Republican legislators in North Carolina kept the House in session after midnight last night in an unsuccessful attempt to override Gov. Purdue’s veto of the Racial Justice Act. The Republican dominated Senate voted to overturn Purdue’s veto, but the conservatives in the House lacked the support they needed from Democrats to cripple the Racial Justice Act.
This morning I was rereading the late Dwight Conquergood’s seminal article “Lethal Theatre” which appeared in Theatre Journal in 2002. For those of us who study theatre and performance studies, Conquergood’s powerful treatise on the performative nature of the death penalty was a game changer. People who do social engagement work in the arts have long known that imagery and public discourse can have enormous impact on political struggles, but Conquergood argues very convincingly that we kill people as a means to prove how just and righteous we are. The condemned serve as the symbolic antithesis of the good law-abiding citizenry who take it upon themselves as a body politic to smite those who have done wrong. We build our freedoms on the backs of those who are not free, and we mechanize state-sanctioned murder to remove individual agency from the act of killing.
Critics of the Racial Justice Act, including some very outspoken Republican legislators, have said that this law is a thinly veiled attempt to do away with the death penalty. In fact, the Racial Justice Act merely strives to make our use of the death penalty less biased against people of color. It is an important legislative move, but it does not go far enough. As Conquergood pointed out nearly a decade ago, we have known for a very long time about the staggering inequities in our justice system, especially in the arena of capital punishment, yet we continue to kill people. This legalizes racism and entrenches popular notions of the criminality of the poor, African Americans, Latina/os, queers, the transgendered, immigrants, and the uneducated.
The battle over the Racial Justice Act rages on, and a House committee has been formed for further investigation. So, North Carolinians, call and email your senators and representatives and do not yield! This legislation was hard won by people who believe that even those condemned to death deserve fair, unbiased consideration by the courts. It’s a significant step in the right direction, and we cannot afford to lose this ground.