Why We Care So Much About Troy Davis

It wasn't racial solidarity but racial vulnerability that made him so important to African Americans.

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The state of Georgia killed Troy Davis last night. Usually such acts are routine in America. Last year 45 Americans were legally executed, about one a week, with time out for vacations and holidays. But a confluence of circumstances and organizations turned Davis' cause into a global phenomenon, with pleas for mercy from such disparate voices as the pope, Bishop Desmond Tutu and Amnesty International.

It's not surprising that the outpouring of concern for Troy Davis, who was believed by many to be innocent of the murder of police officer Mark MacPhail 22 years ago, annoyed people like conservative columnist Ann Coulter. "He is as innocent as every other executed man since at least 1950, which is to say, guilty as hell," she wrote Wednesday.

You have to admire her certainty. People like Coulter have convinced themselves that we live in a flawless society, where bias, vanity, arrogance and incompetence don't exist, and prosecutors don't lie, cheat or make mistakes. It's the kind of blind faith in America that few African Americans can afford.

Our uneasiness about fairness in America helps explain why Troy Davis became such an obsession in the African-American community, to the bewilderment, if not outright annoyance, of some of our nonblack neighbors. As the hours ticked down, it seemed that all of black America was glued to their televisions, computers, mobile phones and iPads, as if watching a perverse 2011 version of a Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling bout.

But in this case we were not waiting for our black champion to knock out the German and prove our worth to America. We wanted reassurance that the fundamental precept of reasonable doubt would apply to Troy Davis, a black man, and, by extension, to the rest of us.

Yes, black America still lives on the brink of fear. For all the progress we have made, dues we have paid, degrees we have acquired and presidencies we have won, we can all recite the story of the father, son, daughter or niece who has gone from citizen to suspect in an instant -- the son frisked, the cousin shoved against the car, the uncle badly beaten -- and, more often than should be, the nephew convicted of a crime he didn't commit or, worse, shot dead by the police.

Most Americans long ago grew bored with the statistics verifying that African Americans are more likely than whites to encounter the power of the state and to be more severely treated -- in arrests, in charges, in sentencing or, yes, the death penalty. As Sherrilyn Ifill points out in her column for The Root, the racial disparities in imposing the death penalty were proved long ago, but the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1986 that the race gap was not unconstitutional. If you are far more likely to be condemned to death for killing a white man, how can there not be a constitutional issue?

There's a very tangible bundle of inequities that defines black Americans -- whether the result is unneeded subprime mortgages, disparities in medical treatment, stop-and-frisk laws, racially coded enforcement of drug laws, higher infant mortality, more severe sentences and, yes, the death penalty -- reminders, that, yes, we may all be American citizens, but some may be just a shade less than others.

The Great Recession has reinforced our sense of vulnerability. Black male unemployment is double white male unemployment. A recent Pew study showed that whites, on average, are 20 times as wealthy as blacks. Another study reported that as many as 40 percent of African Americans will fall out of the middle class during this period of financial hardship. If black progress has not been stopped, it has slowed considerably in the last three years.

You need to understand this vulnerability to grasp why so many black folks stayed so close to the news about Troy Davis. He was no hero to us, any more than was O.J. Simpson, but like the former football star, Davis represented "us" before the judicial system. He represented us in Georgia, a state with a long and brutal history of racial repression. He represented us before a Supreme Court that has turned a blind eye to so many issues of social justice in recent years. He represented us as we thought of our ancestors, our relatives, our children, whom we pray never have that brief, life-changing encounter with "the law" that Troy Davis had back in 1989.