BUILT to Burn: White Supremacy, Self-Immolation, and Dylann Roof

Guest Post by Leonard Curry

Roof is a product. He is neither natural nor inevitable. He embodies both white supremacy and the failure of white supremacy–that is, like capitalism, white supremacy is self-immolating. Ask yourself, how can capitalism be the “best” system if it is always collapsing? How can white supremacy be “supreme” if a person like Roof exists? He is not Donald Trump or “shirtless Matthew McConaughey;” he is poor, unastute, unpretty, “degraded” whiteness–whiteness that is supposed to stay in the racial closet so that supremacy is believable. He is an old formation of white supremacy that is supposed to no longer exist because the elite white supremacists no longer carry this model.

It is my hope that white and black people alike are tired enough of our white supremacist culture to finally do something about it. Because, believe it or not, there are situations where cooperation and work across racial difference is actually MORE fruitful than racist notions of scarcity.

For white people–

Step one: disintegrate whiteness. Find particularity again. Know your racial histories. Learn multiple narratives. Locate your individuality within community.

Step two: abandon the logics of scarcity; invest in something other than your best interest. Invest in other people. Find a cause that you believe in that is bigger than your own purity, safety, guilt, or lonesomeness. Do explicitly racial, anti-racist work. Do it everyday.

Step three: give up power, share power, empower others, amplify their voices, only know what can be rightly known through encounter and the gift of exchange; be undone by another; learn limits.

Folks of Color–

Check your investments in whiteness. Whiteness is like Voldemort in Harry Potter; you might have to die trying to get it out of you. (Some of us believe in resurrection though.)

You might have to pull a Dave Chappelle. Just make sure you have a community to do this work in.

Finally Beloved, read:

Ladelle McWhorter, Racism and Sexual Oppression in Anglo America: A Genealogy; Emilie M. Townes, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil. These are not easy books because of the content and because of the stories that they tell. But they are worth it. Read them multiple times. And let’s go to work.

Leonard Curry is a PhD candidate in Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University. He is also an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. His current research includes Black radical traditions, anti-colonial and postcolonial thought, critical race theory, and critical social theory.


Protected: Caging as a Collective Praxis of Social Death

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Why We’re Not Celebrating Chief Anderson

 Guest post by Andrew Krinks

Nashville’s chief of police has garnered praise from a wide spectrum of people for his response to local protests against racist police violence. But celebrating a police chief for refraining from harming protesters and defending our right to “express” our “thoughts” only decenters the real cause for celebration: the growing coalition building power in the movement against white supremacy and economic injustice in Nashville and beyond—a coalition and a movement whose message Chief Anderson has thus far successfully refrained from acknowledging or engaging in any meaningful way. Thus, we see no reason to spend energy celebrating Chief Anderson until he concretely joins us in the struggle to dismantle white supremacy and economic injustice—which would mean significant changes in what policing looks like in our city.

In response to protests nationwide against the murder of black men, women, and children at the hands of white police officers, and against the subsequent non-indictments of those officers, chiefs of police across the U.S. have dealt with demonstrators swiftly and aggressively, in many cases with billy clubs, rubber bullets, tear gas, and jail cells. In responding in such a way to protests against racist police violence, police departments have only reinforced the point the demonstrations have sought to make: policing in the U.S. is inherently violent and inherently racist.

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1. There are no rich people on death row

  • 85-90% of people on death row were financially unable to hire attorneys to represent them at trial. They are assigned public defenders with much higher caseloads and fewer resources than private law firms.
  • Public Defender’s offices in both Nashville and Memphis have reported chronic underfunding and understaffing, to the point of not being able to take on a new case (Memphis Commercial Appeal and TBA).

2. There are racial biases in the system

  • A study of capital sentencing in Tennessee from 1981 to 2000 found that defendants with white victims were 3.15 to 75 times more likely to receive the death penalty than defendants with black victims (ABA report, p 284).
  • More than 1 in 4 black inmates condemned to death in Tennessee from 1977 to 2001 were sentenced by all-white juries (Amnesty, p 40).

3. There is too little oversight and accountability for judges and lawyers in capital cases

  • A 2007 study by the American Bar Association found that the TN death penalty system falls short on 10 key points, including Inadequate Procedures to Address Innocence Claims, Lack of Meaningful Proportionality Review, and Failure to Preserve DNA Evidence in Capital Trials. These issues remain unresolved today (ABA report).
  • A prosecutor in Shelby County has been publicly reprimanded by the TN Supreme Court for withholding evidence in a capital trial, and yet faces no disciplinary consequences from the DA’s office (Memphis Flyer).

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1. What the term means

  • The phrase “mass imprisonment” was coined by sociologist David Garland in 2000 to describe the massive expansion of imprisonment in the US between 1975 and the late 1990s. This new regime of punishment differed in two remarkable ways: 1) the sheer scale and magnitude of the increased use of imprisonment in a departure from historic norms and 2) the systematic imprisonment of whole groups of the population without social scientific evidence that punishment has a strong relationship with crime control.

 2. Scale: There are more than 2.4 million people behind bars in America

  • Approximately one out of every four prisoners on the entire planet are in U.S. prisons, but the United States only accounts for about five percent of the total global population. Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated in U.S. prisons has quadrupled. Incredibly, 41 percent of all young people in America have been arrested by the time they turn 23. 12 million people cycle through prison in a single year. 7 to 8 million people are under some form of criminal justice supervision (including probation and parole).
  • Tennessee incarceration rates have gone from just over 100 people incarcerated per 100,000 people in the 1970s to over 400 in 2010.

 3. Systematic Imprisonment of groups: Mass incarceration disproportionately impacts people of color

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Mourning Becomes Justice

Guest post by Michelle Brown

This is the irony or paradox. Political resistance could kill you, well actually the state could in response to your resistance, but the beloved community could save you. Not from physical death. Nothing would do that, not even god. But from meaningless death and despair. One does not negotiate with the state’s use of terror, violent and premature death (actual physical death or disappearance through incarceration). One opposes it and in that opposition finds meaning in black suffering.

– Joy James, “Black Suffering in Search of the ‘Beloved Community’”

Criminal justice in the United States is a project that intersects with race and mortality at every intersection. In laying out this claim, of course, I have the killing of Michael Brown in mind and recent events and actions in Ferguson, Missouri. I also situate this present moment within the growing historical record of patterned, racialized state killing. I mean to point to a kind of disturbance that is foundational, ordinary, routine: Mass incarceration and capital punishment are produced through a host of everyday discretionary decision-making and institutional practices that make up criminal justice, creating the conditions for premature death, like that of Michael Brown. To name only a few of these (and to engage them superficially at best), consider the following:

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The Death Penalty’s Hidden Damage to the Family of the Executed

Guest Post by Susan Hudson McBride

It was April 19 of 2000 when Tennessee executed Robert Glen Coe. That date stands out for me the way a birthday or holiday does. Robert’s family had been driving over to see him as often as they could manage. Each time they came a small group of friends would meet them at a local restaurant allowing them to debrief. This family, Billie Jean, Bonnie, Jimmy, and Frances, would stand by Robert until the drugs that snuffed out his life were administered. And when Robert was gone they would be left behind to grieve and maintain a picture of him as a beloved brother who was set up from childhood to walk a dark path.

It was forty years since the state had executed anyone and they chose a man who was so mentally ill he was given several medications to keep him as close to sane as drugs could do. Robert was different every time someone saw him. He could be thoughtful, terribly funny at times, and then turn on a dime into an angry, difficult being. His affect said there was something not quite right with him. His sisters had seen him horrifically abused by their father. When their father would rape one of the sisters Robert would try to stop it, but he was too small. The father would turn on Robert body slamming his head into walls and throwing him into a fast flowing creek near their house before he knew how to swim. At school he was called names and bullied. When the legal team requested mercy, the poverty, abuse, and lack of local resources and intervention for this family would not be enough for the governor of Tennessee to question the insanity of Robert being strapped with a death sentence.

In 1999 the sabers began to rattle loud enough to get the machinery of death cranked up. Robert had been locked up since 1979 and for some reason the DA’s office needed Robert to die twenty years later. Robert was accused of killing an eight year old girl. Philip Workman’s name, right alongside Robert’s, was accused of killing a police officer in 1982. The deaths of a child and a police officer would reignite the anger of a public who knew little about the facts of either case. It became a media event.

Something happened in the minds and heart of people prior to Robert’s execution. They began to ask questions. Local activists, musicians, and videographers donated their time and expertise to get a message out that something wasn’t quite right. When Robert’s family came to town a core group of people began to hear their story that had not been mined when Robert went to trial. At a gathering of mental health experts one psychologist who had worked on the case said to me, “It’s really too bad he didn’t have a family.” How, I wondered, did a legal team manage to completely overlook a family? Clearly his trial attorneys had been entirely incompetent in their representation of Robert.

Once dates for an execution were set Robert’s family began to come over more often and spend weekends attempting to sort out what was about to happen. A growing number of locals would show up to wish them well. At a house on Acklen Avenue near Hillsboro Village it was not uncommon for there to be a living room full of people singing and eating together with the Coes. They were from a little backwoods town in west Tennessee and quite unused to this sort of attention. We all grew on one another.

One day the family was waiting on a call from Robert while Ann Charvat and I were working on funeral arrangements. Robert called me to the phone. He wanted to know, “What’s the cheapest way to bury me?” I’m aware I’m talking to a man who is in reasonably good physical health about his planned death. I tell him that it looks like cremation is the least costly. “Okay,” he said. “That’s what I want. I’m real worried that my family is gonna have a big price to pay and I want it to be as little as possible.” His concern turned to him being pleased when he learned that several local churches were covering the cost and his family would not have to carry any of the debt. A local funeral home contributed the entire service at their cost with no profit to anyone. It was an odd victory on the way to killing a man.

In spite of the intent by the state to heap up a hateful end to Robert’s life it was the kindness of friends and a few strangers who allowed him to die in relative peace. That the family would be the ones left to suffer fell on very deaf political ears. The forgiveness they have shown makes them all the more remarkable.

Robert’s family continues to reach out to family members of those facing state execution in Tennessee.

Susan Hudson McBride first considered the death penalty as an issue at eight years old when her mother took her on a field trip to see Alabama’s “Yellow Mama,” the state’s legendary electric chair. Since time she has been involved with prisons as an activist for thirty-six years and as part of death penalty legal teams for twelve of those years. In 1998 she began work with murder victims’ family members including the loved ones of those who had been executed. Presently she is a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Tennessee Convict Uprising

Guest post by Karin Shapiro

“Between July 14, 1891, and late August 1892, over a thousand Tennessee miners rose up in arms to protest the use of convict miners in the State’s coal mines.  Most of the miners were white, while a majority of the convicts were black.  The miners targeted three coal companies in east Tennessee: Briceville, Coal Creek, and Oliver Springs, and one in mid-Tennessee, Tracy City.  The largest of the companies, Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company (TCIR) in mid-Tennessee, leased convicts from the State of Tennessee; the smaller east Tennessee companies subleased coal convicts from the TCIR to work in their respective coal mines.  The “convict Wars” (the name given by contemporaries to the rebellion) took place amidst America’s turbulent labor struggles of the 1890s, a period in which workers throughout the country challenged the waxing power of large-scale corporations, portrayed increasingly by unions as fostering unjust workplaces and perverting America’s democratic ideals…”

To read the full article, click here.

“Tennessee Convict Uprising,” by Karin Shapiro. Copyright (2007) from in Encyclopedia of US Labor and Working-Class History, edited by Eric Arnesen, pp. 1366-67 . Reproduced by permission of Taylor and Francis Group, LLC, a division of Informa plc.

Karin Shapiro is Associate Professor of the Practice, African and African American Studies, Duke University.  She is the author of A New South Rebellion: The Battle Against Convict Labor in the Tennessee Coalfields, 1871-1896 (University of North Carolina Press, 1998).


Is Ramsey’s Campaign Against Justices — or Against Justice?

Guest post by Penny J. White

Those opposing the retention of veteran Tennessee Supreme Court justices Gary Wade, Connie Clark, and Sharon Lee are being urged to ignore the three justices’ vast judicial experience – they have served collectively for almost six decades — and consider instead the Court’s capital punishment experience.   In television commercials, PowerPoint presentations, and campaign materials, the justices are being labeled as “soft on crime” and soft, in particular, on capital punishment.

The opposition to the justices is led by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, who at times has admitted candidly that his objective is to “get[] the Republicans in.” But because appellate judges stand for nonpartisan retention in Tennessee, Ramsey has commandeered hot-button political issues to try to provoke the public. A portion of the campaign presentation his office created to share with business leaders and moneyed interests is entitled “Tennessee Death Penalty (or lack thereof.)” It implies that Tennessee is not executing quickly enough and that the Tennessee Supreme Court is to blame.

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Although this type of Machiavellian rhetoric is neither new nor imaginative, its effects are nonetheless tragic. Since the famous Willie Horton ad aired in 1988, politicians have used the soft-on-crime tactic frequently to frighten, mislead, and manipulate the voting public.   Ramsey’s campaign to oust Justices Wade, Clark, and Lee does all three. It frightens the public by implying that in two cases, individuals who had been sentenced to death were “let . . . out [and were] back in [] society.” It misleads the public by suggesting that ouster of the justices will speed up executions in Tennessee. It manipulates the public into regarding their vote as a referendum on capital punishment.

The decision whether a state can and should kill one of its citizens is exceptionally complex. It is affected by legislative acts and judicial decisions, both state and federal; by executive orders and prerogatives; and by professional and public opinion. Suggesting to the voting public that this complexity can be distilled into a simple “for”- or- “against” proposition perpetuates and exacerbates a lack of understanding about the administration of capital punishment law.

Thus, perhaps, even more tragic than the effect on the electorate is the systemic effect on the institution of justice. In response to Ramsey’s campaign, supporters of the sitting justices have touted the court’s death penalty record, advertising that twice as many executions have occurred during the current court’s term as during the previous four decades and emphasizing that the justices have upheld convictions in twenty of twenty-one capital cases. While setting the record straight is important and understandable, judicial campaigns that underscore the number of affirmances in criminal cases, in effect, yield to the opponents’ distasteful and misleading tactics and accede to the notion that accomplishing justice in a capital case is a simple “for”-or-“against” proposition.

Of equal concern is the potential effect that the opponents’ campaign and the supporters’ reactions will have on other judges. In 1996, when I became the only Tennessee appellate judge to lose a retention race, (I hope to retain that distinction, not because of my desire to remain unique but because it will mean that our justices are retained), those who commented on the consequences of my loss predicted a more wide-spread ripple effect. Headlines across the state proclaimed that “Judges Face a Future of Uncertainty,” that “Judges Got a Message,” and that “Ouster Seen as Sign of Clout.”

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Others were more direct in their prognosis. Then-Governor Don Sunquidst famously commented that judges should “look over their shoulders to the next election” in deciding how to rule. Scholars who study Tennessee’s trial and appellate courts argue that judges did indeed look over their shoulders, toughening up following the 1996 election. As one group put it, judges had begun “killing for votes.”

If Tennessee’s judges allow the campaign against the justices to intimidate them or influence their decisions, Ramsey’s campaign to “get [] the Republicans in” could potentially cast the rule of law out.  Our system of justice is based on the principle that law, not power, should govern; that courts must act independent of political influence; and that judges must rule with neither fear nor favor. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stevens observed, “It is confidence in the men and women who administer the judicial system that is the true backbone of the rule of law.”   At the end of the day, the quality of justice in the state of Tennessee will depend first and foremost on the willingness of Tennessee’s judges to remain resolute in their dedication to the rule of law in even the most difficult of capital cases.

Penny White is the Director of the Center for Advocacy and Dispute Resolution and the Elvin E. Overton Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee College of Law.  Before beginning her teaching career, White served as a judge at every level of the court system in Tennessee, serving as the first female Circuit Judge in the First Judicial District and the second woman to serve on the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals and the Tennessee Supreme Court. White teaches and writes on topics related to evidence, criminal procedure, capital punishment, and ethics. She is a strong advocate for judicial independence and integrity and has written an article on the topic — “Relinquished Responsibilities— which was published in Volume 123 of the Harvard Law Review. White is most proud of her authorship of the Tennessee Capital Case Handbook, a book for criminal defense lawyers who represent those facing the ultimate punishment.