Race Politics Frame American Support for Capital Punishment



Today, over 140 nations have abolished the death penalty. Despite the clear global trend of states moving away from capital punishment, the United States remains the only Western developed nation that continues to execute criminal offenders. In 2014, the United States’ government executed 35 criminals, the fifth highest globally behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.

Despite a gradual trend towards abolitionist attitudes, there remains widespread public support for capital punishment among the American public. In 2015, 60% of Americans consider the death penalty morally acceptable.

Perpetuating support for the most punitive government action is, upon examination, embedded in racial politics. The death penalty institution has, historically, been biased against black and poor criminals. Further, greater support for capital punishment exists among the white population.

Capital punishment has intermittently been an element of the American criminal justice system since the early colonial establishment of the nation, and remains a permanent punitive vehicle today. Public support for the death penalty has ebbed and flowed throughout American history, with a notable shift occurring from 1994 to 2014, which saw a decline from 80% to 60% approval.

The American argument against the death penalty is extensive, framed within the Constitutional provision of the 8th amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

The 60% of Americans who support the death penalty assert that it is morally justified for particularly heinous crimes, such as murder. This justification does not derive from an idea of criminal deterrence, rather 35% of respondents to a 2014 Gallup survey claim that their support for capital punishment is founded in the mentality of “an eye for an eye”.

But from where does this prevalent mindset originate? Primarily, the antistatist and libertarian ideals, which characterise the US, directly challenge the idea of capital punishment. A state that fervently promotes the idea of liberty cannot explain dominant support for the most drastic exercise of state power by employing these same ideals. American cultural orientation does not explain the widespread public support for capital punishment, however a separate ideological justification is better able to capture this phenomenon.

Institutionalised racism continues to be a predominant feature of the American criminal justice system. Correspondingly, racial politics is inextricably linked to the American debate surrounding capital punishment. A majority (around 63%) of the white American population expresses support for the death penalty. This statistic is essentially inverted among the black population, which demonstrates a 34% approval rate.

Racial prejudice emerges as a comparatively strong predictor of white support for capital punishment; the dominant white perspective has been identified to derive from the perceived “social threat” posed by racial and ethnic groups.

Moreover, the historical record of capital punishment is, in itself, inherently racist. Whilst half of America’s homicide victims are black, nearly 80% of death penalty cases involve white homicide victims.

The prejudiced nature of the capital punishment system is no secret to the American public; three quarters of the black populous believe white people are less likely to receive the death penalty. Research has found that support for punitive death actually increases amongst white Americans upon learning of the institutional bias.

The tendency of the white American population to subscribe (either consciously or subconsciously) to racist ideals that have emerged from a long national history of racial politics, in combination with an inherently racist system of capital punishment, provides a fascinating framework for the perpetuating majority support for the death penalty in this Western democratic nation.

Capital punishment has been a recurring feature of the American criminal justice system since the nation’s foundational period. Despite a unanimous shift in the Western democratic world to abolish this drastic measure of state punitive action, the American public demonstrates a continuing majority support for the enactment of the death penalty. This phenomenon is broadly explained to be a product of American culture and socio-political values. However, several inconsistencies arise between the American creed and the death penalty, most prominently the national libertarian and antistatist ideals.

Continuing support for punitive death is captured in a far more sinister cultural reality. The dominant white American approval of the death penalty, when examined within the framework of an institutionally racist society, offers a strong explanation for America’s continuing support for capital punishment.

Chloe Meyer is an undergraduate student at the University of Melbourne, completing a degree in Islamic Studies and International Politics. In 2016, Chloe will be interning in the United States’ Congress under Republican Representative, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email publications@youngausint.org.au with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: Thomas Hawk (cropped) (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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