A Curious Case of Racial Amnesia

Dr. Alex Mikulich, Research Fellow

“Is it a prerequisite for jury service that you do not object to the Confederate flag flying outside the courthouse?”1 This is a real and legal question 150 years after the Civil War. The Louisiana Supreme Court and the Caddo Parish District Attorney seemed to assume that objection to the symbol of slavery constitutes bias on behalf of a potential juror, in the hearing of a death-penalty appeal on May 9, 2011.

As I observed the Supreme Court proceeding, this assumption of the Louisiana Supreme Court justices and of the Caddo Parish district attorney struck me with a sense of the fear that African Americans must have felt during Jim Crow. Yet this is 2011.

The questions of the Supreme Court justices called to my mind Ralph Ellison’s insight that “Americans are notoriously selective in the exercise of historical memory,” and that this selectivity demonstrates “some self-deceptive magic…for in spite of what is left out of our recorded history, our unwritten history looms as its obscure alter ego, and although repressed from our general knowledge of ourselves, it is always active in the shaping of events.”2

Since the Supreme Court nearly declared the death penalty unconstitutional in Furman v. Georgia (1972), juries in Caddo Parish have voted to impose the death penalty on 16 men and one woman. Thirteen of these cases involved black defendants, and research demonstrates that the combination of a black defendant and a white victim exponentially increases the likelihood of aggressive prosecution.

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