Op-Ed

How a racist myth landed Duane Buck on death row

“Nothing in the world is easier in the United States than to accuse a black man of crime,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1932. Nearly 85 years later, the pernicious myth that black Americans are more dangerous than other races continues to shape our approaches to public safety, even as the best research indicates that unemployment and poverty, not skin tone, can best predict violence.

For our society, the racist notion that color foretells future dangerousness is a moral problem of staggering proportions. For Duane Buck, it could mean death — unless his lawyers convince the Supreme Court on Wednesday to grant him a new trial.

In 1996, Buck was sentenced to die for the murders of two people in Houston. His capital sentence was imposed after Walter Quijano, the defense counsel’s “expert” psychologist, testified that Buck’s race made him more likely to be violent in the future. As proof, Quijano cited an “an over-representation of Blacks among violent offenders.”

Because Texas law requires juries to evaluate the “future dangerousness” of defendants in order to impose the death penalty, Quijano’s suggestion convinced the jury that Buck posed an ongoing threat to society, which warranted his execution despite the fact that Buck had no prior convictions for violent crimes. (Moreover, Buck has been a model prisoner for more than two decades, contrasting sharply with Quijano’s assumptions about various acts of violence he might go on to commit.) 

As Buck himself summarized the dynamics of his case in an interview from prison: “Basically, because I’m black I need to die.”

Buck’s observation — like that of Du Bois — speaks to a historical tendency that began almost immediately after emancipation. Whites refused to treat newly freed people as equal citizens, much less welcome them into society, instead regarding them as a distinctly dangerous population in need of control. As former slaves increasingly found themselves behind bars in northern prisons or ensnared in convict labor regimes in the south, policymakers and social welfare reformers analyzed the disparate rates of black incarceration as empirical “proof” of the “criminal nature” of African Americans.

Although the problem of crime among poor white and immigrant communities also concerned elected officials and academics at the time, it was often explained as the product of socioeconomic factors rather than biological traits. By World War II, Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish and other European ethnic groups had for the most part shed associations with criminality. But the perception that citizens of African descent are more dangerous than their counterparts endured.

Indeed, this stereotype became even more pervasive after 1965, in the context of the civil rights movement and the newly declared “War on Crime.” In an attempt to prevent future unrest, police officials targeted low-income urban neighborhoods with increased surveillance. Meanwhile, the simultaneous rise of a statistical apparatus primarily concerned with measuring urban street crime — as opposed to white-collar crime or rural crime — further reinforced notions about black citizens and criminality. (If police flood black neighborhoods in an attempt to crackdown on even petty crime, of course they will find more black lawbreaking than white lawbreaking.) Racially biased “data” justified the expansion of the American prison system, sustained harsh sentencing practices, sanctioned racial profiling and informed decisions surrounding capital punishment in the late 20th century and into the 21st.

The fact that Duane Buck’s blackness was placed before the jury as a reason to sentence him to death is a microcosm of the racial divisions in contemporary America. The Black Lives Matter movement rose precisely because we live in a country where a man can be sent to death row because of his race; the increased nationalism and white racism exposed by the current political campaign season reminds us of the fears and simmering hatreds that made the rationale behind Buck’s sentence acceptable in this first place.

At least we have an opportunity to make this gross racial injustice right. On Oct. 5, NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Christina Swarns will argue Buck’s case before the Supreme Court in order to convince the court to force Texas to revisit the case and, ultimately, save his life. 

If Buck’s death sentence stands without a new sentencing hearing, the Supreme Court will be tacitly suggesting and reinforcing the false idea that black Americans are inherently more violent than whites, are more likely to commit crimes in the future and thus are more deserving of the death penalty.

As the petitioner’s brief states, if action is not taken, “the risk of injustice to other cases, and to the rule of law itself, is profound.” The Buck case presents the court with an opportunity to challenge the weight of history, the ingrained racial attitudes that have haunted this nation from slavery, and set us on the path to realizing the egalitarian principles upon which this nation was founded.

Elizabeth Hinton is a professor of History and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University and author of “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America.”

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