The death penalty just isn't necessary. Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
The death penalty just isn't necessary. Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Imprisonment in the U.S. has historically been rife with racial bias. Should we react to that history by trying to reform our criminal-justice system? Or should we abandon that effort as a naive attempt to wish away our deeply ingrained biases, and instead abolish prisons altogether?

The answer, as I should think is obvious, is that we should try to reform the system, because we need prisons. The history of racial disparity doesn't settle the issue by itself.

Whether the death penalty today shows the same kinds of racial disparities is a contested issue. The crucial difference between it and prison is that we don't need executions. That's the key premise behind my opposition to the death penalty.

And that's why, when I criticized the death penalty in a recent column, I noted that allegations of racial disparities in its administration aren't the decisive issue. As I wrote, we could fix any racial disparity by executing more white murderers.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer at the Atlantic, has taken this three-sentence aside and built a short essay out of it, his main point being that my understanding of racism in America is woefully inadequate. He writes as though I were seriously proposing that we sentence more white murderers to death -- even though I explicitly say in the article, more than once, that I oppose anyone being executed. (Coates allows that I am "ostensibly arguing against the death penalty" -- "ostensibly," I suppose, in the sense that my headline, thesis paragraph and conclusion all declare my opposition.)

This putative proposal of mine, he says, assumes that we could have a death penalty administered fairly, and he repeatedly asserts that this assumption is false. Coates mistakes repetition in assertion for proof, by the way. But there's no reason to dwell on that point, because -- again -- I wasn't making a proposal that invited practical objections and counterarguments; I was illustrating a point.

Coates then brings up William F. Buckley Jr.'s argument, from the 1960s, in favor of literacy tests for voting. Buckley said that the voting problem in the South wasn't that too many blacks were denied the franchise but that too many whites had it. Coates finds this argument a fine parallel with my own. He ignores three points.

First and most important, Buckley was actually advocating a literacy test and -- I can't stress this point enough -- my column was advocating an end to capital punishment.

Second, everyone understands (as Buckley should have understood then) that the race-neutral literacy tests he was advocating were entirely pretextual, whereas the point and purpose of the death penalty today is not to oppress black people.

Third, an important reason most of us disagree with Buckley's proposal is that we think we're wronging someone when we deny him the vote on the basis of illiteracy (or "illiteracy"). If we assume that we're wronging someone when we execute him, then we're begging one of the crucial questions in the death-penalty debate. If we think we're committing a wrong, that is, then we don't need to inquire about the racial justice of the death penalty to know what to do about the death penalty. Any racial injustice is a surplus reason for abolition.

Coates's outrageous closing remark about me inadvertently makes the point: "There's something revealed in the logic -- in both Ponnuru and Buckley's case -- that we should fix disproportion by making more white people into niggers."

Just to review, my actual proposal is that we refrain from executing anybody. But leave that aside. Coates's words are incomprehensible unless we assume that executing people is (at the very least) wrong, and is wrong even when we are executing white people. Which means that the root problem here is not racial, exactly as I wrote.

To contact the writer of this article: Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.