BOOK: Slavery and the Death Penalty

"It is widely recognized that capital punishment in the United States of America continues to be imbued with the legacy of slavery" and, to end it, American death-penalty abolitionists "should draw on the radicalism of [anti-slavery] abolitionists." So argues British death-penalty scholar and abolitionist Dr. Bharat Malkani, a Senior Lecturer at the Cardiff University School of Law and Politics, in his new book, Slavery and the Death Penalty: A Study in Abolition. Malkani's book explores the historical and conceptual links between slavery and capital punishment and the efforts of abolitionist to end both practices. His book contrasts the discourse of conservative and pragmatic anti-death penalty activists, which he says accepts the legitimacy of the institutional machinery of capital punishment and the moral values of harsh retributivism, with arguments that "emphasize the inherent dignity of the person facing execution." He says the lessons of history suggest that the latter, "expressly rooting anti-death penalty efforts in the idea of dignity," is more effective. Malkani looks closely at the practical and psychological links between slavery and capital punishment, which he finds to be clear and inescapable. "The imposition of death sentences discriminates along racial lines and is disproportionately imposed on the poor, just as slavery was marked by divisions over race and class. Executions have occurred mainly, albeit not exclusively, in former slave states — the same places that witnessed the highest frequencies of lynchings. And," he writes, "capital punishment, like slavery, is predicated on the notion that some people do not belong to the political and moral human community." Malkani analogizes contemporary "conservative" and "pragmatic" anti-death penalty arguments that portray the death penalty as a failed government program or that focus on the economic costs of capital punishment to the approach of those anti-slavery advocates who argued for incremental legal restrictions on slavery or called for the gradual emancipation of only some slaves. He argues that the morality-based approach of more radical slavery abolitionists — emphasizing that the inhumanity of slavery violated the dignity of the slave, the slaveholder, and the community as a whole — has greater social impact. He believes that the arguments of many modern-day anti-death penalty activists focus too narrowly on the death penalty, giving too much credence to life in prison without parole as a viable option. These arguments, he writes, ignore the broader social injustices omnipresent within the United States' administration of the criminal laws. "[C]ontemporary anti-death penalty efforts," he writes, "must be radical in their visions, in order to inspire much-needed changes to the tendency to view some people’s lives as less valuable than others."

(Bharat Malkani, Slavery and the Death Penalty: A Study in Abolition, Routledge, 2018.) See Books, Race, and History of the Death Penalty.