Blackwelder: Be honest about race bias: Keep Racial Justice Act

By Shawn Blackwelder

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From time to time, each of us is called to speak out about issues of justice and honesty, and I feel the N.C. Racial Justice Act is one of those issues. The state of North Carolina became a model of justice, honesty and courage in 2009 when the Racial Justice Act was passed and signed into law. It simply provides for a court review to determine whether racial bias influenced a death sentence or a prosecutor’s decision to seek a death sentence. If race is found to have been a factor, the defendant would not go free, but would be re-sentenced to life without parole.

Several studies show the strong and pervasive influence of racial bias in our death penalty system. Most recently, a study conducted by researchers from Michigan State University concluded that a defendant in a capital case in North Carolina is three times more likely to receive a death sentence if the victim is white.

We also know from history and statistics that black people have been systematically removed from jury pools in capital cases, depriving them of their rights and civic duties. In fact, almost half of the people on North Carolina’s death row had no or only one black juror on the jury of their “peers” who sentenced them to die. In such a situation, it would be reasonable for even white defendants in cases involving white victims to file a claim under the Racial Justice Act, as some already have.

Like everything to do with the death penalty, the Racial Justice Act has its opponents as well as its supporters in the legislature. Currently, the opponents are directing the conversation, as the N.C. House of Representatives is scheduled to vote next week on a bill to repeal the Racial Justice Act. If this bill passes, it would be a huge step in the wrong direction, and I hope that Gov. Perdue will veto the measure.

I need to say a few words about what the Racial Justice Act is not. It is not an attempt to vilify those in law enforcement or the courts. I have law enforcement officers in my congregation, and I know that because they are on the front lines, putting themselves out there, they are often much more aware of and sympathetic to the problems of race and injustice. In short, they know more about it and do more about it than most of us.

So the Racial Justice Act is not about pointing fingers. Besides, as my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Kingry, told me, “When you point a finger, you have three more pointing back at you.” And in the end, that’s what this is about: pointing a finger at ourselves, because the problem is not out there, it is within — in the heart.

Recently I hosted a press conference with local pastors in support of the Racial Justice Act. We held it in the sanctuary in the shadow of the cross, which reminded us of two things: first, Jesus Christ, who was unjustly tried and subjected to the death penalty and second, that we are all sinners in need of grace. So, it is a legal matter and a matter of justice, but it is also a spiritual matter and a matter of honesty.

There are many others who can point to statistics — real facts, real numbers — that support the purposes of the N.C. Racial Justice Act. However, I’m not that guy. I’m a pastor, and I speak to the second part. Romans 3:23 professes that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” As a Christian, I admit that I am corrupted by sin; and as a person who has grown up in the place and time where I live, I have to admit that racial bias has shaped and clouded my point of view.

The N.C. Racial Justice Act does not seek to point fingers at anyone; rather, it just seeks to make us be honest with ourselves about how our particular sin of bigotry may at times corrupt our attempts at justice in the legal system. And considering the finality of the punishment, that’s something we need to do.

The N.C. Racial Justice Act offers a practical and honest way to improve our criminal justice system, and reduce the historical and institutional effects of our particular sin of racial bias. I want to thank the legislative leaders and our governor for their honesty and moral courage in supporting the Racial Justice Act. I encourage them to continue to do so. It’s simply the right thing to do. I also want to encourage all people of faith in this area to be in prayer for how we might further seek a kind of justice that honors God and shows a love for our neighbors.

The Rev. Shawn Blackwelder is pastor of Riverside United Methodist Church in Elizabeth City