After an on-duty police officer murdered George Floyd last year, many leading corporations stepped into the media spotlight with big-dollar contributions aimed at supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. That included ambitious plans for new get-out-the-vote efforts in the run-up to Election Day 2020. However, these pledges ring hollow as state legislatures overturn decades of progress on voting rights, with a ripple effect on women and LGBTQ persons as well as Blacks and other people of color.
The U.S. is one of a vanishingly small number of nations that still routinely puts people to death for civilian crimes. The practice is deeply tinged by structural racism in the criminal justice system. That is no accident considering the torrent of white on Black violence that exploded in the decades following the Civil War, a period in which thousands of free Black citizens were accused of crimes, tortured, and murdered by lynch mobs who claimed to have the force of law and moral consensus behind them. Studies have linked the decline of lynching with the rising use of capital punishment up to the 1950’s, primarily in southern states.
Civil rights organizations have pressed long and hard to abolish the death penalty, and Celia Ouellette, CEO and founder of the Responsible Business Initiative, argues that business leaders who support justice reform must also take part in that effort.
“The death penalty is a direct descendant of lynching in every sense,” Ouelette explains. “A University of Washington study found jurors in Washington were three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white one in a similar case.”
The death penalty “embodies the worst aspects of our racist and broken justice system, and by calling for its abolition business leaders are helping to honor their commitments to racial injustice,” Ouellette maintains. “It is simultaneously a tool and symbol of oppression, and by helping to tear it down they demonstrate their commitment to a less cruel and discriminatory future.”
Nevertheless, it is not difficult to understand why business leaders who profess to support civil rights and criminal justice reform are reluctant to speak out on capital punishment. Death penalty advocates have a powerful advantage in the sphere of public discourse. They can simply turn the conversation to focus on the heinous nature of the crimes. They draw attention to individual actions that are abhorrent. No one would want to defend a person found guilty of such horrible crimes, especially not a CEO with the company’s brand reputation on the line.
That focus on the individual has successfully distracted attention from the use of the death penalty as a race-based political strategy. Recent generations of politicians have successfully ridden into office by supporting the death penalty, just as past generations mollified their constituents by justifying “lynch law.”
From the previous U.S. president on down, the death penalty supporters of today win their elections by amplifying the heinous nature of capital crimes, especially crimes involving white victims, and the death row population reflects that continued race-of-victim bias.
The emotional trap set by Trump and other death penalty supporters came to a head during and after the 2020 election cycle, when Trump took the political element of capital punishment and weaponized it to a level unprecedented in modern times.
He pushed through a rash of 13 federal executions beginning in July 2020, a timeline that appeared to be deliberately aimed at ginning up enthusiasm among his supporters in the days and weeks leading to the November 3 General Election. Even after losing the election, Trump continued to ram federal executions through, breaking a 130-year precedent of suspending federal executions during presidential transition periods.
By way of context, no federal executions took place in the entire 17 years leading up to 2020, including the first three and a half years of Trump’s term in office. Only 50 federal executions have been recorded since 1927, and Trump alone accounted for 13 of those 50 deaths by the time he finally left office.
Weaponizing the death penalty is only part of a twin strategy that emerged during Trump’s 2020 campaign. Having used the death penalty to amplify his law-and-order agenda, Trump then proceeded to draw a portrait of an election system manipulated by criminals.
As Election Day came and went, Trump rang alarm after alarm about criminals hijacking the election. Through the office of the president, he provided the moral cover for white supremacists to keep him in office by any means necessary, up to and including the bloody insurrection of January 6.
Unfortunately for those who took part in the events of January 6, Trump provided no legal cover. Hundreds have been arrested and charged for their actions.
On the other hand, scores of Republican legislators have picked up right where the insurrectionists left off.
Even before the mob rampaged through the Capitol Building, 147 Republicans in Congress publicly affirmed that they would not vote to certify the 2020 election results. They transformed a routine matter of paperwork into a powerful endorsement of the idea that criminals had overturned the 2020 election results.
All but a handful of these 147 Republican lawmakers carried out their pledge on the evening of January 6, even after the mob nearly succeeded in its mission.
The stunt delayed, but did not stop, the inevitable certification process. However, the damage was done. Scores of Republican lawmakers in Congress brought the Trump voter fraud canard back to their home states, where they provided the moral and ethical cover for more than 360 pieces of state legislation aimed at making it more difficult for Blacks and other Democratic-leaning populations to vote.
The voter suppression movement now poses an existential challenge for corporate support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and for other foundational issues of corporate ethics including gender equality, LGBTQ rights and immigrant rights.
Ouellette’s concise summary of the problem at hand is that “legislation that groundlessly disenfranchises Black voters will serve to perpetuate systemic racism in the United States.” As a corollary, voter suppression also serves to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters who support corporate action on racial equality and other social issues, and that can put corporate leaders between a rock and a hard place.
“Businesses have growing responsibilities beyond their own operations – it’s not enough to simply do no harm,” Ouellette says. “The latest data shows that silence has consequences: Six in 10 [59 percent] Americans say it is no longer acceptable for companies to be silent on social justice issues and a further 49 percent say they assume companies that remain quiet on social justice issues don’t care.”
“If they are truly committed to fighting systemic racism, they should use their massive voices to speak out against discriminatory policies,” she concludes. “The truth is that employers and investors speak up, policymakers listen. By speaking out against injustice – whether that’s at events, in op-eds, interviews or any other media – businesses send a powerful message to decision-makers about their preference.”
From lynch “law” to the death penalty to voter suppression, GOP legislators who raise the specter of white victimhood are leaning on centuries-old tropes that have poisoned the national conversation for far too long. It is time for those who hold a massive megaphone to use it: or, give up the pretense of caring.
Image credit: Priscilla Gyamfi/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.