New Research: Confronting Racism Boosts Self-Esteem

A new study of Filipino Americans by researchers at San Francisco State University demonstrates that confronting racism helps boost self-esteem for some.
The study was conducted by Alvin Alvarez, professor of counseling at San Francisco State University and Linda Juang, associate professor of psychology.  They are co-authors on a new article, “Filipino Americans and Racism: A Multiple Mediation Model of Coping,” which appears in the latest issue of the Journal of Counseling Psychology.  Alvarez surveyed 199 Filipino American adults, both men and women, in the San Francisco Bay Area and found that 99 percent of participants had experienced at least one incident of everyday racism in the last year.   The study focused on “everyday racism” — subtle, commonplace forms of discrimination, such as being ignored, ridiculed or treated differently.  In an interview, lead researcher Alvarez explained:

“These are incidents that may seem innocent and small, but cumulatively they can have a powerful impact on an individual’s mental health. Trying to ignore these insidious incidents could become taxing and debilitating over time, chipping away at a person’s spirit.”

For men in the study, dealing with racism in an active way, such as reporting incidents to authorities or challenging the perpetrator, was associated with decreased distress and increased self esteem.  The authors caution that what makes a healthy coping mechanism is influenced by such factors as gender, socioeconomic status, age, English language capacity and length of residency in the United States.  There seems to be a different dynamic at work for women in the study who did not report the positive self-esteem boost associated with “active coping,” in the same way that men did.  For women, the “avoidance” coping strategy increased psychological distress and decrease self-esteem.

“What’s striking is we found that racism is still happening to Filipinos. Therapists need to look beyond the frequent portrayal of Asian Americans as model minorities and help clients assess what their best coping strategy could be, depending on their resources, what’s feasible and who they could turn to for support.”

Of course, this new research lends further support to the argument that Rosalind Chou and Joe Feagin have done in their book, The Myth of the Model Minority, in which they document the widespread experience of everyday racism among Asian Americans.

Analysis: “The McVeigh Tapes”

Tonight, MSNBC aired “The McVeigh Tapes,” a television documentary about the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  Lou Michel, author of American Terrorist, recorded the interviews with McVeigh while he was in prison awaiting execution. The description of the piece from MSNBC’s site says:

“Drawing from 45 hours of never-before-released interview audiotapes recorded during McVeigh’s prison stay, the film reveals the bomber’s descriptions of the planning and execution of the horrific attack and offers insight into how a decorated American soldier became a dangerous, anti-government terrorist.”

The show did much more of the former, focusing almost exclusively on “descriptions of the planning and execution of the horrific attack” and very little on “how a decorated American soldier” became a terrorist.  The 2-hour news show was a standard re-enactment of the events leading up to the attack.   There were two elements to the story that made it cable-television-worthy: 1) the audio tapes and 2) the computer graphics in which an actor played Tim McVeigh, and then graphic artists altered the face to look more or less like McVeigh.   Personally, I found the computer graphics distracting (my partner said “it’s working for me,” so clearly, people disagree on how effective these were).   The really compelling story at the heart of this, though, was the juxtaposition of McVeigh’s cold, emotionless voice recounting his actions set against the horrific damage done to the victims, many of them children.   People today in Oklahoma City continue to walk through the pain that he left in their lives, either through injuries that linger or through the grief they continue to carry for loved ones.   For his part, the McVeigh in the tapes is beyond remorseless, he’s “content and peaceful” that he has succeeded in carrying out his plot to take as many people with him as possible in his “state-assisted suicide.”

The events of April 19, 1995 are methodically retold here with little that’s actually new.  There is an enormous amount of detail on how they (McVeigh and his accomplice Nichols) built the bomb inside the rented Ryder truck, so much detail in fact, that I winced while listening to it wondering if it were offering a blueprint for others watching the show.  This reenactment is serviceable enough, as such things go, but not really compelling television.  The reason that I, and I suspect millions of others, tuned in was for the second part of the tease – the “how a decorated American soldier” became a terrorist bit.   This is where viewers with any interest in the racial ideology that motivated McVeigh will be disappointed because it is a story completely denuded of any discussion of race.

At the time of the bombing, Timothy McVeigh was not officially a member of any white supremacist group.  Yet, he was radicalized by his reading of The Turner Diaries, a dystopian white supremacist novel written by William Pierce under the pseudonym “Andrew McDonald.”  The Turner Diaries depicts a violent revolution and race war, that leads to the elimination of all Jews, non-whites and ‘white race traitors.’   In the week after the Oklahoma City bombing, an article in The New York Times called the novel “explicitly racist and anti-Semitic.”  The article in The New York Times went on to note that the Oklahoma City bombing had been “foretold” in this “Bible of the Extreme Right.” One of the central ideas in The Turner Diaries and in white supremacist ideology is the equivalency of “government” with “Jewish interests,” or simply “Jews.”    In fact, in this rhetoric the federal government is often referred to as “Z.O.G.” which stands for “Zionist Occupied Government.”  The language about “anti-government” in white supremacist rhetoric is almost always code for “anti-Jewish.”  A key theme in this racial ideology is that “Z.O.G.” is trying to ruin the white race by encouraging “race-mixing” (marriage and children across racial lines).

The importance of this text to McVeigh’s radicalization as a white supremacist terrorist cannot be underestimated.  According to reports at the time and from monitoring organization, ADL, in the days before the bombing, McVeigh mailed a letter to his sister warning that “something big is going to happen,” and sent her an envelop with clippings from The Turner Diaries. When she learned of her brother’s arrest in connection with the bombing, McVeigh’s sister burned the clippings.   F.B.I. agents also found a copy of a passage from The Turner Diaries in the car McVeigh drove on the day of the bombing.  And, during the bombing trial, several of McVeigh’s friends testified that he had sent them copies of Pierce’s novel with notes encouraging them to read it. Testimony also showed that McVeigh sold The Turner Diaries and Hunter, Pierce’s follow-up to The Turner Diaries, at weekend gun shows.  One of the chief reasons McVeigh went from being an American soldier to a terrorist is because he read The Turner Diaries.

So, if we viewers were interested in understanding “how a decorated American soldier” became a terrorist, it seems that at least some discussion of The Turner Diaries and the white supremacist ideology behind it would be in order.   Not so in “The McVeigh Tapes,” In the 2-hour show, there’s one glimpse of the computer-graphic-McVeigh sitting on his bunk while in the army reading a copy of The Turner Diaries, yet no mention at all of race or antisemitism or white supremacy.    All descriptors of McVeigh’s ideology are scripted as “his anti-government views,” a description that is misleading for the half-truth it tells.

This omission of any discussion of race is so systematic and total throughout the 2-hours of the film that it must be intentional.  The question is why?  Why intentionally leave out this important element in understanding how McVeigh became a terrorist?

The best answer I (and those in discussion on Twitter hashtag #OKC) came up with is that MSNBC has a primarily white audience that is uncomfortable with discussions of race, racism, antisemitism or white supremacy.  While perfectly capable of listening to a discussion about “anti-government views,” the explicit, straightforward discussion of the racial ideology that animated McVeigh and inspired his horrific act is too much for us as a nation.  As @Sonyers put this to me: “A lot of people don’t have the courage to see the reality of race. It’s ugly and powerful.” I guess that’s true.  It’s a shame though.  We could understand more if we had an analysis that included a critical understanding of race. Specifically, we could understand more – not less -if we had an analysis of the racial ideology of The Turner Diaries how it “foretold” the Oklahoma City bombing.

What “The McVeigh Tapes,” leaves us with is a description of the excruciating detail of each minute leading up to that moment on April 19th, 1995 but almost no analysis of what would prompt a young, white, man to target a federal building with a daycare center in it, or why so many would rally today, in 2010, to “celebrate” that heinous act fifteen years ago.

Beyond Good and Evil Whites

If you’ve been reading the news lately, I’m sure you’ve run across at least some coverage of a rather raucous Neo-Nazi rally that took place around noon on 17 April on the south lawn of Los Angeles City Hall.  Approximately 50 members of the National Socialist Movement (NSM) attempted to stage a permitted rally, where they evinced their white nationalist call for all people of color to be forcibly removed from the Southwestern United States.

However, according to officials and media reports, about 500 predominantly white counter-protesters shouted down the NSM with cries of “racists go home” and “stop the Nazis” before things turned a little ugly—both police and the white supremacists were pelted with rocks, bottles, eggs and other items by the counter-protesters.  Los Angeles Police Detective Gus Villanueva reported that several people received minor injuries and some were arrested (all those arrested were counter-protestors).  In the wake of Saturday’s clash, an anonymous policeman was quoted in one report as saying, “It’s just one group of racists protesting another group of racists.”


(Photo Source: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times / April 17, 2010)

That quotation caught the blogosphere ablaze, with left-leaning sites such as the Daily Kos proclaiming:

“… this is disturbing, beyond the obvious false equivalency being made as if Neo-Nazi’s are the same as those people who are offended by Nazi’s, and those people who are organizing for immigration reform,”

and respective comments on right-leaning blogs like Free Republic and American Power that the police officer’s remark was the “best line ever” and that the counter-protesters “are more dangerous, despite what the MSM keeps feeding us about ‘right-wing terrorists’ and ‘tea party violence’.”

What this kind of media framing accomplishes is the dichotmatizing of racial conflict qua whiteness into a war between the quintessentially “good” versus “evil” whites.  Once the comparison is made, it begs us to answer the question: who is worse?  Such discussive and ideological missteps then threaten to trap us in a public discourse in which talking heads battle back and forth over who is the “real” racist, a point that writer Ta-Nahesi Coates makes frequently at his blog for The Atlantic.  Sociologists have long noted this phenomenon, Alastair Bonnett (2000: 10) writes the story of racism and antiracism is:

“…staged with melodrama, the characters presented as heroes and villains: pure anti-racists versus pure racists, good against evil.”

So also, Jack Niemonen (2007: 166-166) remarks that we often:

“… paint a picture of social reality in which battle lines are drawn, the enemy identified, and the victims sympathetically portrayed.  … [distinguishing] between ‘good’ whites and ‘bad’ whites.”

Of course, there is hardly any question that racism exists, only over where it is, and who wields it—and that finding it is a matter of utmost importance.  In “Beyond Good and Evil”  (1886), Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:

“It might even be possible that what constitutes the value of those good and respected things, consists precisely in their being insidiously related, knotted, and crocheted to these evil; and apparently opposed things—perhaps even in being essentially identical with them.”

Accordingly, my own sociological research (Hughey forthcoming – opens pdf) bears out an eerie resemblance between White Nationalist and White Antiracist understandings of white racial identity.  In previous posts here,  I’ve shared research based on fourteen months of ethnographic study amidst a white nationalist and a white antiracist group.  From this research, I found that both groups often relied on similar “scripts,” if you will, to construct a robust and strikingly similar understanding of white and nonwhite identity on a personal, interactive, micro-level.

Now don’t get me wrong.

Both pose different kinds of threats and there remain deep differences between White Nationalists (not to mention within that “movement”—it’s a heterogeneous bunch) and White Antiracists (so too, they are diffuse and varied) (for more on these points see: Zeskind 2009; O’Brien 2001).  Yet, members of both engaged in what I call an “Identity Politics of Hegemonic Whiteness.” That is, they both possess analogous common-sensed “ideals” of white identity that function to guide their interactions in everyday life.  These “scripts” serve as seemingly neutral yardsticks against which cultural behavior, norms, values, and expectations are measured.  Hence, white identity is revealed as an ongoing process of formation in which (1) racist and reactionary scripts are used to demarcate white/non-white boundaries, and (2) performances of white racial identity that fail to adhere to those scripts are often marginalized and stigmatized, thereby creating intra-racial distinctions among whites.

We seem to resist this understanding because of the seductive reach of pop-psychology explanations about racism.  For example, in The Nature of Prejudice (1954: 9) Gordon Allport remarked that prejudice is an individual “antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization.” A facile reading of Allport’s work has, unfortunately, saturated our culture and has turned many a layperson into self-professed experts of “hate.”  In this model, “racism” is assumed to belong to the realm of ideas and prejudices and is little more than the collection of a few nasty thoughts that a particular “bad apple” individual has about another person or group. With this understanding in play, we can too easily come to think of racism as a bad thought or moral failing, and then proceed to divide the world into those that are “sick” with the “disease of prejudice” and those that are “healthy” anti- or non-racists.  As Desmond and Emirbayer (2009: 342-343) recently penned in the Du Bois Review:

“This conception of racism simply will not do, for it fails to account for the racism that is woven into the very fabric of our schools, political institutions, labor markets, and neighborhoods. Conflating racism with prejudice … ignores the more systematic and structural forms of racism; it looks for racism within individuals and not institutions. Labeling someone a “racist” shifts our attention from the social surroundings that enforce racial inequalities and miseries to the individual with biases. It also lets the accuser off the hook—“He is a racist; I am not”—and treats racism as aberrant and strange, whereas American racism is rather normal.”

Simply put, white supremacy is the ether which we all consume.

Beliefs that racism is perpetuated by “stereotypes” and “prejudice”—that we all carry along in the black-box of our minds—absolves our social structures and culture of any blame.  Concentrating either on neo-Nazi’s or counter-protestors or trying to weigh and balance which one is more or less racist, misses the point completely.  And while the anonymous officer’s comment that “It’s just one group of racists protesting another group of racists” remains a violent oversimplification and slander ignorant of the nuances and difference, perhaps such a remark might invite us to consider the habitual, unintentional, commonplace, polite, implicit, and supposedly well-meaning dimensions of racist ideologies and practices that collude with the dominant expectations of white racial identity.

~ Matthew W. Hughey, PhD is Assistant Professor of Sociology and affiliate faculty member of African American Studies and Gender Studies at Mississippi State University.  His research centers on racial identity formation, racialized organizations, and mass media representations of race.  He can be reached at MHughey [at]  His website is

>>>PS: If anyone is attending the Southern Sociological Society Meetings in Atlanta this week, I invite you to my panel where I will present some of my research on this topic.  The title of my talk is “Beyond Good and Bad Whites: Ugly Couplings of Racism and White Identity.”

Programming Alert: The McVeigh Tapes

If you’re following the news about the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, you’ve no doubt heard about the MSNBC documentary, “The McVeigh Tapes.” If not, here’s a little info about it.   It’s a film based on audio tapes with McVeigh and then a combination of an actor and computer graphics re-enacting the events of April 19th.   It’s narrated by MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow.   It airs tonight at 9 ET/PT and at 8 CT.

I’ll watch the show as it airs and post live updates to Twitter.  You can follow me there at: @JessieNYC.   After the show, I’ll do a recap and compile comments in a post here.

Oklahoma City Bombing: Reflections on the 15th Anniversary

April 19th marks the 15th anniversary of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.   It was, until the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the worst terrorist attack in United States history.  Timothy McVeigh was convicted, and ultimately put to death, for this crime which he described as motivated by a deep antipathy for the federal government because of the events at Waco and by his reading of The Turner Diaries, a white supremacist dystopian novel.

Literally thousands of extremists from around the country, many of them armed, plan to march in the capital and in Virginia to “celebrate” the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing.   In fact, white supremacists, white nationalists and assorted militia groups have a whole roster of events scheduled for today, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), including:

  • Longtime Georgia militia organizer Jim Stachowiak reportedly has called on his fellow militiamen to discharge their weapons at midnight, thereby causing a flood of citizens to call 911 and overload emergency services.
  • Members of the Patriot movement, for whom the specter of gun restrictions is a recurring theme, will join gun rights advocates for a “Second Amendment March” in Washington, D.C. Speakers will include: Stewart Rhodes, founder of Oath Keepers, a conspiracy-minded, antigovernment organization composed mostly of active-duty police and military officers and veterans.
  • An open-carry rally to “Restore the Constitution” will be held at Ft. Hunt National Park near Mount Vernon, Va. Designated a “call to muster,” those rallying want the federal government to know that they “will not be ignored anymore.” Daniel Almond, who believes the federal government is “bringing totalitarian socialism to America” and is a member of the Georgia chapter of the Oath Keepers, organized the event.

These types of “celebrations” are, of course, a threat to democratic society because they valorize a lawlessness.  They also demonstrate a remarkably callous disregard for the continuing impact of the bombing on the victims that survived, many of them toddler in the day care that operated in the building. Of the 168 people killed in the attack, 19 were children in that day care center.  Incredibly, 6 children survived and are now teenagers and young adults.  Here are a few of their stories, from CNN:

P.J. Allen, now 16, was 18 months old when the bomb brought the building down on top of him, forcing him to inhale hot air and smoke.   …. Brother and sister Brandon and Rebecca Denny were hurt in the attack, although it was the older brother who received the more permanent injuries.   … While then 2-year-old Rebecca Denny required 240 stitches to patch her up, her brother — then 3 — suffered severe brain injuries, leaving the right side of his body weak.  …. Chris Nguyen, now a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma in nearby Norman.  “I’ve been given like a gift, you might say, and if I don’t make something of my life to succeed and make a difference of some kind, then I would have wasted my life,” Nguyen said.   “I think about the other parents — all the other day care children and families — who’ve lost someone … but I feel guilty almost that Brandon, Rebecca, P.J. and I, we get to live our lives … and the other people, they don’t get that opportunity,” he said.

Despite calls by prominent people involved in the case, such as the prosecutor, to focus on the victims this anniversary, no doubt much of the mainstream news coverage will lead with stories about Timothy McVeigh and the reported rise in white supremacist, white nationalist, and militia groups.   While it’s important to discuss these aspects of the anniversary, it would be a mistake to think about McVeigh and the time just before the bombing as somehow anomalous.  In fact, white supremacist groups are an enduring feature of the American political landscape.

Race and the Death Penalty, IV: Resources

In this last post of our four-part blog series on race and the death penalty, we* would like to provide you with some additional links.  As our series this week illustrated, the death penalty today looks very much the same as in the past. If you would like to learn more about race and the death penalty, please visit:

While the death penalty has undergone what some would call a legitimacy crisis in recent years with issues of innocence and cost becoming prominent, we argue that we should still pay attention to issues of racial bias.

~ *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!

Race and the Death Penalty, III: Troy Anthony Davis and the Denial of Justice

In many ways, the story of racial injustice and the death penalty in the U.S. can be summarized in the story of Troy Anthony Davis.

On the night of August 19, 1989, an off-duty police officer, Mark MacPhail, was shot and killed. The events leading to his death are quite unclear.  Eyewitness accounts and testimonies have been altered and recanted. However, the story was reported as follows: Standing outside a Burger King in Savannah, Georgia, a black man, Sylvester “Redd” Coles was seen harassing a homeless man for beer. Coles continued to harass the homeless man and followed the man to a nearby parking lot. Several bystanders, including Troy Anthony Davis, followed the scuffle. Coles was overheard threatening to shoot the homeless man and seen hitting him over the head with a gun. Hearing the homeless man’s cries for help, MacPhail responded to the scene. While responding to the fight, a .38 caliber revolver set off ultimately killing officer MacPhail.

At first, witnesses had a hard time identifying the shooter as the scene was not well lit, and two men present, Coles and Davis, appeared similar in appearance to many.  Soon after the shooting, Coles confronted the police to tell his version of events and implicate Davis. Unaware that he was accused of a crime, Davis went to Atlanta in search of job opportunities. Davis’ trip appeared to police like an attempt to flee the scene of the crime and an admission of his guilt.

(Protesters hold images of Davis, from here)

During the day on August 19, 1989, another shooting occurred at a party where both Coles and Davis were present. At this scene, Coles was overheard arguing with the victim. Shell casings from both scenes revealed that the same firearm had been used in both shootings. Despite the mounting evidence against Coles, his belongings were never searched, and he was never questioned as a suspect in either crime. Davis was deemed guilty and put on trial. There was never an investigation into his part in the crime, and he was never questioned as a suspect.

Here is where things get even messier…

  1. Police never corroborated Coles’ story.
  2. Without performing an investigation, Davis’ picture was broadcast on TV along with proclamations that he was a cop killer.
  3. Coles’ picture was not included in a photo lineup for witnesses.
  4. Seven out of nine witnesses have recanted their testimonies citing coercion, threats, and police pressure. Eyewitness recantations include the following: Dorothy Ferrell told police that she saw nothing, yet testified falsely.  Ferrell later told the public that she felt “compelled to identify Mr. Davis because she was on parole.  [A detective] showed Ms. Ferrell only one photograph and suggested she should [identify Davis]” [link opens PDF]. Darrell Collins was 16 at the time of his eyewitness testimony to the police.  The police threatened him with jail time if he did not identify Davis as the shooter.  Collins, afraid of being sentenced to jail time, then knowingly falsely identified Davis.
  5. One of the individuals who has not recanted his testimony is the primary alternative suspect.
  6. At the time of Davis’ habeas corpus petition, Congress cut funding to post-conviction defender organizations, such as the one representing Davis.  Therefore, Davis lost the majority of his defense and evidence of recantations and other new evidence was never discovered or heard by a jury.

The case of Troy Anthony Davis offers insight into the kind of injustices that a person of color faces in the criminal justice system. To learn more about upcoming proceedings in the Davis case, and to take action on his behalf, please visit:

With the mounting evidence of Davis’ innocence, why does he still sit on death row?  We ask several questions for readers here:

  1. If Davis were a white man, would police have produced a thorough investigation?
  2. If Davis were a white man, would his pleas of innocence be taken more seriously?
  3. If Davis were a white man, would he be provided with fair and adequate treatment by the police/justice system?

~ *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!

Race and the Death Penalty, II: Black Defendants, White Victims

This is the second part of a four-part series on the most common death penalty cases: those involving black defendants and white victims. In this post, *we explore some of the research about the racial dynamics in this type of death penalty case.

Most crime is intra-racial, that is it happens among the same racial group. The majority of homicides of whites are perpetrated by other whites, the majority of homicides involving black victims are perpetrated by other blacks.

Yet, despite this statistical fact, the black defendant/white victim has the highest chance of being selected for a death sentence.   One study in the midwest found that prosecutors are 2.5 times more likely to seek the death penalty when a black defendant kills a white victim.

One factor that may be influencing the death penalty decision is the race of the prosecutor.  According to a study conducted by Professor Jeffrey Pokorak of St. Mary’s University School of Law, the racial breakdown of District Attorneys in death penalty states is as follows: 97.5% whites, 1.2% black, and 1.2% Hispanic. There is no absolute way to show that because the majority of District Attorneys in America are white, they are racist against blacks. However, prosecutorial discretion studies illustrate racial patterns in cases where death sentences are sought.

Another factor that researchers have examined is the race of the jury pool.  In cases involving a black defendant and white victim, having five white males on the jury doubles the chance that the death penalty will be imposed [opens PDF].  Having just one black man on a capital jury cuts the chance of a death sentence in half [opens PDF].  In addition to the composition of the jury pool, the prejudice of jurors’ may also play a role in who gets the death penalty.

One study found that defendants who were perceived as looking more “stereotypically black” (i.e., having darker features) more than doubles the chances of being sentenced to death in capital cases involving white victims.

Our question for readers here: Do we – as a society – value the lives of black and white victims differently?

~ *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!

Race and the Death Penalty, Part I: Who Gets the Death Penalty in America?

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!

Death Penalty: Four Part Series

I teach “Capital Punishment in America,” an undergraduate course offered through the Department of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. This semester, I have asked the students in the class to engage social media as a way to broaden our class discussion about the death penalty.   I approached Joe and Jessie about hosting part of this discussion here, and they kindly agreed to feature some of the students’ work on Racism Review.

Following this is a four-part blog series on race and the death penalty, each post written by a group of four students interested in the idea of racial disparities and the death penalty.  Part of the goal of this exercise is to generate discussion with people outside the class, so please be sure to comment.

As many Racism Review readers are aware, the death penalty has long been fraught with issues of racial bias and discrimination. While there have been attempts to improve the fairness of the system, the students’ blog posts will illustrate that we still have a long way to go when the state kills.

~ Danielle Dirks, PhD Candidate, Department of Sociology, University of Texas-Austin