Thursday, September 22, 2011

Dr. Boyce: What Troy Davis Implies about Race and Justice in America

the racial implications of the Troy Davis execution
by Dr. Boyce Watkins, Syracuse University – Scholarship in Action
Many of us went to bed hurt and angry about the unbelievable execution of Troy Davis last night.  As I woke up in the midst of my emotional hangover, I thought carefully about Davis’ case and the racial implications behind this predictable, yet deeply hurtful incident.  When my brain finished processing the ramifications of this state-sanctioned murder, the following thoughts came to mind regarding what the Troy Davis case says about race and justice in America: 
The Chatham County District Attorney is black:  Larry Chisolm is the African American who led the team of attorneys who inexplicably looked past all of the evidence that has come out proving that Troy Davis may not have killed anyone.  Although Chisolm wasn’t responsible for the original conviction, he must certainly answer to his own conscience regarding why he didn’t take necessary steps to investigate facts that have been released since Troy Davis was first sentenced to die.  I’m not sure what law school Mr. Chisolm attended, but I presume they taught him about a concept called “reasonable doubt.”  Any reasonable man/woman would see that there was significant doubt in the case of Troy Davis.  But given the allegations of misconduct that have been placed against Chisolm in the past, I’m not sure if he is a man with the moral fiber necessary to do the right thing in the face of significant personal consequence – in fact, I also can’t help but notice that he’s from the same state as the “great” Clarence Thomas.

Chisolm’s presence as the first black district attorney in his county, and Thomas’ role on the Supreme Court, are reminders that the color of your skin can become irrelevant in the fight for true equality.  While there are many blacks in the south who suffered and sacrificed to create the opportunity for men like Chisolm to hold the positions they occupy today, there are others who are willing to ride the coat tails of our community’s collective struggle.   Men like Chisolm are only given that much power if the state is sure that they aren’t going to use it in a meaningful way – white supremacy reminds us that an incompetent black man who goes along with the program is often preferable to an extremely qualified man who fights for what is right.

The head of the Parole Board is black: James E. Donald, the head of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, is one of three black male members of the board that could have saved the life of Troy Davis.  I’m sure that at least some of these men are having a hard time sleeping at night, for no intelligent human being can argue that this case possessed any degree of certainty.   We unfortunately live in a world where a dogmatic commitment to procedure or protecting our colleagues overrides our desire to do the right thing.  In fact, it sometimes leads to one black person helping to kill another.

White liberals view Troy Davis differently from the African American community:  As I listened to mainstream liberal analysis of the Troy Davis case, I noticed a stark difference in perspective from what I was hearing from many members of the black community.  Liberals seemed to see Davis’ case as part of a broader argument against using the death penalty under any circumstances.   There was almost no discussion about the fact that yet another black man was being wrongfully executed, nor was there much discussion about the mass incarceration epidemic that has served to decimate the black family in America.  The family of murdered police officer Mark MacPhail was right to be offended by the fact that this case was being used as a pawn to support a broader liberal agenda. 

While there was collective outrage over the execution of Troy Davis, very few of African Americans in the Your Black World audience seemed to have a problem with the execution of White Supremacist Lawrence Russell Brewer, who was responsible for the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd (both executions ironically occurred on the same day).  In other words, many of the folks I heard from are not offended by the death penalty itself, but are only disappointed when it’s applied incorrectly.  Personally, I’m not sure if I’d regret seeing a man put to death for killing one of my loved ones – criminals issue the death penalty on a regular basis, and murder victims are never given a second chance.

This contrast in ideology is reflective of the conservative leaning of many members of the black community, especially those who are affiliated with the black church.  I do not consider myself to be a conservative, but am reminded of just how differently blacks and whites still see the world, even when they rally for the same causes.   I wonder if the death of Davis is going to lead to an enhanced effort to fight for other wrongly-convicted Americans who stand behind bars, or if the left is only interested in seeking out more political footballs.

Troy Davis is just one of thousands of black men who’ve had their lives stolen by this kind of atrocity:  The criminal justice system in America has never been a friend to the African American male.  Black men are more likely to be stopped by police, more likely to be arrested when we commit the same crimes as whites, more likely to be sent to prison and end up receiving longer sentences than others. 
Most of the disproportionate sentencing and incarceration of black men results from both the color of our skin and the size of our wallets.  With black family wealth being 1/50th that of white Americans, it is often the inability to afford expensive legal counsel or threats of more prison time that cause many to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit.  An American’s right to fight for his/her innocence without the risk of a longer sentence should not be dependent upon whether or not your parents earn enough money to pay an expensive lawyer.

Troy Davis lives on in the hearts and spirits of those who stood by him.  He has hopefully awakened our collective conscience and given us the desire to fight for what is right.  Troy may be gone, but his death shall not be in vain, for there are thousands of other versions of Troy Davis in nearly every prison in America.  Troy was the most famous black man to be railroaded by the police on false charges, but he was not the only one.  These men and women must never be forgotten and the struggle against this terrible system must continue.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition.  To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here. 


Anonymous said...

Justice has never been sympathetic to peoplel of color, especially black males.A result of whites guilt regarding their role in slavery.There is a fear among whites that they are in danger from people of color.
With the recession, there will be an increase in the hate,blame,etc. towards the Black Cummunity.

Anonymous said...

Well Monday Morning quarterbacking always sounds good but I want to know where your ass was before this went down? Same question for your boys Cornell West, Tavis Smiley, Tom Joyner, Jesee Jackson, Al Sharpton, Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte and scores of other so-called high profile scholars and stars? Chile puleeze. CTFU

Anonymous said...

Dr. Watkins,


You/your commentary is always for the most pat written to incite black folks!

Please show us the evidence that supports that Mr. Davis was innocent, and stop condemning those authorities who are black but did their jobs! Would you say the same had Mr. Davis been white?

As the above poster wrote, all colors, religions, races made their voices heard for Mr. Davis!

Mr. Davis had his case heard to every court possible, and they rejected it. There must have been some reason, and it was not simply because he was black!

While I do not support the death penalty, I have to wonder why there was no outcry for the VICTIM and his family?? From what I understand the man who the victim was trying to protect from being beaten was a black man. Unfortunately, he lost his life!

Please stop presenting articles with your only intent being to incite black people and continue to divide us. As a "scholar" you need to step up your game and check yourself.

Some of the crap you write is insulting to many black people and others,and most thinking black people is not buying it.

DSP Chi said...

Troy Davis death should not be in vain. People of color need to stop the blame game first and accept ownership that they are part of the problem and definitely part of the solution. Killing is killing and sin is sin with that said what are we going to do to save our youth. What are we going to do to ensure that we keep as many from the streets as possible? How will we keep our young ones in school? Let us remove the white man as we call him from the equation, then it is just us. So now what will we do collectively as a people to reduce the amount of blacks going to prison? Troy is gone, let not his death be meaninglessness in a few days. Where are all the Sharpton's and NAACP peoples who wanted to be on TV last night? Where will they be tomorrow?

Anonymous said...

TO: DA Larry Chisolm and Parole Board member James E. Donald, you or yours will have to suffer for the wrong you have done. You hurt us. You disgust us. We, like you, wish you were not of our color.

Anonymous said...

Clarence Thomas and Chisolm are not only from the same state, but the same town, Savannah, Georgia. A city where the Cotton Exchange building stands tall and the slave chambers and iron restraining shackles still dangle from the walls. I say all of that to say this; our city still exists with the ghosts and traditions of our past. Blacks elected into political office are pro-Black before the election and once they get elected they become apart of the status quo (the system). Troy Davis grew up in my neighborhood, to be exact down the street and I too have been victimized by his murder (lynching by lethal injection). It is easier for a Black man in Savannah, Georgia, to be arrested by the police establishment than to get a glass of water from the water company. I live here in Savannah I know and feel the racism and prejudices among whites toward blacks on a daily basis. I am also an ex-police officer__and have seen white cops set the outcome of how they want a case to end. Spencer Lawton is a racist demon from hell with a Law Degree. He wanted a black man to go to jail for the killing of the police officer and did not matter who or which black man fell into the trap everyone in this town (blacks on the street) know who killed the police officer that night and so does Spencer Lawton (a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush). This reminds me of another incident where Lawton was involved, you see entrapment is another common scheme to arrest black men in this town. About 15 years ago 12 Savannah black police officers went to jail when the white chief of police_ department and Lawton created/manufactured a crime to catch a criminal. And 12 Black police officers fell in the trap some of whom remain incarcerated today, and who am I who know these facts; a female black retired police officer/retired military police and more recently ex-citizen of Savannah, Georgia. And about Chilsolm, you got the story all wrong_mostly the white folks left the department because Chilsolm hired a slew of educated, articulate and experienced criminial justice professionals who out numbered the old uneducated folks hired under the "good ole boy" establishment.

DSP Chi said...

Dr. Watkins you are a mess. Troy Davis has a past, you have a past. I am sure we all have done some things that we do not want the world to know.

Anonymous said...

Really, what proof do you have that all the evidence was ignored because Mr. Davis was black?
Stop the blame game, it is this that seperates blacks and whites, latinos, asian, etc. It is killing us as a people. I agree Mr. Davis should not have been killed for, I am not saying he was innocent but that I am against the death sentence, but your story should be about the justice system, not because Mr. Davis is black and some of the law enforcement officals are black or white. If you don't agree that he was guilty fine, but don't say it was because he was black. Really, that is so insulting to us and humanity as a whole.


Anonymous said...

Troy Davis was INNOCENT of the charges levied against him, based upon the preponderance of evidence. Not simply Boyce Watkins or anyone else's OPINIONS.

Seven of the nine witnesses who originally named Troy Davis as the shooter of officer Mark McPhail. That's a FACT.

The witnesses who recanted cited fear and coersion from the police, so they signed statements that pointed Davis as the killer. Three of the nine witnesses used against Troy were teens at the time. FACT.

One of the witnesses who signed the police statement was illiterate at the time. FACT.

Sylvester Red Coles, an armed man who assaulted a homeless man, by detailed witness of accounts of one who recanted, is the actual killer of Mark McPhail. He was at the same pool hall that Troy Davis was at the evening of the murder. Also, Troy Davis actually tried to intervene while Coles was assuaulting the homeless man. Sylvester Coles got a lawyer, went to the Savannah Police and fingered Troy Davis as the killer of Mark McPhail. FACT.

The day after the murder of Mark McPhail, Troy Davis went to Atlanta in order to get job. FACT.

What person who commits murder, goes to get a job, knowing his background will be checked?

Please check your facts before challenging an issue such as this. Troy Davis isn't a criminal, and he wasn't one before the murder of Mark McPhail.


WizardG said...

These are the same kind of men with the same mindset (Obama types),that the Anglo-elite choose from to represent their version of "black" leaders and to use them to manipulate and confuse the populace. We are being played and conned and many of us cannot see this, don't want to hear this, and don't have a clue. America is a very dark place. It has always been and I presume it always will be. African Americans may feel safe here but we are not safe. In fact we are not safe anywhere on this planet because we are targeted by the Anglo-elite and their variety of colorful cohorts!

DueGee7900 said...

In the American Judicial System all are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but the exact opposite has been the case for African Americans. We are guilty until proven innocent, and currently to the forefront is the 2011 lynching of Troy Davis by a Uncle Tom DA Larry Chisholm. Our worst enemies can be our own, who sit in positions of authority playing the role of 21st century Uncle Toms being afraid to use the authority given them to correct adversities, because of the underlying fear of upsetting the white constituents. These type of individuals are worst than the most racist members of racist white society. These men are a discredit to their race for They are neither white nor black they are superficial men merely black on the outside with no backbone they bend which ever way the wind blows.
It was not a question of innocence or guilt because anytime that 7 of the 9 original witnesses for the prosecution recant on their testimony the state’s case is so weak that all charges should have been dropped against the defendant. The further prosecution of this case was not motivated by the overwhelming evidence against Troy Davis but the lack there of and the overwhelming desire of the DA to convict the person wrongfully arrested for the commission of the murder of the officer.

Anonymous said...


And "Thank You", Dr Watkins.

You know, sometimes you just cant reach everybody, but for those of you, who can keep an open mind, would you please consider the following points which concern, upsets, and insults my intelligence, before you hurl insults at my posting as you have sp rudely(in my opinion)at Dr Watkins:

1)In 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States, voting 7 to 2, ordered the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia to consider whether new evidence "that could not have been obtained at the time of trial clearly establishes [Davis'] innocence". The evidentiary hearing was held in June 2010, during which affidavits from several prosecution witnesses from the trial changing or recanting their previous testimony were presented. Some of the affidavits implicated one of the original prosecution witnesses, Sylvester "Redd" Coles, in the crime, and other affiants asserted they had been coerced by police.

2)On the evening of September 21, 2011, Spencer Lawton, the former Chatham County prosecutor who put Davis on trial, responded to what he called a "public relations campaign". Lawton was convinced of Davis' guilt. "We have consistently won the case as it has been presented in court. We have consistently lost the case as it has been presented in the public realm, on TV and elsewhere." Lawton called the witness recantations "suspect" because prosecutors never had the opportunity to cross-examine them.

3)One witness who testified at Monday's parole board hearing said she once heard another man who was at the scene of the murder, Sylvester "Redd" Coles, say that he fired the fatal shots. Coles was the first person to implicate Davis to the police. Another of Monday's witnesses was a juror from the original 1991 trial; she had voted to sentence Davis to death but now says she has doubts. Two other jurors signed affidavits asking the board to spare Davis' life.

2 b cont.

Anonymous said...

Former FBI director William Sessions called for Davis' sentence to be commuted to life in prison, writing in an opinion column Thursday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the case is "permeated in doubt." In addition to the witness recantations and allegations of police pressure, Sessions pointed to a "lack of relevant physical evidence."

But Spencer Lawton, the former district attorney who prosecuted Davis and was seen at Monday's hearing, wrote in a 2008 op-ed in the same paper that the witnesses who recanted their testimony were "not believable."

***and #4- "which should have every citizen of the USA outraged regardless of their nationality or skin hue:

There are so called "Justices" sitting on the Supreme Court-"OUR SUPREME COURT", whom have along with the prosecution/DA and the State and local courts of Georgia, places the burden on the accused to "prove that they are innocent!" Whatever happened to "INNOCENT UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY?!"

Sure we can react and insult one another on emotion, but people please look- NO, SCRUTINIZE the FACTS!

The Supreme Court in 2009 found that there was sufficient evidence that raised doubts to this man's guilt. [Of course Clarence Thomas was one of the only 2 Justices who dissented.] However, Troy Davis was never afforded a new trial. Did you read what the prosecutor said about the witnesses who not only recanted their testimonies, but also exposed the police of coercion & intimidation? Spencer Lawton said they were "unbelievable".

Question: if the witnesses are unbelievable, why were they forced to testify? As a matter of fact, Lawton also said that he and the DA's office didnt have the opportunity to "cross-examine" those who recanted their testimony...umm "what does that tell you?" Are you going to believe that the DA could not call in "their witnesses" or challenge their affidavits recanting and correcting their testimonies?

There's so much more, but this is enough to chew on. I wasn't there, you weren't there; but in the interest of justice where a man's life hangs in the balance, all evidence and testimony must be weighed and examined and cross-examined, and HEARD BEFORE an execution can be called an execution.

The blindfold over Lady Justice's eyes must be awfully soggy just now; for the flimsy & manufactured evidence against Troy Davis is NOTHING to the overbearing weight of DOUBT that has the scales of justice tipped over and scrapping the ground!


Mary Secor said...

As an old white woman, I was totally shocked by the murder of Troy Davis. There were many reasons to ask for a totally new trial. Please, please let us stop the DEATH penalty in these United States. We are so against abortion but we sanction the legal killing of our own citizens.!

Trina said...

Dr. Watkins... Thank you for voicing what so many blacks feel today in the wake of yet another travesty on the black man in America. Many don't want to talk about race because it is a sensitive subject for black people in America, but it is the truth. We are the one and only race that will not stick together. I see it time and time again. We think it's wrong to stand up for our race, but you see how Hispanics got each other's backs...and how far they've come in America. It devastates me to know that the key players in the final phase of Mr. Davis' execution were black. It makes me want to pack my bags and get out of here. I am so disappointed and completely let down.

Anonymous said...

Please keep this dialogue going I need it to bring me peace of mind. "Knowing others are troubled by the murder of an innocent man lets me know that I am not alone in my feelings of disgrace for being an American citizen."

David2001 said...

Thank for pointing out that the head of the Parole Board and the District Attorney is BLACK. We as black people have been conditioned to think that racial diversity and integration would make traditional white racist institutions sensitive to black people. Wrong. This is a perfect example that it doesn't. This man should have never been executed seeing that there was a reasonable doubt.

John Prewett said...

Why are disproportinate % of blacks in jail ? ....

Good question.

Why are nearly all flash mob looters black ?

Why are nearly all gang assaults committed by blacks ?

Why are the nearly all personal contact interracial crimes black perp and white victim ?


No conversation about race is complete without some tone deaf white boy running off at the mouth about blacks killing whites more than whites killing blacks...the 100 million blacks murdered in the middle passage, and millions of blacks lynched, raped, beaten at the hands of white demons savaged by race, dispel the notion that whites dont have that kind of history...if police targeted whites for drug crime like they do blacks 3 times more whites( but number and percentage wise) would be in prisons...crime is everywhere, but if you only go one place to find it, you skew the stats.



Anonymous said...

I am so deeply troubled by some of the comments from African -Americans. People know thyselves, if you do not know from whence you come you will not know where you are going.


Lord the handkerchief heads...smh...

alicia banks said...


more proof that post racial is an ongoing fantasy....


perrbro said...

respectfully: All us white liberals aren't as oblivious as you say here. In my own writings (to Congress; to blog comments) against the Death Penalty I try to quote statistics. Some have to do with how bad the DP is generally as you are saying. But I try to prove with stats the unbelievable bias in how the DP is used. An example of the former: countries ranked by the numbers of citizens they execute, the US is one the big four. China, Lybia, & I believe Iraq (this from memory & not to be quoted).
But the bias is incredible. Where 12% of the country is Black, 40% of the death row populations is black. But it gets even subtler than that. Black-on-White murder almost guarantees a 'legal lynching. With Black-on-Black murder there is a much better chance of escaping the DP. Then, there is the unequal enforcement for drug infractions, all aimed at incarcerating people that can't be executed.
Either way it is a humiliation & disgrace for this country.

Anonymous said...

All I have to say they will have to answer for what they did or what they have a part in. Now his spirit is gone to where all come from and hope his spirit look over the ones of the skin color black for we still down here fightin in the hell of the!!

Anonymous said...

Write about something that will give people hope instead of some thing on which you have no evident to support the claim of innocent. Think about it, How many years this young man was on Death Row? Witnesses recanted, How many years did it take them? Police Pressured witnesses?? Was that verified?? Write about the ignorance that is running amuck in our race without seriously being challeged.


It's always these ANONYMOUS kids that want to be confrontational and tell Dr Watkins and his folk what to write about...cowardly ass up( or woman up) and put your NAME to your comment!

Anonymous said...

To the individual writing this blog--

You do make some excellent points. It is amazing how some African Americans ride the coat tails of others who fought so long to give them the opportunity to have a lead role in society.

However, I disagree with your thoughts on the "white liberals." I am a white liberal. However, I am really pretty sick of affirmative action. I am sick of the notion that African Americans are particularly discriminated against in most facets of every day life. African Americans as a whole have brought some of this burden on themselves. There is certainly a need for reform among members of this community. This reform transcends the idea that white people owe the community something, or are not paying their dues. If you think we're racist, look at Europe where hey throw bananas on a field when a black soccer player is up for a penalty kick. I do believe that many people in the African American community are virtuous. However, there needs to be more of a focus on education. This is something that powerful white americans should be there to facilitate, but it will come from leaders of the black community first.

All of that said, I blogged, tweeted, and called every person I could think of in order to raise attention for Troy Davis. I cried when his execution happened, and I do believe that Savannah in 1989 is a very different place from the northeastern United States in 2011. I have no doubt that both race and class played a role in the states decision.

My main point is that it's extremely important to unite a community. That's what Troy davis did. For whatever reason people came together to fight for his life. It involved both love and compassion for a human being. If the liberal media, and troy wished to use this to support something bigger (the abolition of the death penalty) and a way to unite the community aganist an issue that plagues many African Americans prisoners, I see it as a good thing.


It incenses me that "white liberals"( the eternal foxes that PRETEND to be friends to blacks while not being any different than conservatives on matters of race; they just act more "guilty" about their unearned white privilege...many of these are "Jews" that publicly claim to be friends, while privately stabbing blacks behind their back...its sad that that white liberal cannot reveal themselves as i have)pretend like the systemic racism and bigotry that they gave lip service to 40 years ago went away because they got an attack of guilt and voted for Obama...Obama is nothing more than a Negro manager of WHITE FOLKS reality.


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