The recent execution of Troy Davis has caused much media buzz. If you’re unfamiliar with the case, read here. According to Reuters, using data from the Pew Center, Georgia has the highest rate of incarceration—1 in every 13 citizens is in the justice system and the average cost of incarcerating an inmate is $29,000 (read here for the full article). The Davis case inevitably reminded me of some criticisms of our justice system, especially in terms of treatment of minorities—specifically, the 2009 statistic that the prison population is 40% African Americans. This makes me wonder if African Americans are included or excluded in our society and possibly treated differently in the justice system as a result.
Looking back at our history, it is clear that a sense of exclusion towards certain groups isn’t uncommon. One glaring example of this is Paine’s writing. Some of this is intentional—for example, voicing his dislike of the Quakers and Tories. However, some groups are excluded implicitly—for example, Native Americans, slaves, women, and men without property—but it’s unclear if Paine did this intentionally or not. This idea of exclusion is interesting given that we know Paine is a civic republican and theoretically everyone should be included as part of the group, all sharing a common good. However, this is obviously difficult to put into practice. As a result, I would guess that Paine excluded groups who he felt were against the common good—clearly the Tories and Quakers weren’t going to support his revolutionary ideas. However, did women and slaves have a reason to be against the common good? It would seem that breaking off from England could afford them new opportunities—for slaves, potentially becoming free; for women, potentially gaining more equal rights.
I would argue the idea of implicitly excluding women and African Americans, among others, is still prevalent in our society today. There seems to be a fear of “the other”—as illustrated by negative views of Muslim Americans after 9/11, as well as stereotypes of African Americans as immoral criminals living on welfare. For example, it has been shown that African Americans are extremely over-represented in crime news stories, while Whites are underrepresented (Gilliam et al. 1996). Similarly, according to Gilliam and Iyengar’s (2000) experiments, only a five-second exposure in the news to a black perpetrator is sufficient to stimulate an increase in white viewers who believe crime is caused by individual failings and express negative beliefs about African Americans. These two research projects alone begin to illustrate the pervasive stereotypes in our society, one of which is that (white) Americans should be fearful of African Americans. But, we know that these stereotypes of African Americans are false, so why do the media continue to portray African Americans in a more negative light than Caucasians? Perhaps these negative stereotypes continue to persist even back from Paine’s days when African Americans and women were considered less than white men.
What if we took a more civic republican view of the world and said that we are responsible to help each other? That is, we should use the money spent on incarceration to help or rehabilitate rather than “discipline” people. But, then again, in a legal system that arguably takes race into account in its judgments, would this even make a difference? If people like Troy Davis are convicted of a crime and executed, even after numerous witnesses withdrew their testimony saying he committed the crime and a lack of DNA evidence linking him to the crime, is there hope for a more fair justice system?