Death and Taxes: The Real Story Behind Tennessee’s Electric Chair

Guest Post by Lisa Guenther, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Vanderbilt University

Yesterday, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill to bring back the electric chair as the default method of execution, should lethal injection drugs become unavailable or unconstitutional. While the first version of the bill restricted its application to death sentences issued after July 2014, a last-minute amendment lifted this restriction, making it applicable to those who are currently on death row. Theoretically, this means that we could be facing an execution by electrocution in Tennessee as early as Oct. 7, when Billy Irick is scheduled to be killed.

It is tempting to decry this return to the electric chair as a “barbaric” lapse into brutal forms of violence that do not befit a democratic nation such as the United States. It is also tempting to affirm this legislation as a more “truthful” display of what is really going on when the state kills, and to hope that the unconcealment of state violence will lead to more vigorous opposition. But it’s not at all clear that more truth leads to more activism, nor that brute violence is incompatible with US democracy.

In order to understand what’s happening in Tennessee – and in other states that are currently going out of their way to kill people, such as Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Utah – we must move beyond moral discourses on the death penalty and trace the material, political connections between state violence, economic inequality, and white supremacy in the United States.

Just yesterday, Ta-Nehisi Coates published a brilliant essay in The Atlantic called “The Case for Reparations: An Intellectual Autopsy.” In this essay, Coates traces the constitutive exclusion of Black people from gainful employment, home ownership, and a meaningful sense of citizenship in the wake of slavery’s (partial) abolition. He argues that “white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.”

The activist organization, Bring the Ruckus, defined white supremacy as follows:

White supremacy is a system that grants those defined as “white” special privileges in American society, such as preferred access to the best schools, neighborhoods, jobs, and health care; greater advantages in accumulating wealth; a lesser likelihood of imprisonment; and better treatment by the police and the criminal justice system. In exchange for these privileges, whites agree to police the rest of the population through such means as slavery and segregation in the past and through formally “colorblind” policies and practices today that still serve to maintain white advantage. White supremacy, then, unites one section of the working class with the ruling class against the rest of the working class.

The structure of white supremacy runs through the convict lease system that was put in place after slavery, the prison industrial complex that was founded on its perpetuation, and the death penalty that represents one of its sharpest edges. And yet, capital punishment is rarely included in discussions of mass incarceration, and vice versa. Opponents of the death penalty may note the overrepresentation of people of color on death row, but they do not often join in radical struggles for decarceration and racial justice. For the most part, death penalty abolition remains the project, and sometimes the obsession, of white middle class people who don’t like the feeling of blood on their hands. Hence the intuitive appeal of moral discourses on compassion (rather than solidarity), of forgiveness (rather than liberation) and of a more “civilized” nation (rather than the abolition of white supremacy).

White liberal opposition to the death penalty cannot begin to address the harm of state violence without tracing the white supremacist roots of the very “civilization” that it seeks to defend. In what follows, I will follow just one strand of this enormous tangle.

A recent Pew Poll showed that, while support for the death penalty is lower than it has been for decades (with 55% of US adults in favor of the death penalty for murder), it is still very high among white people (63%) and highest among white evangelical Protestants (67%). By contrast, only 36% of Black Americans support the death penalty, and only 40% of Hispanics. Of all the groups polled in this study, support for the death penalty is lowest among Black Protestants (33%).

Why do white Protestants, and white people more generally, support the death penalty? According to Austin Sarat, “Newt Gingrich onceexplained that thekey to building a new conservative majority in the United States rests with “low taxes and the death penalty” (When the State Kills, 17-18). This is a remarkable admission. What is the relation between low taxes and the death penalty, such that the combination of these factors could secure a conservative majority?

Think about the history of white supremacy in America. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, Joel Olson, Cheryl Harris, Ladelle McWhorter, and others have explained, racial terms like “white” and “black” emerged in the Virginia Colony as a tool for dividing indentured servants, slaves, and poor people more generally, against one another for the sake of defending and enhancing colonial power. Beginning in the 1660s, laws were passed in the Virginia Colony to attach slave status permanently and essentially to black(ened) bodies while constructing a pathway for white(ned) bodies to emerge from indentured servitude into full citizenship.

As Cheryl Harris argues, whiteness was constructed in law as a form of property that – while it may not generate any material benefits for its owner – at the very least protects white people from becoming the property of another, and offers them the symbolic benefit of knowing that, however poor and exploited they may be, at least there was another class of people whose status was permanently and essentially beneath them. In return for this symbolic property, “whites agree to police the rest of the population through such means as slavery and segregation” – and the death penalty. In the end, however, white supremacy “unites one section of the working class with the ruling class against the rest of the working class.” And voilà! There you have an ideal ground for a perpetual conservative majority.

But that’s not all. In “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates identifies home ownership as “an emblem of American citizenship” in the post-WW2 era, noting that this “emblem was not to be awarded to blacks.” This may seem like an issue with little, if any relevance to the death penalty. But in his article, “Capital Punishment as Homeowner’s Insurance,” Jonathan Simon reveals a significant correlation between levels of home ownership and support for “ultimate sanctions” like the death penalty. He argues that fear of crime and support for ultimate sanctions is “higher where subjects begin to interact with the political in and through their ownership and interest in their home” – even if the factual crime rate and distribution suggests that there is little chance of actually becoming a victim of crime (79).

The key point here is that real estate in a capitalist society – like the property of whiteness in a racist society – is not just something that you have, it’s something that you are. (White) home ownership defines the meaning of political subjectivity or citizenship, and its presence or absence supports or undermines one’s effective capacity to make good on the abstract promises of citizenship, including the right to be protected by local, state, and constitutional law. We shouldn’t be surprised if prisoners on death row have no meaningful claim to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment because they have been disinherited – by racism, by poverty, and by a carceral status that is structured by racism and poverty – from a meaningful sense of citizenship.

So when we get upset about the death penalty in Tennessee, let’s not focus too narrowly on the “barbaric” spectre of the electric chair. (Although there is a bizarre connection to white supremacy and Holocaust denial in the very materiality of the electric chair in Tennessee, as documented by Errol Morris’ film, Mr. Death.) In actuality, the law to bring back the chair is probably unconstitutional, given that it proposes to change the method of execution for prisoners who were already sentenced under a different protocol, so it will most likely delay executions rather than hasten them.

What should really outrage us, and which should drive us into the streets and to the polling booths, is the manipulative scheming of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey to perpetuate the conservative majority in Tennessee by soliciting campaign funds from private businesses to oust three judges from the Tennessee Supreme Court on the grounds that they are “soft” on death row prisoners. Ramsey is using Willie-Horton-esque scare tactics, combined with even scarier prospects of tort reform – ooh, tort reform! – to appeal to the property interests of rich white business owners.

If you care about the death penalty in Tennessee, or anywhere, this is what should command your attention. I will try to follow up on this issue in the coming days, but I invite your analysis of Rom Ramsey’s campaign, which has been brilliantly investigated and documented by Phil Williams of Channel 5 News.

Thank you to the Insiders in REACH Coalition for their input on these issues.


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