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The Voice of the Black Community

Opinion

Support for the death penalty is much higher among white Americans
 
Published Sunday, December 1, 2019
by Kevin O'Neal Cokley, The Conversation

Sentencing a person to die is the ultimate punishment. There is no coming back from the permanence of the death penalty. In the U.S., the death penalty is authorized by the federal government, the military and 29 states. The primary rationale for using the death penalty is deterrence.

The death penalty has been popular for decades. However, support has been declining over the past 25 years and is near historic lows. Critics point to issues such as inhumane killing procedures, a plunge in crime rates and the death penalty’s high cost.

Racial inequality

The racially inequitable application of the death penalty was highlighted on November 15, when, in an unexpected turn of events, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted the execution of Rodney Reed less than one week before he was scheduled to be executed for the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites. The case was racially charged. Reed, a black man, is accused of killing Stites, a white woman, and was found guilty by an all-white jury.

The Reed case is one of many capital murder cases that present an opportunity to critically examine the application of the death penalty.

Since 1976, people of color have accounted for 43% of total executions and make up over half of inmates who are currently scheduled to be executed. In Texas, African Americans make up less than 13% of the population yet represent 44.2% of death row inmates. Nationally, African Americans comprise 42% of death row inmates.

When both race and gender are considered, disparities in sentencing become even more pronounced. Homicides involving white female victims are significantly more likely to result in a death sentence than homicides with any other victim characteristics.

Disparity in beliefs

However, beyond the explicit examples of racial bias in the criminal justice system that typically get the most attention, there remains another, more subtle bias related to the beliefs held by jurors.

People who oppose the death penalty cannot serve on a murder case jury where the death penalty is a possibility. Only individuals who say they would consider the death penalty can serve.

When you examine the numbers behind support of the death penalty, a trend emerges. White people make up the core of support for the death penalty in the United States. Studies indicate that white people show significantly higher support for the death penalty than do black people.

This is consistent with a 2018 poll by the Pew Research Center, which found that 59% of white people favor the death penalty, compared with 47% of Latino and 36% of black people. Among white people, evangelical Protestants show the strongest support for the death penalty, with 73% favoring it.

Prejudice and juries

Why do white people support the death penalty at much higher levels than black people?

According to research, one answer is racial prejudice. White Americans tend to associate criminality with racial minorities. In one study, researchers found that, after controlling for factors including education, family income, religion and political ideology, white people with stronger anti-black attitudes were more likely to support the death penalty.

It should come as no surprise that views about the criminal justice system diverge widely between black and white Americans, with black Americans being much more likely to see the system as racially biased. Perhaps this explains why prosecutors, in spite of the illegality of excluding prospective jurors based on race, still use tactics to strike potential black jurors from the jury.

When juries are more racially diverse, that increases the likelihood that potential racism is discussed. What’s more, social science research indicates that all-white juries convict black defendants significantly more often than white defendants.

 

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