March 9, Over the past few years many Nevadans have sought to pursue a better future by seriously reckoning with the state’s history of racial discrimination. Radio programs and public forums have held critical discussions surrounding the legacies of “sundown towns” in Northern Nevada and the problem of police brutality in Clark County’s recent past, alongside debates over the presence of Confederate symbols in a state once called the “Mississippi of the West.”
Because of the efforts of scholars and activists throughout Nevada, state legislators have instituted a number of reforms to address issues of structural inequality and under representation, ranging from police reforms in 2012 and 2014, to the recent renaming of the Las Vegas airport in honor of the former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, as the airport’s previous namesake, “Pat McCarran,” held a documented history of bigotry and antisemitism. Though these efforts are laudable, citizens of Nevada must be honest in realizing the state still uses a practice linked to a deeply troubling era of America’s past: the death penalty.
Questions surrounding the use of the death penalty in the 21st Century continue to grip the United States, and as Nevada is one of 27 states that still allows capital punishment, it is relevant to current discourses about the state’s social and political trajectory. Many opponents of capital punishment appropriately cite its significant cost to taxpayers by arguing that it is actually more expensive to pursue a death sentence than it is to keep someone in prison in perpetuity. In doing so, they are attempting to court fiscal conservatives by using an argument rooted in economics and financial responsibility. But there is a moral argument for ending the death penalty that is just as compelling, if not more so: the practice is intimately tied to violent structures of racism that permeated the legal structures in America’s past and that remain omnipresent in the current justice system.
Researchers from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and The Marshall Project have noted the deep racial disparities in and among those who are sentenced to the death penalty, suggesting that capital punishment continues, in many ways, the legacy of lynching that plagued the United States for nearly eight decades (1870s-1950s). Lynchings were used most frequently in the Jim Crow South against Black men to spread racist terrorism and enforce a social hierarchy predicated on white supremacy. These lynchings, though often condoned by local law enforcement, were “extrajudicial” murders conducted by white vigilantes who deemed themselves judge, jury, and executioner. The nearly 4,000 Black people lynched throughout the South were never given due process — and no white person was ever convicted for involvement in the ritualized murders throughout those years.
Though this brand of terror reigned for multiple generations, lynchings waned in number by the mid-twentieth century. However, many African Americans observed that the rise of capital punishment in the country’s legal apparatus did no more than clothe extra-judicial murder within racist court processes. As historian William B. Gravely notes, Black people and their allies viewed the capital punishment system as simply a “legal lynching” — and recent discoveries do highlight some troubling comparisons.
Though the condemned go through a form of due process, researchers from EJI found that widespread systemic racism is exposed by the disproportionate representation of Black men on death row, including inadequate counsel, lack of representation on juries, and racist stereotypes that lead to the harsher sentencing of African Americans in the criminal justice system. For many unfamiliar with these racial disparities, the legality of capital punishment provides a façade that suggests a more just approach to the state-sanctioned execution of incarcerated people, but institutional racism ensures that Black men, particularly those innocent of the crime, are over represented in death sentences.
Nevada now has a chance to join other states in challenging this disturbing legacy. Similar discussions are currently being held in Virginia, as its Legislature voted to abolish the death penalty in February, setting a course to eliminate the practice and become the first southern state to do so. Given that Virginia once held the capital city of the Confederacy and displayed the most Confederate monuments in the country as recently as 2020, this should remind progressive-minded Nevadans that change is possible. In believing structural change is achievable and enacting legislation to dismantle practices that are rooted in racism, we can set our state’s future on a better course. Abolishing the death penalty is a necessary step in this process.