Is there a racist undertone to attitudes about the death penalty in the United States?

There has long been discussion about how the death penalty in America is quite possibly racist, and there’s even been discussion about how there might be a gender bias (only 14 women have been executed since 1976). There’s an element of these discussions not often covered, though, and that’s the idea of which groups (white, black, Hispanic) tend to mostly support the death penalty.

Here’s some new-ish stuff from Pew Research, with the overall idea being that a shrinking number of Americans currently support the death penalty (in November 2011, 31 percent of respondents opposed it; in this new survey, 37 percent did — and the pro numbers went from 62 down to 55). This chart is potentially of concern, though:



63 percent of whites favor the death penalty; that’s only 36 percent for African-Americans and 40 percent for Hispanic. Now, it should be noted that all those numbers are dropping — in 1996, the “whites in favor” category was 81 percent, so across about 18 years, it’s dropped by 20 percent. The African-American number has gone from 55 percent (favorable) to 36 percent in the same time frame. So, maybe it’s not an issue … or maybe it is:

Our cultural attitudes are unconsciously shaped by our collective history as much as they are consciously shaped by our current context. When you consider the death penalty as a tool of racial control—a way for whites to “defend” themselves from blacks—then Pew’s poll results make sense. What we’re looking at is the inevitable result of that history expressed through public opinion, and influenced by racialized ideas on crime and criminality.

There are other studies, cited by the Slate author, that speak to the idea that whites tend to be more favorable towards the death penalty. I’m white and I personally think it’s kind of stupid — I understand people do heinous things and associated families need closure, but it doesn’t seem to be the job of the state to execute others, now does it? — but I also don’t know what else to do; my confusion stems from the fact that having so many people in jail doesn’t seem like the right approach either. I would like to say “rehabilitation,” but I know that’s a complex issue. Regardless, even if I had marginal support for it, I wouldn’t associate that with a racist attitude as a result — but could that be the reason for white support still hovering above 50 percent? Could it be that the death penalty is almost a way to “control” the minorities that whites don’t understand? After all, the overall population of death row has statistically significantly higher figures among minorities than among the general population.

Then think about this: first off, there’s headlines these days along the lines of “If you support the death penalty, you’re probably white.” But there’s more: Florida has never executed a white person for killing a black person, and 32 of the 39 executions last year were based on violence against a white person. This could all be correlative or coincidental, yes, but it doesn’t seem that way. (In fact, the only white person executed in 2013 for killing a black person anywhere in the U.S. was Robert Charles Gleason, whose last words were “kiss my ass” in Gaelic. Nice.)

Obviously anything that involves a society killing people is going to be deeply tied (or analyzed with) issues of race, religion, gender, etc. I hadn’t thought about this a ton before today, and I still don’t think the death penalty is a tool of the white man against the black man — hopefully we’ve come farther than that — but while it’s positive to see the numbers decreasing among all races, there’s still a ways to go here.



Ted Bauer