Race and Death Penalty Essay

All kinds of punishments that are inflicted on the perpetrators of criminal activities in the society are done with the common purpose of conveying the message that any kind of wrong actions calls for consequences and punishment is due to every person involved in any kinds of wrong actions. Most religions preach that wrongdoers face punishment if not immediately then in some future world and if not by the perpetrators then by the society at large. However, human societies do not believe in such abstract forms of punishments and they demand immediate and tangible forms of punishments for wrongdoers. The severity of the punishments depends on the gravity of the crime. In every modern society there are authorities to impose punishments to wrongdoers and the nature of authorities varies with the kind of offenses. For example, a child who breaks the rules of a family at home is punished by his parents or the other elderly members. But, in the society when someone gets involved in illegal activities is punished by the criminal judicial system. There are two major reasons for inflicting punishment on criminals: one belief is that it is fair that people who break the law be punished according to the level of his offence, and the second belief is that punishments will discourage offenders from repeating their wrongdoings in the future and will also put fear in the minds of others from doing wrong. These two beliefs are universal in every human society. The debate surrounding the necessity of punishments including capital punishment therefore does not focus on the “basic principles but on the fairness, appropriateness, and effectiveness of specific punishments for specific offenses.” Because of the irrevocable nature of the death penalty, it is the most criticized form of punishment.

In the United States, racial prejudices were pervasive and played an important role in the decision of the jury in regard to death penalties as “the color of a defendant and victim’s skin plays a crucial and unacceptable role in deciding who receives the death penalty in America.” It has been seen that an offender is more likely to get the death penalty if the murdered victim is a white man. This paper focuses on the racial prejudices surrounding death penalty in the United States.

Race relations

Before studying the death penalty from the angle of racial prejudices it is important to note that racism is a major part of the American society. Since death penalty in the United States is largely influenced by race discrimination, the former provides the lens to study race relations within the country. Death penalty is imposed by judicial power as ultimate and irrevocable punishment of wrongdoers and hence is vital in symbolic sense for both the African American and the white populations. The validity of death sentences raises the question of equality in the court of justice, and in turn the legality of the procedures of the justice provided to criminals. Thus capital punishment is an issue in the legal process that may provide the possible platform for common agreements between races or may give rise to racial conflicts.

Racial discrimination as contributory factor

Capital punishment has always been a part of the criminal judicial system in the United States. The first execution that took place was in Jamestown in 1608 which in later years became a part of the United States. Over the next two decades, executions were carried on only occasionally and by the middle of the seventeenth century some fifty people were executed. Over the next century, the number of people executed reached 3000. In America, during those periods population grew at a steady rate along with the number of people executed due to death penalties. For this reason, when compared to the overall population, the imposition of capital punishment actually declined. However, by the end of 1945, the number of people who were executed as a consequence of legal procedures exceeded the figure 17,000. From the early eighteenth century the majority of those people who were executed legally were from the African American community. This trend continued even in the twentieth century. It is also a fact that African Americans never formed a major proportion of the overall American population. But, when this community is combined with other racial and ethnic groups, they in totality constituted major proportion of the national population thus the result was that rate of executions was much less among the white people. As for gender bias, it has been seen that in American history every execution was of the male gender.

During the colonial and revolutionary period, only about fifty percent of those criminals who were executed were accused of crimes other than murder. Other offences that called for death penalty included a wide range of criminal activities like robbery, forgery, theft and counterfeiting. These actions that did not include any dead victims resulted in legal executions during the eighteenth century, although this trend continued to decline during the year 1786 through the end of Civil war. During this time it was seen that seven out of those who were legally executed were offenders who committed murder. Between the period 1866 and 1945, this proportion increased as nine out of ten people who were executed were those whose offences involved a death. During the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries the pattern of the causes of execution of both American African and the white groups was irregular. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, execution of convicts accused of non-lethal charges declined in both the groups. However, this trend altered among the African Americans after the civil war during which period the number of people from this group executed for non-lethal charges increased and between the period of 1936 and 1945, the rate reached to such height that was unseen since the early nineteenth century. This trend of executions due to non-lethal offenses also increased among the whites although this rate was much less compared to the increased rate among the African Americans. Also non-lethal white offenders were last executed during the period between 1926 and 1945. Although the definition of capital crime was modified after the civil war, the benefits of such alterations were felt more by the whites than the African Americans. In the post 1945 era, the non-lethal offenders were either altogether exempted from capital punishment or else the rate of their executions declined. However, crimes like rape, attempted rape and in some instances burglary or robbery were also regarded as capital crimes. Here too, the death penalty was imposed after racial and ethnic considerations. After the seventeenth century, African Americans who were legally executed for committing rape were much higher that those executed among the whites. During the last decades of the nineteenth century this pattern continued and as a result it could be seen that percentage of African Americans executed for non-lethal crimes increased more because of their growing executions for rape. In the early twentieth century, although this rate also increased among the white population, nevertheless this rate was much lower than the rate among the African Americans. The offenses for which execution was ordered among other minority groups underwent little change. Although executions for rape existed among the Native Americans and the Hispanics, the number was small.

In the legal history of the United States there has been no doubt that racial discrimination was always a contributory factor in the decision making process of jury regarding death penalty of criminal offenders. There has been always a distorted effect of racial discrimination in the criminal judicial system of America. During the period before the civil war, the form of racial discrimination in capital cases depended on the province of authority. But in all cases the discrimination factor was statutory and was based on the race of the victim and the race of the defendant. Moreover, there were legal formalities that denied the allowance of testimony of the African Americans even in cases where facts were irrevocable thus creating even more racial disparities. In the post civil war era there were practically no reforms in the judicial system regarding racial discrimination, although the form of such prejudices began to change. In the century that followed there were “extreme procedural deprivations” by which people were forced to stand as witness and give testimony against the African Americans who used to be defendants in capital cases. Other than this, there was also the fact that during that time all the jury members or almost all of the jury members used to be white and this encouraged racial discriminations in the implementation of capital punishment all over America. This was more prominent in rape cases. By the late 1960s and the early 1970s most judicial systems in all states were modified by the Supreme Court yet racial discrimination still remained by far a large contributor of verdicts given in capital cases.

In the year 1972, in the Furman v. Georgia case, the Supreme Court was all prepared to challenge any inequities that existed during that time in the infliction of capital punishments. The court invalidated almost all the statutory laws regarding capital punishment that were in force on the grounds that such laws prevented fair judgment in capital cases. All the five members of Justice advocated this view as they believed that the statutes of pre-1972 era were not practiced evenhandedly. Justices Douglas and Marshall openly pronounced that capital punishment was inflicted mostly on defendants belonging to racial minority groups. Justice Stewart also concurred that defendants in this case were given death penalties based on racial discriminations which he considered as constitutionally impermissible. Although the remaining two justices remained silent over racial matters, yet it was settled that no Justice concerned with fairness and equality would “knowingly tolerate a system of capital punishment in which race affects the decision who will live or die.” In the aftermath of the civil war, the equal protection law was written which regarded racial discrimination in legal system as a direct insult to the impartial mode of justice, and a clear arbitrariness in the legal perspective. Four years after, the court in other case issues refused to invalidate the new laws on the ground that such laws abided by the conditions set by the Furman case, and in absence of any kinds of contrary proofs it was assumed that the jury would not convict a defendant based on prejudices such as racial discriminations and that the jury would give their verdict only that is suitable to the strength of their case. During this time the justices showed their faith on the fairness of the judicial system and refused to strike down the new laws “on what is simply an assertion of lack of faith in the ability of the system of justice to operate in a fundamentally fair manner.”

However, several case studies in the next decade show that such fairness of the judicial system as was assumed by the justices was not right. In the Maxwell v. Bishop case, it was claimed that death penalty was imposed more frequently on black convicts who have committed rape on white victims. This claim was rejected by the Court of Appeals because of lack of substantial proof although it was based on research done on rape cases in Arkansas over a period of twenty years. Ironically, this same case when cited by the petitioners in Gregg some years later, the Solicitor General of the United States agreed that there was discrimination in rape cases during the twenty years in Arkansas although he refused to assert the claim that racial bias was still involved in judicial system. Thus, it could be seen a beginning of a pattern in which government officials were accepting that racial discrimination existed during a trial. Such acceptance came when the case became officially closed and also the officials agreed that such discriminations were matters of past and because of very few data available it cannot be agreed that such racial discriminations still existed. From this it can be deduced that “one has to wait for more executions before evidence of discrimination will be considered”. In September, 1977 there were 114 inmates in Florida who were awaiting their death penalties to be executed. Among them ninety-four percent killed only black victims, two percent killed both black and white victims while four percent killed only white victims. This statistical data was released during the trial of John Spenkelink and with this arose the controversy whether racial discrimination occurred because murders of white people were more common than murders of black people, or whether the discrepancy was caused by an inherent belief that killing a white person is a more brutal crime than killing a black person.

A study conducted in 1990 by the non-partisan U.S. General Accounting Office reported “a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty.” From this study it was concluded that even if all other factors are held constant, the single most contributory factor towards imposition of death penalty is the color of the victim and it is seen that if the victim is white then the possibility of capital punishment increases to a large extent. The African American defendants are treated with much less sympathy during plea bargaining sessions than the white defendants, as the lives of the former are considered of less value when they are victims. In many localities, it is still a common trend that all members of the jury be white.

Attitudes towards Death Penalty

Capital punishment has always been a matter of controversy with arguments ranging from biblical preaching to economic issues. Two of the most common points that the arguments are focused on are that people who are innocent may have been given death penalty, and there is racial discrimination in the judicial system in the application of the death penalty. The first kind of argument raises the question of fallibility more because with the advent of DNA testing it has been proved without doubt the innocence of many inmates on death row thus absolving them of crime. From this it can be concluded that the judicial system is flawed to the point that unknown percentage of death row inmates are innocent. In 2003, this argument was openly supported by the Republican governor, George Ryan. He issued suspension orders for 164 prisoners who were awaiting their execution based on their capital punishments, on the grounds that death penalty is irrevocable and as such at least some of the convicts may have been facing death row for crimes they never committed. The second argument is based on the belief that racial and ethnic discrimination play a major role in implementation of death penalty so much so that till 2007, a minimum of 38 states formed panels to investigate racial biases. The African Americans comprised a larger proportion of those who faced death rows than their overall proportion in the broader population. Although this statistical data do not prove existence of racial discrimination in the American judicial system, it however creates a perception of discrimination within particular communities like the African Americans. Moreover, the popular consent was that black people who murdered the whites were more likely to get the death penalty that those black people who murdered victims from minority groups. This kind of bias sometimes takes place in a more devious manner like the practice of “jury bleaching” wherein African Americans are not allowed to become members of the jury in cases where capital punishment is involved. Thus, racial prejudices and discrimination in the judicial system is more than just perceptions; it is reality. It is also a fact that the mass public regards death penalty in a racialized form. The white people in the United States often combine the matters of race and crime and maintain a stereotyped view of African Americans as the ones who have the maximum possibility of getting the death penalty. And it is also not surprising that for the African Americans, death penalty is a “highly racialized form of punishment.” In the United States, both the black and the white population equally favour punitive treatment of convicts, but for different reasons. While the whites favour punitive treatment of convicts because of racial prejudice, the blacks are against death penalty because of their inbred fear of getting victimized.

In general, people’s support for capital punishment depends on their views of causes behind criminal activities. A common perspective of people is that they regard generic causes like poverty and laziness resulting in avoiding honest jobs as reasons for crime in the United States. They also feel that crime is increasing because of the younger generation’s disregard of authority. Death penalty is opposed by the blacks largely because of their negative views of the whites whom they believe as part of the power structure that imposes capital punishment on offenders based on their race and color. The attitude of the white population towards death penalty is rooted in racial discrimination. Antiblack Stereotypes is a “measure of the degree to which individuals view blacks more negatively than whites and is created by subtracting ratings of most whites from those of most blacks on a series of traits, such as lazy, violent, and dishonest.” The general people also support death penalty because they believe that capital punishment will put fear into the minds of potential offenders and will reduce violent crimes. This view is also grown from the fear of getting victimized themselves. Other than race, there is another demographic factor that reflects the difference in support for death penalty and that is gender. While the male population is more in favour of death penalty, the female population is more against it.

The white and black populations carry different perspectives of death penalty and such difference is substantial. Any support of arguments for or against death penalty is also racially biased. It is clear that the African Americans are much more eager to listen to arguments of both racial and nonracial nature because such arguments support their existing beliefs regarding capital punishment. It is there inherent belief that the judicial system is unfair and racially biased, and based on this belief the black people respond more to any arguments that support abolishment of death penalty on the grounds of fairness. The white population holds a contrasting view and they can be less persuaded to support arguments against death penalty and in case of racial arguments, they display an entirely opposite response. The most remarkable thing is that the white people actually support the concept of death penalty when they learn that it discriminates against the black population. In the American society, black crimes are caused because of the differences in the nature of perceptions of black crimes between the whites and the blacks. The blacks in general base their assumption that black crimes carry more external causes than internal on their personal experience of mistreatment in the hands of the judicial officials like the police and the courts. On the other hand, the whites in general believe that black crimes are committed more by the black population and so the latter are arrested and imprisoned because they deserve to be punished. Thus, the whites do not attribute capital punishment as cause of racial discrimination because they believe that the blacks are more criminal minded and as such deserve the death penalty. Because the African Americans have traditionally faced the brunt of capital punishment more than the whites, therefore they support every argument that opposes death penalty irrespective of how the argument is framed. The whites, on the contrary, believe that the blacks are more inclined towards committing black crimes and so application of death penalty does not reflect unfairness of the judicial system. For this reason, the whites counter any kinds of racial arguments to such extent that they end up supporting the death penalty.

Whites support death penalty

The general acceptance of death penalty as mode of punishment for offenders by the white population in the United States cannot be supported by any concrete theory. However Unnever & Cullen (2007) suggest three factors that work alone or in combination and they are “racial threat, racial stereotypes and racial resentment.” First, the racial conflicts in the United States are born from the exploitive power of the whites over the blacks and other minorities. The whites use death penalty as a power tool to subjugate the blacks and they have formed an ideology that supports this unjust notion that the death penalty is a necessary way to suppress the blacks and the other minorities. The whites consider death penalty as a much needed process to keep the otherwise “dangerous” minorities in control, and this explains the racial threat factor that plays a role behind the whites’ perspective of capital punishment. Second, the whites embrace a stereotype concept of the blacks and other minorities. The whites tend to believe that the most dangerous criminals and majority of those who are facing death rows are from African American community. Thus, the whites believe that it is the Africans Americans who deserve to be irrevocably punished by means of death penalty. Third, the white people harbor the belief that the African Americans are traditionally dangerous to the society although they are provided with special privileges that are generally denied to the whites. From this belief rises racial resentment and the conclusion that black crime is the fault of the African Americans and not the fault of the society. In this way, the whites support the theory that the African American murderers richly deserve the lethal sanction and imposing death penalty on them is needed for the protection of the society at large. From the beginning of the twenty first century the white majority’s concept of death penalty has changed. They no longer claim racial inferiority as reason behind crime among the African Americans and consider the reasons as cultural deficiencies like disorganized families and communities.


The legal and political feasibility of capital punishment depends on its concept in the minds of the general people. The factors that contribute towards the whites’ notion of death penalty cover a wide range that encompasses demographics, ideologies and racial views. White people support death penalty because of their strong anti-black prejudices. The response of the whites towards death penalty is also sensitive to the social environment. Individuals who share similar views on many matters may have differential opinions regarding death penalty depending on the local area’s crime rate, education level and racism.


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