T-Shirts for Sale at July 4th Festival: “Yup, I’m a Racist”

Some people at the Lexington, Kentucky July 4th Festival yesterday were selling t-shirts with a giant “Yup, I’m a Racist” logo across the front (h/t: ChrisBoese via Twitter). Reporter Greg Skilling of the Louisville Examiner, headed over there with a video camera to investigate (video is 7:44):

There’s not much to say here except that this is yet another installment in the ongoing series “White People, Behaving Badly.” And, of course, to point out the obvious, we’re so not post-racial. I fear that H.L. Mencken was right when he said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”

Frederick Douglass: On the Meaning of the 4th of July

On this Independence day it is well to remember a speech, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” given by the formerly enslaved and probably greatest 19th century American, Frederick Douglass, at Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852, at the peak of North America slavery (indeed, about 230 years into that era).

In this era Black Americans were usually not allowed at 4th of July celebrations in the slaveholding South, apparently because many slaveholders feared that they might get an idea of freedom from such events (as if they did not already have such an idea!). Also, Black residents were often discouraged from attending such festivities in the North.

It is in this very dangerous and hostile national racial climate that the great Douglass–increasingly, a leading intellectual of his day and the first Black American to receive a roll-call vote for US President (later on, at the 1888 Republican national convention!)–was asked by leading citizens of Rochester to give an address at their Fourth of July celebrations. He gave them this stinging indictment of racial oppression:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men, too-great enough to give frame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

But later adds:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy-a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse, and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of the everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

Take the American slave-trade, which we are told by the papers, is especially prosperous just now. Ex-Senator Benton tells us that the price of men was never higher than now. He mentions the fact to show that slavery is in no danger. This trade is one of the peculiarities of American institutions. It is carried on in all the large towns and cities in one-half of this confederacy; and millions are pocketed every year by dealers in this horrid traffic. In several states this trade is a chief source of wealth. It is called (in contradistinction to the foreign slave-trade) “the internal slave-trade.” It is, probably, called so, too, in order to divert from it the horror with which the foreign slave-trade is contemplated. That trade has long since been denounced by this government as piracy. It has been denounced with burning words from the high places of the nation as an execrable traffic. To arrest it, to put an end to it, this nation keeps a squadron, at immense cost, on the coast of Africa. Everywhere, in this country, it is safe to speak of this foreign slave-trade as a most inhuman traffic, opposed alike to the Jaws of God and of man. The duty to extirpate and destroy it, is admitted even by our doctors of divinity. In order to put an end to it, some of these last have consented that their colored brethren (nominally free) should leave this country, and establish them selves on the western coast of Africa! It is, however, a notable fact that, while so much execration is poured out by Americans upon all those engaged in the foreign slave-trade, the men engaged in the slave-trade between the states pass with out condemnation, and their business is deemed honorable.

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

And then concludes with this:

Americans! your republican politics, not less than your republican religion, are flagrantly inconsistent. You boast of your love of liberty, your superior civilization, and your pure Christianity, while the whole political power of the nation (as embodied in the two great political parties) is solemnly pledged to support and perpetuate the enslavement of three millions of your countrymen. You hurl your anathemas at the crowned headed tyrants of Russia and Austria and pride yourselves on your Democratic institutions, while you yourselves consent to be the mere tools and body-guards of the tyrants of Virginia and Carolina. You invite to your shores fugitives of oppression from abroad, honor them with banquets, greet them with ovations, cheer them, toast them, salute them, protect them, and pour out your money to them like water; but the fugitives from oppression in your own land you advertise, hunt, arrest, shoot, and kill.

The far off and almost fabulous Pacific rolls in grandeur at our feet. The Celestial Empire, the mystery of ages, is being solved. The fiat of the Almighty, “Let there be Light,” has not yet spent its force. No abuse, no outrage whether in taste, sport or avarice, can now hide itself from the all-pervading light. The iron shoe, and crippled foot of China must be seen in contrast with nature. Africa must rise and put on her yet unwoven garment. “Ethiopia shall stretch out her hand unto God.” In the fervent aspirations of William Lloyd Garrison, I say, and let every heart join in saying it:

God speed the year of jubilee
The wide world o’er!
When from their galling chains set free,
Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee,

And wear the yoke of tyranny
Like brutes no more.
That year will come, and freedom’s reign.
To man his plundered rights again
Restore.

Sadly, our system of racial oppression still persists, even as most white Americans are in denial about its deep and foundational reality. Yet, there remain many people like Frederick Douglass today who still fight to remove this “yoke of tyranny” from us all. May they flourish and prosper. We should remember those now and from the past who fought racism most on this day to celebrate freedom.

ADDENDUM
Some forty-two years later, in the last speech (“Lessons of the Hour”) he gave before his death—at an AME Church in DC, on January 9th, 1894—Douglass made these comments as he watched southern and border states hurtle toward bloody Jim Crow segregation, the new neo-slavery system:

We claim to be a Christian country and a highly civilized nation, yet, I fearlessly affirm that there is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetrated against the colored people by the so-called enlightened and Christian people of the South. It is commonly thought that only the lowest and most disgusting birds and beasts, such as buzzards, vultures and hyenas, will gloat over and prey dead bodies, but the Southern mob in its rage feeds its vengeance by shooting, stabbing and burning when their victims are dead. I repeat, and my contention is, that this “Negro problem” formula lays the fault at the door of the Negro, and removes it from the door of the white man, shields the guilty, and blames the innocent. Makes the Negro responsible and not the nation….. Now the real problem is, and ought to be regarded by the American people, a great national problem. It involves the question, whether, after all, with our Declaration of Independence, with our glorious free constitution, whether with our sublime Christianity, there is enough of national virtue in this great nation to solve this problem, in accordance with wisdom and justice.

He concluded thus, his very last words ever spoken in public:

But could I be heard by this great nation, I would call to to mind the sublime and glorious truths with which, at its birth, it saluted a listening world. Its voice then, was as the tramp of an archangel, summoning hoary forms of oppression and time honored tyranny, to judgment. Crowned heads heard it and shrieked. Toiling millions heard it and clapped their hands for joy. It announced the advent of a nation, based upon human brotherhood and the self-evident truths of liberty and equality. Its mission was the redemption of the world from the bondage of ages. Apply these sublime and glorious truths to the situation now before you. Put away your race prejudice. Banish the idea that one class must rule over another. Recognize the fact that the rights of the humblest citizen are as worthy of protection as are those of the highest, and your problem will be solved; and, whatever may be in store for it in the future, whether prosperity, or adversity; whether it shall have foes without, or foes within, whether there shall be peace, or war; based upon the eternal principles of truth, justice and humanity, and with no class having any cause of compliant or grievance, your Republic will stand and flourish forever.

Judith Butler Refuses Award at Berlin Pride Citing Racism

Last week, noted  social critic and philosophy professor Judith Butler refused the Berlin Civil Courage Award saying, “I must distance myself from this racist complicity” (h/t @blacklooks via Twitter).   Butler was referring to anti-immigrant media campaigns that repeatedly represent migrants as ‘archaic’, ‘patriarchal’, ‘homophobic’, violent, and unassimilable while at the same time prominent (white) gay organizations in Berlin encourage a heightened police presence in gay neighborhoods where there are more people of color.  The group SUSPECT condemned white gay politics and applauded Butler’s refusal saying:

It is this tendency of white gay politics, to replace a politics of solidarity, coalitions and radical transformation with one of criminalization, militarization and border enforcement, which Butler scandalizes, also in response to the critiques and writings of queers of colour. Unlike most white queers, she has stuck out her own neck for this. For us, this was a very courageous decision indeed.

SUSPECT is a new group of queer and trans migrants, Black people, people of color and allies whose aim is to monitor the effects of hate crimes debates and to build communities which are free from violence in all its interpersonal and institutional forms.

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(Creative Commons License photo credit: thomasderzweifler)

Angela Davis, noted scholar, activist and UC-Santa Cruz professor, has also voiced support for Butler’s refusal of the prize, saying “I hope Judith Butler’s refusal of the award will act as a catalyst for more discussion about the impact of racism even within groups which are considered progressive”  (h/t @blacklooks via Twitter).

There’s certainly room for such a discussion about race and racism in the white LGBT community here in the U.S., and surprisingly little analysis of it to date.   As I noted back in November 2008, the racism among white gay marriage supporters is a problem.   Prominent white gay men such as Dan Savage make a good living off of saying ignorant, racist crap while claiming the “oppression” card.   This is not to say that people who identify as LGBT are not oppressed in the U.S. and around the world, in fact, there’s quite a lot of evidence to support this claim, including the murder and torture of people because they are same-gender-loving.   This is a human rights issue, and a global one.

What Dan Savage and other privileged white gay men fail to understand is the way one struggle is connected to another.  In part, I think this is because they fail to see the ways that sexuality and race are intertwined.  When you begin to see this, it shifts our understanding of oppression.  Rather than seeing “blacks” and “gays” as somehow distinct, disparate groups, such an analysis allows you to recognize the reality of black and brown LGBT lives (such as the recently out entertainer Ricky Martin, who is both gay and Puerto Rican).   And, such an analysis makes visible the white privilege that still adheres to the lives of LGBT folks like Savage.  The challenge then, for white LGBT folks, is whether they are going to continue to wage a campaign for the rights of some or whether we will join the struggle for LGBT human rights with other human rights struggles.

What’s maddening about the ignorance around race among white LGBT people, is that it represents such a lost opportunity for – as SUSPECT points out in their statement – a “politics of solidarity, coalitions and radical transformation” and replaces it with one of criminalization, militarization and border enforcement.  What might this look like?  As just one example, the organization Immigration Equality, is coming out against Arizona’s draconian immigration law:

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community knows all too well how easily people who “look different” can be singled out for harassment and prosecution. In addition, LGBT immigrant families are too familiar with the double burden of immigration discrimination. Now Arizona’s LGBT families have yet another reason to be alarmed. The state’s new law threatens to tear apart families, separate children from their parents and rip apart loving couples who are building their lives together. Forty percent of LGBT binational couples in the United States include a Latino family member. For them, and their loved ones, Arizona is now the most dangerous place in America.

As people in New York City and around the U.S. celebrate Pride today, my hope is that we will all embrace a politics of solidarity, coalitions and transformation.

Religious Racism: Study Ties Organized Religion to Racist Attitudes

Each Sunday morning in the U.S., an estimated 40% of Americans (118 million) attend a weekly religious service.  We like to think that going to church makes us better – less racist – people, but does it?   A new study suggests just the opposite.

June 5/10: Casselman Church
(Creative Commons License photo credit: susanvg)

The new study offers evidence for a link between involvement in organized religion and racism.  The study, “Why Don’t We Practice What We Preach? A Meta-Analytic Review of Religious Racism,” was conducted by Deborah Hall (Duke University), David C. Matz (Augsburg College), and Wendy Wood (University of Southern California), and appears in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review.  The authors analyzed data from 55 studies on religion and racism in America dating to the civil rights era.  Combined, the studies include more than 22,000 participants, mostly white and Protestant. The researchers looked not only at things like religious affiliation, church attendance and other participation but also at the motives behind their involvement to avoid clumping all religious adherents into a single category.  Racial prejudice was measured principally as self-reported attitudes and behaviors, such as preferred levels of social distance toward blacks and other minority groups.

As expected, the authors found a positive correlation between religious affiliation and racism.  Religious fundamentalism — the unwavering certainty in basic religious truths — correlated even more strongly with racist attitudes.   And, the authors looked exclusively at Christianity and did not consider other religious traditions.  The link among people who expressed purely spiritual pursuits as the motivating influence of religion was less clear.

The research highlights what researchers called “religion-racism paradox,” because – they speculate – deeply embedded in organized religion is the notion that one fundamental belief system is superior to all others. That kind of value judgment creates a kind of us-versus-them conflict, in which members of a religious group develop ethnocentric, even racist, attitudes toward anyone perceived as different.

Is part of the problem who we’re going to church with?   Perhaps if churches were more racially integrated then they wouldn’t foster racist attitudes.  The evidence suggests that, as Dr. Martin Luther King observed decades ago, Sunday morning is still the “most segregated hour” of the week.    A study by sociologist Michael Emerson showed that churches where 20 percent of members were of a racial minority comprised only 7 percent of U.S. congregations. Overall, 5 percent of Protestant churches and 15 percent of Roman Catholic churches were multi-racial.

However, sociologist Scott Thumma found that megachurches, in the 2005 “Megachurches Today” study, may be shifting the racial composition of some Christian churches.  In his study, 35%  of megachurches claimed to have congregations composed of 20% or more folks of color.  And, 56% of megachurches said they were making an intentional effort to become multi-racial.

Still, integrating churches by calling on people of color to step inside predominantly-white churches is perhaps not the best solution.   As an anonymous contributor to this blog noted recently, “People of color who have taken the leap of faith to join white churches usually find those churches to be houses of racialized pain, and suffer many wounds as a result.”

In the U.S., Christianity and white racism are cultural institutions that reinforce one another.  If people in those churches want to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, when it comes to racism, it seems that we need to reflect on how to change the practices of Sunday mornings as a first step to changing the larger society.

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.

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.

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(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!