There is much to be worried about when one considers the role racial discrimination plays in delivering the death penalty. Scholars are newly looking to the way that the race of homicide victims, instead of the defendants, shape outcomes. It turns out a disproportionate number of people who are executed under the death penalty have been convicted of murdering a white person (Amnesty International):
“[H]olding all other factors constant,” Amnesty International summarizes, “the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim.”
Originally posted in 2010. Re-posted in solidarity with the African American community; regardless of the truth of the Martin/Zimmerman confrontation, it’s hard not to interpret the finding of not-guilty as anything but a continuance of the criminal justice system’s failure to ensure justice for young Black men.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
nakedthoughts — November 22, 2010
how many people of each race have been murdered since 1976? I don't think it would change the graph significantly but, it should be noted. If 77% of the victims are white, this is a reasonable picture.
I highly doubt this is the case, but we should be aware of these things when interpreting data.
Anonymous — November 22, 2010
Do you think it could be that there are more white people in america so the majority of people on juries would be white, making it easier for a lawyer to get the death penalty for a murder?
T — November 22, 2010
I think this is a better picture of the statistics since it gives BOTH the race of the victims *and* the race of the executed defendants.
I don't think this takes anything away from Amnesty International's message... which is based on the same report by the U.S. General Accounting Office... but I think it is significant to see the numbers of white defendants who have been executed since 1976.
I think the more powerful, but harder to understand, statistic is "PERSONS EXECUTED FOR INTERRACIAL MURDERS IN THE U.S. SINCE 1976" -- I believe this is where you will find the real impact of racial discrimination... i.e., a black man is more likely to get the death penalty if he murders a white man.
The 77% of vitims include a LARGE number of "White-on-White" crime. This actually detracts from the racial discrimination problem in convictions. In other words, this graph doesn't "hold all other factors constant" in the right way. The conclusion is correct, but this graph is NOT the piece of evidence that supports this conclusion. i.e., a white man killing a white man is not evidence of racial discrimination.
What we REALLY need, in addition to the "PERSONS EXECUTED FOR INTERRACIAL MURDERS IN THE U.S. SINCE 1976" statistic is... "Interracial Murders in the U.S. since 1976" -- so we can look at those interracial murders that did not result in the death penalty. e.g., White man killing black man, but only getting life or less.
Another complicating factor is that a good number of states limit the use of the death penalty to the murder of police officers, etc. So, in these states the skewed numbers may actually be related more closely to the overall crime statistics (and the discrimination and social inequity we are used to seeing). For example, if there are more white police officers and blacks are "targeted" for arrest much more often than whites (60% of prisoners are black)... then chances are the race of the dead police officer will be white and the defendant will be black.
No shit — November 22, 2010
Not exactly surprising. Sentencing is where the bias in the legal system really comes out to show its colors, typically resulting in men and minorities receiving much more severe jail sentences. I'd like to see a chart on the gender of the victim and how that impacts the use of the death penalty.
decius — November 22, 2010
More statistics we need:
Total murders by race and sex of victim.
Unsolved murders by race and sex of victim.
Race and sex of victim by race and sex of murderer.
And to remove the complication re: limited use of death penalty, compare 'murders' to 'murders legally eligible for death penalty' for all cases.
I really want to know how much of the racial gap is due to the justice system, in convicting proportionately more blacks, or in the socioeconomic system, for producing proportionately more black criminals.
imarx — November 22, 2010
Wouldn't one also need to take into account which states allow the death penalty, and the racial composition of those states (and the murder victims in those states)? If more African-Americans live in states that don't allow the death penalty, that would skew the numbers so that more death penalty victims are white.
Niki — November 22, 2010
I suspect that socioeconomic class plays a part here, perhpas moreso than race. I'm not sure but I would suspect that murder victims are more likely to be impoverished and/or involved in the black market, such as in the prostitution or illegal drug industries. (I don't mean that a majority of all murder victims are involved in these things necessarily, but that a higher percentage of murder victims are involved in these things than what exists in the general population.) People involved in those industries are generally from less fortunate economic backgrounds and are thus more likely to be visible minorities. So it could be that when drug dealers are murdered, they don't necessarily inspire harsh sentences. And it could be - again, I'm not sure, but I think it's a safe assumption - that more drug dealers are non-white.
Furthermore, most female murder victims - an overwhelming majority - were killed as a result of domestic violence. Domestic violence is also more prevalent in certain ethnic communities, particularly in indigenous populations. First Nations women are at a much, much, much higher risk for murder by a spouse or partner.* They're also more likely to be impoverished and more likely to suffer from substance abuse problems. So again, we might see death sentences be handed to those who are convicted of killing wealthy, white women who are considered "productive" members of society much more frequently than we see death sentences handed to those who are convicted of killing impoverished native women addicted to drugs or alcohol.
I don't know if I'm saying it clearly, but basically, there is probably more than racism going on here, although I don't discount racism either. Racism, sexism, classism, ageism - a million different interconnected things are at play. But I suspect socioeconomic class is perhaps a bigger issue in this particular case, and I would assume that the murder of a wealthy black businessman would be more likely to inspire the death penalty than the murder of a white cocaine dealer.
*These statistics are Canadian, and Canada doesn't have the death penalty. However, I believe that the statistics can be assumed to be similar in the US.
The Death Penalty Needs to End NOW « Speaker's Corner — December 9, 2010
[...] And for me, that is a big enough risk to stop it. Especially because it is famously racist and classist in its use. Juries are not unbiased. Supreme Court justices are not [...]
Sociological Images « Y's Going on?! — January 6, 2011
[...] The Death Penalty, Race, and the Victim [...]
Human Rights Facts (218): Capital Punishment, It’s Not What You Do, But What You Do to Whom | P.A.P.-BLOG – HUMAN RIGHTS ETC. — January 15, 2011
[...] (source) [...]
sicofit — January 18, 2011
Really?!? Does everyone not realize that the system is flawed? It all comes down to money, it takes a lot of money to execute to death penalty. When considering the crime I don't think the victm's race is a factor at all! You can gather all of this information for statistics, but you can not conclude that it is a product of racism! Seriously people stop trying to blame everything on race...no one sympathizes with a cold blooded killer! Not to mention EVERY CASE DEMPENDS ON THE TOTALITY OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES!
Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System | Erin V Echols — February 26, 2012
[...] to black offenders. And, though African-Americans make up half of homicide victims, the majority of death row defendants have been executed for killing white victims. (See infographic for more [...]
Racial discrimination in the use of capital punishment « whatsimportantinlife — May 3, 2012
[...] (source) [...]
pduggie — July 16, 2013
Which states banned the death penalty?
pduggie — July 16, 2013
The quantities are really so few I'd think you could do a monte carlo sample (right term?) and pick some big handful of cases to compare them narrative and see where the issue really is. I'm not convinced the statistics are illuminating.
Reconciliation Replay (July 25, 2013) — July 25, 2013
[...] the relationship between race and the death penalty: “The Death Penalty, Race, and the Victim” by Lisa Wade, [...]