Troy Davis, Race, & the Justice System

The recent execution of Troy Davis has caused much media buzz. If you’re unfamiliar with the case, read here. According to Reuters, using data from the Pew Center, Georgia has the highest rate of incarceration—1 in every 13 citizens is in the justice system and the average cost of incarcerating an inmate is $29,000 (read here for the full article).  The Davis case inevitably reminded me of some criticisms of our justice system, especially in terms of treatment of minorities—specifically, the 2009 statistic that the prison population is 40% African Americans. This makes me wonder if African Americans are included or excluded in our society and possibly treated differently in the justice system as a result.

Looking back at our history, it is clear that a sense of exclusion towards certain groups isn’t uncommon. One glaring example of this is Paine’s writing. Some of this is intentional—for example, voicing his dislike of the Quakers and Tories. However, some groups are excluded implicitly—for example, Native Americans, slaves, women, and men without property—but it’s unclear if Paine did this intentionally or not. This idea of exclusion is interesting given that we know Paine is a civic republican and theoretically everyone should be included as part of the group, all sharing a common good. However, this is obviously difficult to put into practice. As a result, I would guess that Paine excluded groups who he felt were against the common good—clearly the Tories and Quakers weren’t going to support his revolutionary ideas. However, did women and slaves have a reason to be against the common good? It would seem that breaking off from England could afford them new opportunities—for slaves, potentially becoming free; for women, potentially gaining more equal rights.

I would argue the idea of implicitly excluding women and African Americans, among others, is still prevalent in our society today. There seems to be a fear of “the other”—as illustrated by negative views of Muslim Americans after 9/11, as well as stereotypes of African Americans as immoral criminals living on welfare. For example, it has been shown that African Americans are extremely over-represented in crime news stories, while Whites are underrepresented (Gilliam et al. 1996). Similarly, according to Gilliam and Iyengar’s (2000) experiments, only a five-second exposure in the news to a black perpetrator is sufficient to stimulate an increase in white viewers who believe crime is caused by individual failings and express negative beliefs about African Americans. These two research projects alone begin to illustrate the pervasive stereotypes in our society, one of which is that (white) Americans should be fearful of African Americans. But, we know that these stereotypes of African Americans are false, so why do the media continue to portray African Americans in a more negative light than Caucasians? Perhaps these negative stereotypes continue to persist even back from Paine’s days when African Americans and women were considered less than white men.

What if we took a more civic republican view of the world and said that we are responsible to help each other? That is, we should use the money spent on incarceration to help or rehabilitate rather than “discipline” people. But, then again, in a legal system that arguably takes race into account in its judgments, would this even make a difference? If people like Troy Davis are convicted of a crime and executed, even after numerous witnesses withdrew their testimony saying he committed the crime and a lack of DNA evidence linking him to the crime, is there hope for a more fair justice system?

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3 Responses to Troy Davis, Race, & the Justice System

  1. megsavel says:

    I think you bring up a lot of valid points. I would agree with you that our justice system has a well-documented racial bias as a result of the exclusions that minorities face in general in our society. Also, I think stereotypes about African Americans persist into the present day because of the entrenched system of inequality in society. Those stereotypes are less extreme than they were in Paine’s time, but that they still exist. I believe that those stereotypes are still around because people that stand to benefit from them, those with race and gender privilege, have something to gain by keeping them around. Also because individuals with racists and sexists views are likely to teach their children to agree with them on those issues, further perpetuating those beliefs. People do think for themselves and as racism and sexism become less and less tolerated in society, those entrenched beliefs begin to erode over time.

    I think that our justice system has to incorporate discipline and rehabilitation in order to effectively serve its citizens. Even though our legal system takes race into account, a system that aimed to rehabilitate offenders would help all those found guilty of crimes, so even those that had been unfairly found guilty would still be better off under a system that aimed at combining discipline with rehabilitation instead of just discipline.

  2. chrisjay44 says:

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post. You bring up a lot valid points. I would agree with you that when it comes to race it doesn’t seem that the justice system scales have always been balanced fairly. I really don’t understand how you still can sentence a man to death after 7 of the 9 witness recanted their statement and there was no DNA evidence to link him to the crime. I would also agree with you that the media continues to help reinforce negative stereotypes about African American. And it is not just reinforced on TV; it is reinforced in music, movies and even the internet. I would agree with the previous post that a stereotypes are not are extreme but as they were in Paine’s time, but they still exist.

  3. drullis says:

    The post did a very good job of intriguing me to read more with all of the facts thrown at the reader in the first paragraph. It really does a good job making me step back from the writing and question race and the justice system. It is very evident how race plays a role in our judicial system, whether it should or shouldn’t. It is also eye opening to see statistics such as: the number of African American adults behind bars will reach one million for the first time. It is mind boggling to see the statistics and percentages of the number of inmates minorities make up. The status of our judicial system shows that even over the years, from Paine’s time where they excluded races implicitly to now, racism and inequalities still hold true.
    The open ended question at the end of the post allows for the reader to form many of his or her own interpretations and opinions on the state of our judicial department. It is also interesting to think for a second about the claim you made to take a civic republican view and claim responsibility to help each other in the judicial system; to take responsibility and actually try to reform people as the judicial system is set up to do. The civic republican approach also brings in the practice of private prisons. Privately owned prisons seem so counterproductive to be making money off of people being incarcerated, especially in America where we incarcerate our citizens at a higher rate than any country in the world (http://www.nccd-crc.org/nccd/pubs/2006nov_factsheet_incarceration.pdf). It shows the flaws our judicial system has and that interest in our own citizens sitting in jail cells is not truly being taken into consideration.

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