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Even on Death Row, there’s no escape from racism and discrimination for Black women

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When the State places its noose around a white woman’s neck, the world cries foul.

On Jan. 13, Lisa Montgomery, a white woman, was led to the death chamber [2]. The federal government used its weapon of choice, lethal injection, to kill her. She was the first woman executed by the federal government in 68 years.

Widely condemned, her execution was seen as a tragic killing of a victim of horrific sexual and physical abuse. Major publications like The New York Times and Rolling Stone condemned her death sentence. More than 312,000 people signed a petition to stop her execution.

To be sure, Lisa Montgomery’s execution was a tragedy. But the outcry only underscored the public’s silence about the death sentences of Black women.

In contrast to white women, Black women are disproportionately sentenced to die. In the United States, Black women make up more than 25% of women sentenced to death, almost double their population size. North Carolina is even worse. Of the 39 women sentenced to death in North Carolina, 61% were Black.

The lack of sympathy extended to Black women is apparent in the case of Rosanna Phillips, a Black woman executed on New Year’s Day in 1943. At 26 years old, Rosanna had allegedly killed her white employer in North Carolina. Described by the State as “irredeemably violent” and “unwomanlike,” Rosanna was sentenced to death in less than 50 minutes. Despite credible evidence of her innocence, Rosanna was executed by gas chamber with no protests and no petitions.

This deafening silence remains today. From 2001 to 2014, four Black women were executed in the United States: Wanda Jean Allen, Frances Newton, Kimberly McCarthy and Lisa Coleman. Despite each woman’s history of trauma and abuse, none received the same level of public concern as Montgomery’s execution.

The silence around these executions is in part because, unlike white women, Black women on death row are not viewed as tragic figures or women in need of mercy. They are seen as devils, fiends, demons; as women deserving of death.

This is partially because of the distorted filters through which we see women in our culture. White women are typically seen as pure, weak and in need of protection. For Black women, more sinister stereotypes predominate. Black women are often viewed in terms of three dehumanizing stereotypes: Mammys, Jezebels or Sapphires.

The Mammy stereotype arose from the sin of slavery as a way to justify turning human beings into property. Mammys were heavy-set, maternal figures who lived to serve their white masters. When Black women resisted the Mammy trope, they were in effect saying that they were not content with oppression or submissive to white power. When Black women violently rejected the Mammy role and attacked white masters, the State responded with violence. In the United States, almost half of the over 400 women executed were enslaved.

Even after slavery, the Mammy stereotype continued to cast Black women as having one purpose: taking care of whites. In capital cases, Black female defendants are often portrayed as Mammys committing the ultimate betrayal by killing whites.

This stereotype had severe consequences for Carlette Parker, a Black woman sentenced to death in 1999 and currently on North Carolina’s death row. Carlette was a domestic worker who cared for others, primarily white people. After being charged with killing a white woman, the State consistently described her as a heavy-set Black woman who betrayed white Southerners. Carlette’s body became a focus of the crime, as the prosecutor compared her large size and Black skin with the frail body of the white victim.

The Jezebel stereotype, created to justify white slave owners’ rapes of enslaved women, portrays Black women as hypersexual. And the Sapphire stereotype portrays them as brutal and masculine, causing violence and deserving whatever violence is inflicted upon them.

These harmful stereotypes have infected the capital punishment system. The sympathy jurors may feel for white women is rarely extended to Black women, even when they have experienced severe trauma and abuse. Like Yvette Gay, who was sentenced to death in 1990 despite enduring years of beatings and threats from her partner. The scars on her arms, the records of hospital visits, and the testimony of her family were not enough to mitigate her punishment.

Where is the public outcry against Black women sentenced to death? For those who remain on death row? For the indignity of their executions? There is nothing but silence. Black women continue to be sentenced to death in a system that does not think they matter.

As we raise our voices against the death penalty, we must not forget the distinct experience of Black women on death row.

Kailey Morgan is a second-year student at Duke Law who has researched and written about Black women and the death penalty in North Carolina. She is focused on capital litigation and has interned at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation [3].