Irreverence: The US Penal System vs. The African American

By H. Lewis Smith

In 1991, Troy Anthony Davis was convicted of the 1989 murder of Mark A. MacPhail, a Savannah police officer. On Tuesday, October 14, 2008, the Supreme Court rejected appeals for the condemned Georgia Department of Corrections 40-year-old inmate. The execution date was hastily reset for October 27, 2008.

Mr. Davis’ ruling has cast outpouring support for him and raised eyebrows at the legal system’s ultimate indifference and unwillingness to move on the facts: Seven of nine witnesses who initially testified against Mr. Davis have recanted their testimonies-with two disclosing that the police coerced them into testifying against the defendant and another three revealing that another man admitted to the crime. Even more so, during the trial, prosecutors presented no physical evidence or murder weapon.

For the record, I am not an advocate of capital punishment and this case is a prime example for my position against the decree: Even in lieu of detrimental facts that would greatly alter the outcome of this particular situation-and save a human life, an innocent man will still possibly be put to death. No stone should be left unturned in pursuit of one’s innocence-regardless of the time expended on this quest or when the truth is finally discovered. The revelation has fallen upon unconcerned ears and numb spirits contented with the current judgment-no matter how wrong it may be.

America’s motto: “In God We Trust”. Obviously, the American societal remains morally conflicted; it suffers from a bipolar or selective institution of its morals based on the particular situation-or person. How can the American society, on one hand, teach that killing is wrong, but yet think nothing of sentencing an innocent man to death? When knowingly innocent people are sentenced to die by the laws of the land, is that not murder?

The same nation that has missionaries dispersed throughout the world spreading the gospel of Christianity makes a mockery of the Ten Commandments-especially The Sixth Commandment: “Thou Shall Not Kill”, “Thou Shall Not Murder”. When society reduces itself to defining “law, order, and fair and justifiable punishment” by nonchalantly taking an innocent human life, it debases itself and demeans its value system.

Since the days of emancipation, the U.S. penal system has been arguably viewed as a veiled intermediary-or an invisible net-for the captivity, oppression, and control of the poor and black disadvantaged. White America was outraged when it appeared to them that a black man-O.J. Simpson-slipped through one of the loops in their net. Yet, no protest is expressed for the tens of thousands of innocent blacks placed behind bars for crimes they did not commit; no outrage is dispelled for the legal system’s disproportionate incarceration and unjust sentencing of African Americans; no gripe is made for legal authorities’ arbitrary, brute force and mistreatment of African Americans relative to other racial groups.

As with Mr. Davis, a vast list of African Americans’ innocence has been or can be proven. For instance, after 20 years of incarceration, Rubin Hurricane Carter was finally found innocent; however, his case is far from being an aberration. Assata Shakur, currently one of the FBI’s most wanted, has fled the country even though evidence overwhelmingly supports her innocence. Other political prisoners such as Geronimo Pratt, George Jackson, Leonard Peltier, and Mumia Abu-Jamal unjustly remain victims of crimes they did not commit.

Some argue that the system has improved significantly since its inception, which may be true; however, it has not improved so greatly as to recognize the African American as an equal, a dignified “5/5”-whole-human, and treat him as such. In 2001, figures showed that blacks who killed whites were three times more likely to be sentenced to death than were whites who killed whites. In a study of almost 20,000 executions in the U.S., only 31, less than one percent, of these executions was for a white killing a black. As well, of 455 men executed for rape, 405, or 89 percent, were black; disparately, no white man has ever been executed for raping a black woman.

These startling statistics reveal one of two things: African Americans are the worst race of people on this planet; or support the fact that the age-old slave mentalities of keeping the “Negro” restricted, restrained, and reliant still prevail and flourish fruitfully within the legal system.

African Americans continue to suffer unjustifiable punishment within the confines of this system only meant to endlessly bound and control a race of people. And because African Americans are large representatives of the prison population-beyond justifiable reason, they are often given a negative persona.

Not many decades ago, the American society blatantly and unabashedly categorized a people as sub-human and 3/5 a person, or a “n**ger”. As a result it was acceptable and faddish to look upon blacks as fair hunting game and condemn them to death on a whim. Taking the life of blacks was not considered the same as taking the life of a human being, for the blacks was likened to an ox, an animal. In this 21st century, under the thinly veiled disguise of law and order, is this provincial custom still alive and well? Actions always speak louder than words.

Incredulously, in spite of the stigma and the historical background of the term n**ger, some African Americans embrace the word affectionately and endearingly-which makes them either geniuses or prodigious imbeciles. The geniuses, I believe, have mastered the art of acceptance and are using the very weapon formed against them to remove any power the idiom owns. The nincompoops just blindly use the word because everyone they know uses it. But any self-respecting, dignified African American realizes the stupidity in referring to oneself via a term meant to dehumanize their race; a term that spit fire from the lips of the speaker to burn the spirit of the receiver to disfigurement. A word drenched so heavily in the shrieking screams, sorrowful moans, and innocent blood of a people; whether genius or nitwit, no one respects a FOOL.

The danger in Blacks internalizing the n-word is that the rest of the world may, and perhaps does, take them at their word. And ironically enough, the entire world recognizes that word for what it is-blatant and ultimate disrespect, except those who have been victimized by it: the African American.

The US penal system has never, and from the likes of it, will not evolve into a fair and just system as far as the African American is concerned. As a result, African Americans must consciously remain healthy distances outside the boundaries of confinement-mentally and physically-because once caught in the net, escaping captivity is near impossible.

African Americans must stop recycling the subconscious plight of oppression and degradation throughout the African-American community, and unknowingly pushing one another into the net, by allowing old stigmas and any associations to those stereotypes to live on. Referring to themselves and others as “n**ger” is the main lifeblood of the recurring cycle of separation and subjugation throughout the African-American community: Every negative element the idiom represents is rooted deeply in the subconscious; the more the term is ignited, it penetrates and reveals its ugliness in one’s every action-if one refers to them self as a certain thing, they will embody the persona. High time has come to irreversibly bury the n-word so that the African-American community can collectively rise above and live beyond the modern-day system of enslavement.

H. Lewis Smith is the founder and president of UVCC, the United Voices for a Common Cause, Inc., and author of Bury that Sucka: A Scandalous Love Affair with the N-Word.


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