The history of the death penalty in America is a history about race. While African Americans comprise approximately 11 percent of the U.S. population, they have constituted half (50%) of all the people executed in the U.S. since 1800. In this post, we* begin this series by exploring racial disparities in death sentencing and executions historically and today in the U.S.
Controlling for a variety of legal and extralegal factors, studies continue to show that race of the victim is the single-most statistical factor in deciding who gets sentenced to death and who gets executed. The most active death penalty states today are those where the most lynchings occurred historically (e.g., Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas). See Jacobs, et al., “Vigilantism, Current Racial Threat, and Death Sentences,” American Sociological Review (2005) 70: 656-677.
There is evidence that a defendant accused of killing a white person is more likely to receive a death sentence than a defendant accused of killing a black person, especially if the defendant is black, for example:
- Prior to Furman v. Georgia (1972), black defendants were 12 times more likely to receive a death sentence than white defendants. See Baldus, Pulaski and Woodworth, Comparative Review of Death Sentences: An Empirical Study of the Georgia Experience, 74 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 661 (1983).
- Black defendants are nearly four (3.9) times more likely to receive a death sentence than white defendants. See Richard C. Dieter, The Death Penalty in Black and White: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides, Report, Death Penalty Information Center, June, 1998.
- Defendants accused of killing a white victim are 4.3 times more likely to receive a death sentence than defendants accused of killing a black victim. See See Baldus, Pulaski and Woodworth, Comparative Review of Death Sentences: An Empirical Study of the Georgia Experience, 74 J. Crim. L. & Criminology 661 (1983).
- In an examination of death penalty rates among all death-eligible defendants in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania between the years of 1983 and 1993 demonstrated that the odds of receiving the death penalty in Philadelphia increased by 38% when the accused was a black person. D. Baldus, et al., Race Discrimination and the Death Penalty in the Post Furman Era: An Empirical and Legal Overview, with Preliminary Findings from Philadelphia, 83 Cornell L. Rev. 1638 (1998).
There is also evidence that racial disparities exist not only in who gets sentenced to death, but who is executed, for example:
- Between 1976 and 1990, only 15 white defendants were executed for killing a black victim while 283 black defendants were executed for killing white victims. See this U.S. Government report [opens PDF].
- It was not until 1999 that a white person was sentenced to death for killing a black person in Texas in the case of James Byrd.
- Defendants of color who have killed white victims have significantly higher chances of being executed than other capital defendants. See Jacobs et al., “Who Survives on Death Row? An Individual and Contextual Analysis,” American Sociological Review (2007) 72: 610-632
The questions we invite readers to ponder are these: Is capital punishment in the United States a racially fair system? Are you persuaded by the evidence we’ve presented here?
~ *We are a group of four sociology students studying the death penalty in Danielle Dirks’ “Capital Punishment in America” undergraduate course at University of Texas-Austin. This is the first post of our four-part blog series on race and the death penalty. Please read and feel free to comment or ask questions. Thank you for your time!