We've seen some low points in North Carolina General Assembly moral leadership since it fell under the control of the far right faction of the GOP, but we truly hit a new low last week when 67 Republican and five Democratic members of the NC House went on record as saying it is okay for the color of a person's skin to determine whether they live or die.
Hiding Behind Closed Doors
This successful effort to institutionalize racism in our judicial system began, as many cowardly moves do, behind closed doors, when a bill about school buses was hijacked by House GOP members and loaded with amendments that crippled NC's groundbreaking 2009 Racial Justice Act. Unable to repeal the Act in daylight, House leadership resorted, as is their habit, to closed meetings and obscure procedures to get their way. However much the wording of SB416 changed, though, its essential intent remained the same: by making it impossible for death row inmates to 1) prove racism led to their death sentences and 2) if successful, have their sentences converted to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, lawmakers voting for SB416 put our state on record as saying it's okay in North Carolina for the color of a person's skin to determine whether they live or die.
Every single Republican member of the NC House and five conservative Democrats endorsed this belief. Take a look at most of the Republicans supporting the bill here. These are the faces of people willing to live with the fact that, thanks to them, North Carolina may once again allow the color of a person's skin to determine whether they live or die. They were joined by these five Democrats: Jim Crawford of Oxford, Bill Owens of Elizabeth City, William Brisson of Bladen County, Dewey Hill of Columbus County and Timothy Spear of Washington County. Not surprisingly, you won't find a person of color among these ranks.
Moral Tap Dancing to an Immoral Tune
The lawmakers who voted for SB416 won't tell you that they support one system of justice for white people and another for people with darker skin. In fact, they will deny it even as their actions make it inevitable. They cannot face such appalling moral weakness in themselves. So instead of owning up to it, far right lawmakers did what they always do when they don't want to face their own insupportable moral arguments: they rejected the science at work (in this case, statistics), and they evaded responsibility for outright repealing the law (in this case, by drowning it in rules that render it useless and calling it "reform").
Most of all, though, they climbed up on their moral high horses and sought to deflect attention from what they were about to do. They talked, with righteous indignation, of guilt and innocence (even though the Racial Justice Act does not change guilty verdicts) and of protecting the public (even though the Racial Justice Act does not free anyone, ever). The longer and louder they talked, the more it became apparent that even these lawmakers knew, on some level, that what they were doing was wrong, that it is morally repugnant to institutionalize the belief that it is okay for the color of a person's skin to determine whether they live or die.
Some had more trouble than others convincing themselves that they were not bad people. Nelson Dollar had to wax long, and then even longer, to justify his support for SB416. "This is about monsters," Dollar said. "Monsters. Evil people doing unspeakable, inhuman acts. That's what this is about." All that, even though the bill at hand... wasn't about that. Not at all. Not unless you think it is monstrous for a society to condone letting the color of a person's skin determine whether they live or die.
Many lawmakers also talked of justice, but they were not talking of justice for people of color. Not one of them stood up to advocate that, instead of disabling the Racial Justice Act, steps should be taken to ensure a single justice system for all people, regardless of their skin color. Certainly, none of them suggested that white "monsters" be put to death at higher rates in order to rectify the appalling double standard in sentencing. Instead, they voted to reinstate a system that lets the color of a person's skin determine whether they live or die. They were perfectly willing to accept that trade-off in return for their chance to grandstand.
Make Them Own It
The 67 Republicans and five Democrats who voted to gut the Racial Justice Act don't want you to notice that they support letting the color of a person's skin determine whether they live or die. They want you to believe that they are champions of law and order, that they are speaking up for the victims, that they are simply saving the state a few bucks. Don't believe them. If they are going to pass laws that say it is okay, here in North Carolina, for the color of a person's skin to determine whether they live or die -- than make them own that belief. Hold them to it on the campaign trail and make sure that every single person you know who has ever been affected by racial prejudice understands that these lawmakers believe it is okay for racism to play a role in life and death decisions.
What You Can Do About It
SB416 is now headed for the North Carolina Senate. If you do not believe it is okay for the color of a person's skin to determine whether they live or die, then sign this petition calling to protect the Racial Justice Act. It emails your state senator and NC House rep automatically as well. Or visit here and tell your state reps that a civilized society does not impose different sets of rules for citizens based on their skin color. Tell them to reject SB416 and all it stands for. Let them know that, while their own moral underpinnings may be shaky, you are standing on firm ground, thank you very much, and quite sure that it's wrong to let the color of a person's skin determine whether they live or die.
(Cross-posted from www.progressnc.org)