Why are murderers who kill Whites more likely to receive the death penalty than those who kill a person of color? What does this say about the role race plays in our societies valuation of life? These are the questions I raise with my students when we read a short excerpt about Victim Discounting out of Schaeffer’s Racial and Ethnic Groups*.
The excerpt tells students that even though Whites and African Americans commit roughly the same number of murders each year, African Americans represent 72% of all the defendants in death penalty cases. Compounding this inequity, of all the murder cases that faced the death penalty 79% of the victims were White even though Whites only represent approximately 50% of all those murdered each year. Put simply, Whites are less likely to face the death penalty for committing murder and when Whites are murdered their assailant is far more likely to receive the death penalty. Inversely, African Americans are more likely to be executed for killing another and less likely to have their assailants put to death.
After reading the excerpt I have my students brainstorm possible explanations for the inequity. Typical responses include, 1) the majority of police, lawyers, judges, and others in the legal justice system are White, 2) in most areas jury pools are predominately White, thereby increasing the likelihood that the jury will “see themselves” or a family member in the victim, 3) if juries are predominately White, they may have a harder time identifying with and subsequently sympathizing with defendants of color.
Be prepared for some victim blaming here too. Frequently students will say something like, “well if the murders Black people commit are more savage or heinous then that may explain why they are more likely to be put to death”. Questions like this can be quickly addressed by asking, “what is it about a Black person that makes you think they are more likely to use tactics that are more ‘savage’ or ‘heinous’?” Furthermore, you can ask, “what makes you confident that Whites are more likely to use ‘less savage’ or ‘heinous’ tactics?” It quickly becomes apparent that these assumptions are only based on stereotypes.
Here is a group activity that I developed for my students. I have my students explain in their own words victim discounting and the inequities the excerpts discuss. Lastly, I have the students debate the legitimacy of using the death penalty if it is being applied unequally. It is always interesting to hear the justifications for keeping the death penalty (for the record I’ve only taught in states that have the death penalty). Students often say that, “we need the death penalty” and that, “we just have to do a better job of applying it equally.” When I ask them to provide guidelines or new policies for how we can ensure a just application of the death penalty typically the classroom goes silent. So I conclude by asking, “Does your opinion on the abolishment of the death penalty change if we cannot find a fair way of applying the death penalty?” The answers are interesting every time.
If I had one disappointment with this excerpt it would be that it reinforces the false White/Black racial binary. Students frequently ask for information on murder and victimization for other racial ethnic groups. If you have some good sources be sure to share them.
*Note: This excerpt was removed from the latest edition of Schaeffer’s Racial and Ethnic Groups, which is a shame. Given that it is out of print and I have reprinted only a snippet of it, I think I am under the Fair Use shelter. Please don’t sue me, I love my family.