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!


  1. Joe

    Thanks for the very good overview of the stats on what some are calling the “new Jim Crow.” Two questions I have for you are, what have you learned about exactly who the key 2-3 groups of agents in this constant racial discrimination are, and why do they keeping doing this, now for many decades?

  2. Kristen

    Thanks for the informative post, students! I regularly teach sociology courses on race and will be having my own students read your series in future semesters.

    I think Joe’s question is a key one. These disparities do not just happen TO people, they are enacted and sanctioned BY people/institutions.

    I am hoping also that you will highlight in an upcoming post the death penalty’s connection/resemblance to other, historical forms of racial social control. Do you think it accurate to connect the death penalty to Jim Crow segregation and to slavery?

  3. Very interesting post. I had not thought about the linkage between the geography of lynchings and frequency of contemporary death sentences. That link makes perfect sense.

    I am reminded of Clarence Thomas’s famous “high-tech lynching” comment during his confirmation hearings. Judging by the data you have presented, the only thing “highly technical” about contemporary lynchings is the legal jargon Thomas and his far right friends use in defense of the very old practice of white officials and citizens colluding to kill black bodies.

  4. vp

    That is a really good question. I think there is a connection between Jim Crow laws/lynchings and capital punishment.

    After the Civil War, Southern states passed Jim Crow laws. The creation of Jim Crow laws meant that white supremacy was revived in the South. Violence was necessary for Jim Crow to keep the social hierarchy intact. So Jim Crow was a strong form of social control. Also, we had serious outbreaks of lynchings and killings of former slaves. This lasted well into the early 1960s. Then lynchings were started to be replaced by capital punishment. Over the years in the post Furman era, most executions were in the South. A large difference between lynching and capital punishment is the care taken to convict someone. Lynching was quick and done without care while capital punishment is done through more of a trial. But one similarity between lynching and capital punishment is that they both concentrated mainly on African Americans. So there is a very close connection between lynching and capital punishment.

  5. dudleysharp

    The students write:

    “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.”

    First, population counts have nothing to do with who is sent to death row. The defendant must be charged with and convicted of a capital crime to be sent to death row and executed.

    For example, if African Americans had committed 50% of the capital crimes since 1800, it wouldn’t be surprising if they also re[presented 50% of those who had been executed.

    No one disputes that horrendous racism was part of the US criminal justice system for some time and I doubt that there is evidence to support that African Americans committed 50% of capital crimes since 1800.

    But, look at the modern death penalty, post Furman (1972).

    Whites represent 58% of those executed, blacks 35%.

    In a study by anti death penalty professors from Cornell:

    “The study did show that the higher the proportion of murders by African Americans, the higher the proportion of African Americans on death row. However, it also showed that African-American murder defendants represent 50 percent of all murder defendants in the United States but only 40 percent of those on death row, and the gap is even greater where least expected — in the South.”


  6. dudleysharp

    The students, wrongly, quoted two studies/articles, above, whereby they stated alleged disparities of 3.9 times and 4.3 times, when that was not the context or meaning within either study. Instead it was by “odds multipliers”.

    The meaning is significant.

    For example, the 3.9 odds multiplier, for the Philadelphia study, mentioned in two of the links, instead of representing a multiple of 3.9 times, or 390%, as the students wrongly stated, what we find from reviewing the data is that if only about 2% fewer blacks were sentenced to death and only about 2% more whites were sentenced to death, then there would be no difference in sentencing percentages.

    Even if we found a 10% variable, I am not sure anyone would be surprised, based upon case differences, alone, that there would be some variable, based on a number of different factors, excluding race.

    But the real problem here, is the students misunderstanding of the data, as well as their changing the descriptions from odds multipliers to times and therefore, not only confusing themselves, but their audience, as well.

    here are two articles which I hope will help to clear the fog.

    The Math Behind Race, Crime and Sentencing Statistics”

    See “The Odds of Execution” within “How numbers are tricking you”

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