black people to be full humans, and those views continued to be codified for the next 89 years. Following the Civil War, our country allowed Jim Crow laws, segregation, and unequal treatment under the law for another 100 years. Only in 1965 — a mere 55 years ago — did we pass the Civil Rights Act. My parents were both born before that happened.
The idea that in 55 years’ time we could have possibly purged centuries worth of racist polices from our books is frankly laughable. Hi, have you met the government? It operates very slowly and hesitates to restrict its power.
Just recently, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a law that allowed Americans to be convicted for serious crimes by non-unanimous juries. The practice traces its roots back to the Reconstruction era when some states sought to weaken the presence of Black people on juries.
At times the racist intention behind a law is quite evident — in the aforementioned case we had transcripts of lawmakers openly boasting about their intentions. Other times, our records aren’t as precise but upon closer examination, the roots reveal themselves.
Anyone familiar with the legacy of lynchings in this country will not be too taken aback by the operations of our modern death penalty system. In fact, many would argue the former grew into the latter. Just as innocent men were typically hung for alleged crimes against white people with little evidence, no due process, and without a jury of their peers, those sentenced to death row are often tried in courtrooms where they are the only person of color, evidence is circumstantial, and their representation a sham at best.
For all but four years, the U.S. has allowed the practice of capital punishment. In 1972, a U.S. Supreme Court case overturned the death penalty finding that it violated the 8th Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The decision revolved around the arbitrariness in which the sentence was applied — it was so randomly carried out it was as unusual as being struck by lightning — and the overwhelming evidence of racial bias in its assignments. At the time of the decision, 48.9 percent of all executions were of Black people.
States rewrote their statutes, and in 1976 a majority of them revived capital punishment. The new laws were supposed to ensure that our system no longer operated with racial bias, but we have ample data to show they failed.
Instead, our system is overrun with racially disparate outcomes. The race of the victim is one of the primary determinates in who actually receives the death penalty, with white victims overwhelmingly represented in these cases. That’s noteworthy because the death penalty costs at least $1 million in excess per trial. In a country that only solves about 60 percent of our homicides, it’s clear which victims we devote our resources to.
Furthermore, Black defendants make up 42 percent of death row while comprising only 13 percent of our current population.
To those looking to excuse this fact with some version of, “…but Black people commit more crimes!” let’s examine that. As mentioned, we don’t solve the vast majority of crimes. What we know is that Black people are more likely to be charged with crimes, and more likely to be wrongfully convicted. That’s a further indictment of our system.
Be it in the criminal justice system, the public education system, or even areas that concern right-to-work groups like occupational licensing, evidence of the racial bias that permeates our laws is pretty easy to find. So how does it benefit conservatives, most of whom would love to see government scaled back in these areas, to deny the presence of racism in our laws?
Those of us who believe in limited government and individual liberty ought to be at the frontlines of anti-racist work in this country. This work perfectly aligns with our values and belief system. The Republican Party ended slavery, it’s time to embrace that legacy and build on it.
Hannah Cox is the Senior National Manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty.