White Supremacy and the "Texecution" of Marvin Wilson
This past week’s conversations about white supremacy, which were inspired by Wade Michael Page’s murderous rampage last Sunday at a Sikh temple in Oak Tree, Wisconsin, would not be complete without some discussion about Marvin Wilson – a “mentally retarded” African American man put to death last week by the state of Texecution (Texas, that is). According to Laura Moye of Amnesty International USA, Wilson “had the mental capacity of a first grader” and could “barely match his socks.”
Although the discussions on this painful event have focused (and rightly so) on the indecently low threshold by which Texas determines whether or not someone is mentally disabled enough to be given a pass on lethal injection (Texecution has apparently adopted a standard that in effect amounts to a “What Would Texans Do?” inquiry), discussions of Marvin Wilson’s execution could have just as easily turned on the issue of racism. After all, Texas’ capital punishment apparatus constitutes nothing less than white supremacy writ large.
Before I go any further, let me first acknowledge Jerry Williams, the man whom Marvin Wilson murdered, and offer blessings and peace to Williams’ family, friends, and community. The truth is that Wilson’s crime caused terrible pain and suffering, and I never want to lose sight of that fact.
Yet, here is another awful truth:
Since 1976, Texas has carried out close to 500 executions, and “you can count on one hand,” writes University of Houston law professor David R. Dow, “the number of those executions that involved a white murderer and a black victim.” Indeed, in Harris County Texas – which, according to professor Scott Phillips, is “arguably the capital of capital punishment” – death “is more likely to be imposed against black defendants than white defendants, and death is more likely to be imposed on behalf of white victims than black victims.” It is probably safe to say that such racial disparities mark the criminal justice system in other counties throughout Texas, including in Jefferson County, where Wilson committed his terrible crime and where he was tried.
Racial discrimination, in fact, seems to have been at issue in Wilson’s particular case. On appeal, he argued (among other things) that the prosecutor used peremptory challenges “to eliminate black veniremen but accepted non-black veniremen who possessed the same characteristics as the eliminated blacks.” The prosecutor, in other words, made sure that no black jurors would hear Wilson’s case.
Wilson lost the argument, but that fact should not give us much comfort. After all, the U.S. Supreme Court has made it supremely easy for prosecutors to eliminate black jurors: they simply have to provide race-neutral justifications for their decisions. That’s a pretty simple thing to do. Just say that you don’t like the way a potential African American juror crossed his legs when he answered your question and you’re off the hook.
Racist/discriminatory intent has to be obvious in order for intent to be recognized by law as racist -- obvious, for example, in a Wade Michael Page kind of way.
It is easier – or, perhaps, safer – to talk about and confront white supremacy when it comes in the guise of violent, gun-toting white radical extremists than when it comes in the form of institutional practices. Or in the form of a political party’s attempt to purge voter rolls. Or when it looks like Wells Fargo lending practices. Page was a white supremacist! we proclaim. Look at his tattoos! Listen to his music! (By the way, if I were to say “Michele Bachmann is a white supremacist! Look at her Muslim witch hunt! Listen to her claims about slavery!” – if I were to say that, many people would come running to her rescue, a fact which I am convinced might have much to do with how we think about white supremacy and class).
In spite of the fact that Wells Fargo just recently settled a racial discrimination claim with the Department of Justice for $175 million, many would wince at my suggestion that the company proved itself to be a white supremacist institution. Not a word about white supremacy was spoken upon news of the case or settlement. And certainly the issue has not come up in the context of the housing crisis or as an issue that drove the housing crisis. Racism, yes; white supremacy, no.
Institutionalized white supremacy is just as deadly as white supremacy embodied in someone like Wade Michael Page – a fact to which our death penalties attest (indeed, it seems that as long as police, prosecutors, judges and jurors don’t come to court bearing racist tattoos or iPhones loaded with white power rock-and-roll, they can effect (through the machinery of the state) race-motivated killings. With impunity. And, under the guise of race-neutrality and institutional legitimacy).
So why are we having the easier discussion about white supremacy? Surely it cannot be because it makes us safe. It does not (there are more Wade Michael Pages to come).
I suspect that the easier discussion, i.e., the one focused almost exclusively on the singular actions of individuals, allows us to forget, conveniently, that perpetrators like Page are dangerous people who have nevertheless been harmed by their conscious, intentional embrace of a philosophy that many of our revered institutions uphold, legitimize and reproduce, say, in the form of a Wade Michael Page. In other words, talking about and in fact othering those who would carry a gun, mark their bodies with symbols of hate, kill others, and then turn the gun on themselves, allows us to sidestep the difficult issue of the need to transform our institutions – some of which employ us, baptize us, and generally serve to our benefit. This includes, of course, our criminal justice system.
It is also true, I suspect, that the easier discussion prevents us from facing white supremacy in our own lives as well as from facing the white supremacist in our own consciousness. Moreover, by not acknowledging that we all harbor hate (I cannot begin to tell you how many people I have, in my vivid imagination, killed over and over again), we will fail to do the necessary and seemingly impossible work of extending our compassion to the Wade Michael Pages around us so that we might end the cycle of reinventing violent communities and the institutions that reify them.
The senseless killing of our Sikh brothers and sisters, as well as so many unnamed others, clearly requires from us nothing less than a radically different, compassionate, and honest politics and critique.
I offer blessings and peace to Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Paramjit Kaur, Suveg Singh, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Brian Murphy. I offer blessings and peace to your families, friends, and community.
May you, Wade Michael Page and Marvin Wilson, be free from suffering. May your families, friends, and communities be free from suffering.
May we all be free from hate.