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RACISM AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Racism and Capital Punishment


Michelle Kim Gardner
North Carolina State University

PS 371: Research Methodology of Political Science


Dr. Dmitri Mitin
May 2, 2013

RACISM AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Racism and Support for Capital Punishment: Is There a Relationship?


Race tends to be a common theme among many significant events in history, ranging
from the trans-Atlantic slave trade of the sixteenth century to the recent murder of an innocent
African-American child, Trayvon Martin. During these events in history, racism has either been a
proven or highly believed cause. Because public opinion has a considerable effect on the
outcome of public policy in the United States, racism among a majority becomes prevalent in
policy making. One area of policy where racism has consistently been a question among support
is capital punishment (Unnever, 2008, p.45). Between 1930 and 1967, 54% of those who
received capital punishment were African-American and today approximately 50% of death row
inmates are African-American (Radelet, 1995, p. 124). So the question remains of whether or not
capital punishment is served on racist means, but more importantly we must question the public
opinion that keeps this institution alive. The question to be researched is: Is support for capital
punishment kept alive through racist motives?
In the politics of capital punishment, public opinion is surely one of the foremost, if not
the foremost, reason(s) for why the United States is one of the only industrialized countries that
still executes murderers. According to a study done by Jim Sidanius (1999), capital punishment
gives white Americans a means of subordinating African-Americans. Due to increasingly high
crime rates among areas with a high population of African-Americans and the exaggeration of
African-American violence in the media, crime has become a racialized issue and many white
Americans see African-Americans as a threat to their safety (p. 17). The significance of this
research is to delve deeper into this issue and figure out what types of Americans support capital
punishment and what other sorts of beliefs they hold that may indicate racism. Quite a bit of
research has already been done on this topic, but a single theory has not yet been agreed upon.

RACISM AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

However, the existing literature suggests that there are two main factors consistent across many
studies that indicate the likely reasons why racism affects support for capital punishment. These
include both racial animosity and fear of African-American criminality.
The theory of racial animosity suggests that the justice system is used by whites in order
to keep African-Americans subservient to whites. Many of these white racists have come up with
other arguments that justify this, but their overall perception is still based upon racial animosity
(Unnever, 2008, p.71). In a survey created by Mark Peffley and Jon Hurwitz (2007), respondents
were asked general questions about what attributed to crime, such as poverty or lack of
opportunity, questions on what sorts of punishments were appropriate, how much the respondent
feared being a victim of crime and lastly, respondents were given a word to describe an AfricanAmerican, to which the respondent indicated how true he/she felt the description was on a scale
of 1 to 7, 1 being a very poor description and 7 being a very accurate description. Each survey
question was treated as an independent variable and was chosen to gather an indication of the
respondents beliefs on the causes of crimes and to see if these beliefs were tied in with racial
prejudices of the respondent. The relationships between these variables were expected to be
strong and positive (p.1009). The overall idea stemming from results of this study was that the
interracial differences in arguments for or against the death penalty are mainly framed by
whether the respondent believes black criminality is attributed to dispositional or systemic
forces (p. 996). The most startling result that Peffley and Hurwitz (2007) came across was that
upon learning that capital punishment discriminates against African-Americans, whites actually
became more supportive of capital punishment (p.1006). The results of the survey indicated that
African-Americans are more likely to be receptive to any argument that would indicate
unfairness in the justice system whilst whites feel that the justice system is fair and believe the

RACISM AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

reason blacks are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than whites is that blacks commit
more crimes (and thus deserve the punishment), not because the criminal justice system is biased
against them (p. 1007).
This belief that African-American criminals are deserving of their punishment ties in with
the theory that fear of African-American criminality is a factor in support for capital punishment.
In a study by James D. Unnever and Francis T. Cullen (2007), it is stated that The resulting
racial anger and the attribution that black crime is their fault and not societys fault may
further justify the view that putting African American murderers to death is both richly deserved
and needed for community protection (p.1284). White racists tend to believe that despite being
given economic aid, African-Americans are still dangerous and more inclined to commit violent
crimes. A study by Joe Feagin and Eileen OBrien (2004) argues that white racists tend to ignore
the systemic disparities of African-Americans and instead blame cultural deficiencies for the
high crime rate (p.529). In a study done by Joe Soss, Laura Langbein, and Alan R. Metelko
(2003), the authors indicate that race is a huge factor of the white populations support for the
death penalty, both because of contextual reasons (living among a large population of AfricanAmericans) and attitudinally (being racially prejudiced) (p.397). The results indicate that whites
who live in areas with a high number of African-Americans are likely to support capital
punishment, but this does not mean that there are not a high number of supporters for capital
punishment in areas with a low African-American population, For white people living in an allwhite county, racial prejudice emerges as the strongest predictor of white death penalty support
in our analysis. For their counterparts in more integrated counties, this effect is more than
doubled (p. 416). Those who live in these more integrated counties have become prejudiced due
to their fear of African-American criminality affecting them, since they have a higher probability

RACISM AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

of such. Independent variables included: prejudice scale (100 indicating highest level of antiblack prejudice), education, gender, family income, ideology, party identification, moralism,
normative individualism, egalitarianism, authoritarianism, religion, interpersonal trust, trust in
government, county income level, county education level, percentage black in county and
murder rate. These independent variables not only attempt to identify the respondents
ideologies, but also the area that they live in to see if their location may have influenced their
racial prejudices and support for capital punishment. The relationships between these variables
are expected to be strong and positive (p. 400). The idea behind this study is that racial prejudice
is a strong predictor of support for capital punishment and that an individuals proximity to
African-American residences impacts the racial prejudice of said individual, curbing his/her
opinion on the matter. These individuals have come to identify race with crime and support tough
crime policies like capital punishment in hopes of a safer community, but have really only
contributed to what keeps African-Americans subordinated and therefore prone to crime.
Explanatory Model
The dependent variable measures the degree of which respondents supported the death
penalty. Respondents were asked if they favored or opposed the death penalty for murder. The
two responses they had to choose from were favor or oppose. The independent variable
measures the degree of racism for those who favor the death penalty for murder. Variables that
will be taken into consideration include: how comfortable the respondent is in the presence of
African-Americans, the respondents view of how society abhors the social mobility of AfricanAmericans, and the respondents tolerance for media with racist undertones.

RACISM AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Research Hypotheses
The first hypothesis predicts that the more comfortable the respondent is with being in
close proximity with African-American the lower the respondents odds will be of supporting
capital punishment. Feeling uncomfortable is defined as the respondents opposition to being
in close quarters with African-Americans and possibly being a victim of African-American
criminality. Various survey responses will be taken into account such as: how comfortable the
respondent would feel living in an African-American neighborhood as compared to how
comfortable they would feel living in a Caucasian neighborhood and if the respondent would be
comfortable with a close relative marrying an African-American.
The second hypothesis predicts that those who believe current living conditions and
opportunities are appropriate for African-Americans and should not be improved will have
higher odds of supporting capital punishment. This belief is defined as the respondent viewing
the current living conditions of African-Americans as acceptable for the amount of work ethic
they have, believing that African-Americans should not receive any sort of financial assistance,
and believing that African-Americans are not able to overcome prejudice without receiving any
favors. The three survey responses that will be taken into account are: if the respondent believes
the government should aid African-Americans, the respondents feelings on improving the
conditions of African-Americans and whether or not the respondent believes African-Americans
overcome prejudice without favors.
The third hypothesis predicts that those who are more tolerant of racist ideas will have
higher odds of supporting the death penalty. Being tolerant of racist media means that the
respondent is fine with people displaying racist undertones in publications, lectures, speeches,

RACISM AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

etc. The three survey questions that will be taken into account are as follows: if the respondent
thinks racists should be allowed to teach, if the respondent thinks racists books should be
allowed in the library and if racists should be allowed to speak in public.
Methods
Sample
The data that will be used to prove or disprove the hypotheses will come from the
General Social Survey of 2010. This dataset was conducted by the National Opinion Research
Center (NORC). The dataset has 790 survey questions answered by a random selection of
individuals. A small amount of these survey questions are substantial in conducting the
exploration of the specified research question. I chose this particular dataset because it provided
an ample amount of questions that indicate racial prejudices among the respondents (General
Social Survey, 2010).
Dependent Variable
The dependent variable measures the degree of which respondents support capital
punishment. Respondents were asked if they favored or opposed capital punishment for murder.
The two responses they had to choose from were favor or oppose. The variable has been
recoded into a dummy variable, 0 indicating that the respondent opposes capital punishment and
1 indicating that the respondent supports capital punishment. Responses coded as Do not know
were recoded as missing variables. Because the dependent variable is not interval, the most
appropriate statistical test for the research hypotheses is logistic regression.

RACISM AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

Whether or not the respondent prefers living in an African-American neighborhood


This independent variable measures if the respondent would prefer living in a mostly
African-American neighborhood. The variable is on a five-point scale, 1 indicating a strong
preference for and 5 indicating a strong preference against. Responses coded as Do not know
were recoded as missing variables. We assume that those who do not prefer living in a mostly
African-American neighborhood will have higher odds of supporting the death penalty.
Whether or not the respondent prefers living in a white neighborhood
This independent variable measures whether or not the respondent would prefer living in
a mostly white neighborhood. The variable is on a five-point scale, 1 indicating a strong
preference for and 5 indicating a strong preference against. Responses coded as Do not know
were recoded as missing variables. We assume that those who prefer living in a white
neighborhood will have higher odds of supporting capital punishment.
Whether or not the respondent would be uncomfortable with a family member marrying an
African-American
This independent variable measures how comfortable the respondent would be with a
family member marrying an African-American and thereby having an African-American become
a member of his/her family. The variable is on a five-point scale, 1 indicating strong support for
American and 5 indicating no support. Responses coded as Do not know were recoded as
missing variables. We assume that those who would disapprove of a family member marrying an
African-American will have higher odds of supporting the death penalty.

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Whether or not the respondent thinks the conditions of African-Americans should be improved
This independent variable measures whether or not the respondent feels the current
conditions of African-Americans are due to cultural deficiencies, not social inequality and
thereby feel that the conditions will not be improved through systematic condition changes. The
variable has been recoded into a dummy variable, 0 indicating that the respondent supports
improving conditions and 1 indicating that the respondent does not support improving
conditions. Responses coded as Do not know were recoded as missing variables. We assume
that those who feel the conditions of African-Americans should not be improved will have higher
odds of supporting the death penalty.
Whether or not the respondent thinks the government should aid African-Americans
This independent variable measures whether or not the respondent feels the current
conditions of African-Americans are due to lack of work ethic, that they are deserving of their
current conditions, and thereby they should not receive financial assistance from the government.
The variable has been recoded into a dummy variable, 0 indicating that the respondent supports
the government aid and 1 indicating that the respondent does not support the government aid.
Responses coded as Do not know were recoded as missing variables. We assume that those
who feel the government should not aid African-Americans will have higher odds of supporting
the death penalty.
Whether or not the respondent believes African-Americans overcome prejudice without favors
This independent variable measures whether or not the respondent feels that AfricanAmericans are able to overcome the prejudice they receive on their own terms without financial
aid from the government, affirmative action, university acceptance race quotas, etc. The variable

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has been recoded into a dummy variable, 0 indicating that the respondent believes AfricanAmericans overcome prejudice without favors and 1 indicating that the respondent does not
believe such. Responses coded as Do not know were recoded as missing variables. We assume
that those who feel that African-Americans do not overcome prejudice without favors will have
higher odds of supporting the death penalty.
Whether or not respondent thinks racists should be allowed to teach
This independent variable measures whether or not the respondent feels that racists
should be allowed to teach and have either blatant or discrete racist undertones in his/her
teachings. The variable has been recoded into a dummy variable, 0 indicating that the respondent
believes racists should not be allowed to teach and 1 indicating that the respondent believes
racists should be allowed to teach. Responses coded as Do not know were recoded as missing
variables. We assume that those who feel that racists should be allowed to teach will have higher
odds of supporting the death penalty.
Whether or not racists should be allowed to speak in public
This independent variable measures whether or not the respondent feels that racists
should be allowed to speak in public and spread their racist ideology. The variable has been
recoded into a dummy variable, 0 indicating that the respondent believes racists should not be
allowed to speak in public and 1 indicating that the respondent believes racists should be allowed
to speak in public. Responses coded as Do not know were recoded as missing variables. We
assume that those who feel that racists should be allowed to speak in public will have higher
odds of supporting the death penalty.

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Whether or not respondent thinks racist books should be allowed in the library
This independent variable measures whether or not the respondent feels that racist books
should be allowed in the library to further spread the authors racism. The variable has been
recoded into a dummy variable, 0 indicating that the respondent believes racist books should not
be allowed in the library and 1 indicating that the respondent believes racist books should be
allowed in the library. Responses coded as Do not know were recoded as missing variables.
We assume that those who feel that racist books should be allowed in the library will have higher
odds of supporting the death penalty.
Control Variables
The control variables included in the research include: Age, education, income, sex, race,
religion and party ID. Responses coded as Do not know or NA were recoded as missing
variables.
Results

Variable
R prefers living in black neighborhood (livblk)
R prefers living in white neighborhood (livwht)
R OK with family member marrying black (marblk)
R thinks conditions of blacks should be improved (natrace)
R thinks government should aid blacks (helpblk)
R believes blacks overcome prejudice without favors (wrkwayup)
R thinks racists should be allowed to teach (colrac)
R thinks racists should be allowed to speak (spkrac)
R thinks racist books should be allowed in library (librac)
Age
Education
Income
Sex
Race

Sig.
.022
.000
.020
.046
.050
.042
.103
.988
.945
.764
.867
.292
.011
.001

Exp(B)
1.100
.736
1.175
1.218
1.311
1.451
1.336
1.003
.987
1.001
1.045
1.027
1.413
1.694

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Religion
Party ID

12
.031
.026

1.389
1.224

The first hypothesis predicted that the more comfortable the respondent is with being in
close proximity with African-Americans, the lower the respondents odds will be of supporting
capital punishment. According to the results, this hypothesis has been corroborated. Each of the
independent variables has P-values less than or equal to .05 and therefore holds statistical
significance. For the first independent variable, whether or not the respondent prefers living in a
African-American neighborhood, it is found that the less the respondent favors living in an
African-American neighborhood, the odds of the respondent supporting capital punishment goes
up by 10%. For the second independent variable, whether or not the respondent prefers living in
a white neighborhood, it is found that the less the respondent favors living in a white
neighborhood, the odds of the respondent supporting capital punishment goes down by 26.4%.
For the third independent variable, whether or not the respondent would be uncomfortable with a
family member marrying an African-American, the less the respondent favors a family member
marrying an African-American, the odds of the respondent supporting capital punishment goes
up by 17.5%. Here it becomes obvious that those who are very comfortable living around
African-Americans and who would actually prefer to live around them have lower odds of
supporting the death penalty than those less comfortable with being in a close proximity with
African-Americans, either by living around them or having one become a member of the family.
The second hypothesis predicted that those who believe current living conditions and
opportunities are appropriate for African-Americans and should not be improved would have
higher odds of supporting capital punishment. According to the results, this hypothesis has also
been corroborated. Each independent variable has a P-value less than .05 and therefore holds

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statistical significance. For the first independent variable, whether or not the respondent thinks
the conditions of African-Americans should be improved, the less that the respondent favors
improving the conditions of African-Americans, the odds of the respondent supporting capital
punishment goes up by 21.8%. For the second independent variable, whether or not the
respondent thinks the government should aid African-Americans, the less the respondent favors
the government aiding African-Americans, the odds of the respondent supporting capital
punishment goes up by 31.1%. For the third independent variable, whether or not the respondent
believes African-Americans overcome prejudice without favors, the less the respondent believes
African-Americans overcome prejudice without favors, the odds of the respondent supporting
capital punishment goes up by 45.1%.
The third hypothesis predicted that those who are more tolerant of racist ideas would
have higher odds of supporting the death penalty. This hypothesis was refuted by the results. All
of the P-values were above .05, therefore no significant relationship was found between any of
the variables. This could be explained by the fact that many Americans have an absolute
devotion to the rule of law which includes the right to freedom of speech. The model for this
hypothesis was adjusted several times to see if significance would appear, but to no avail. It
appears that model was adjusted correctly and was robust enough to withstand the failure to
confirm this hypothesis.
As for the control variables, it was found that age, education and income were
insignificant when it came to odds of supporting capital punishment because they hold P-values
above .05. I at least expected a relationship between higher incomes and higher odds of
supporting death penalty, but this could also be an indication that those with lower incomes are
forced to live in areas with a high population of African Americans and therefore have learned to

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resent and fear them more, as shown in the study done by Soss (2003). As for the sex variable, it
is indicated that mens odds of supporting capital punishment are higher than womens by 41.3%.
For the race variable, it is indicated that whites and other races odds of supporting capital
punishment are higher than African-Americans by 69.4%. This is a very strong relationship and
a clear indication of the relationship between support for capital punishment and race. As for the
religion variable, it is indicated that non-Christians odds of supporting capital punishment are
higher than Christians odds by 38.9%. I found this to be an interesting result because it is a
reoccurring argument for those who support capital punishment to refer to the Bibles verses in
both Exodus 21:24 and Matthew 5:35 which states, An eye for an eye. For the final control
variable, political identification, it is indicated that as the respondent becomes more republican,
the odds of the respondent supporting capital punishment goes up by 22.4%. Since the
Republican Party tends to favor tougher criminal policies, I expected this relationship to be a lot
stronger.
Discussion
Whether or not anyone wants to admit to it, racism is indefinitely a factor when it comes
to support for capital punishment. Capital punishment cannot be considered an issue that is free
of racial undertones when the support is clearly so much higher among whites than AfricanAmericans, a statement proven by the control variable for race which found that whites' and
other races' odds of supporting capital punishment were 69.4% higher than African-Americans,
indicating a very strong relationship. The topic has been researched plenty, but one single, clear
theory as to why this is such a phenomenon has yet to be reached.

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Many researchers have come to the conclusion that racial animosity is a large factor in
support for capital punishment. This becomes evident in the second hypothesis discussed, that
those who believe current living conditions and opportunities are appropriate for AfricanAmericans and should not be improved will support capital punishment. The question asked if
the respondent believed that the statement Blacks are able to overcome prejudice without
favors was true. This was an interesting finding because it held the strongest relationship among
all of the independent, non-control variables tested, with the odds of support for capital
punishment increasing by 45.1% for respondents who felt the statement was not true. These
people essentially have no remorse for the social conditions that African-Americans are living in,
as indicated by the variable Respondent favors improving the conditions of blacks. Those who
did not favor improving the conditions of African-Americans odds of supporting the death
penalty were 21.8% higher than those who did favor such. As indicated in Feagins (2004) study,
these respondents are likely unapologetic to the social and institutional disparities of AfricanAmericans and perhaps place the blame completely upon the so-called irresponsibility and
disorganization of family matters within African-American residences (p. 529). These people
also put blame for the distraughtly conditions upon the African-Americans lack of work ethic
and laziness, as indicated in the variable Respondent favors government aid to blacks, which
indicated the respondents odds of favoring capital punishment increased by 31.1% if he/she did
not favor such.
Researchers have also come to the conclusion that those who support the death penalty
may do so because of a fear of African-American criminal activity. It is suggested in both
Peffleys (2007) and Sidanius (1999) studies that white Americans use capital punishment as a
means of subordinating African-Americans in an attempt to preserve their own safety (p. 996 &

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p. 17). In Soss study in particular, it was indicated that those who live in close proximity to
African-Americans live in fear of becoming a victim of such criminal activity and therefore are
more likely to support the death penalty (p. 416). With the variable Respondent favors living in
a black neighborhood, respondents who indicated that they would not prefer such had odds 10%
higher of supporting capital punishment than those who would favor such. With the opposite
variable, asking the same question but only with a white neighborhood, the less the respondent
favored living in a white neighborhood, the lower his/her odds were of supporting capital
punishment, 26.4% lower to be exact. Whatever the reason is, it appears that the less one would
prefer to live in an African-American residential area, the more that he/she fears being a victim
of African-American criminality. Even more so than living in an African-American residential
area, having one become a member of the family is even closer in proximity. Most level minded
people would be accepting of such and being against it likely indicates racism. With the variable
Respondent favors family member marrying a black, respondents who were not in favor of
such had odds 17.5% higher of supporting capital punishment than those who would favor such.
Being in close proximity with African-Americans, whether it be through living conditions or
family matters, is a touchy subject for many who support capital punishment and a good amount
of those who are uncomfortable with such likely have a fear of African-Americans and therefore
have higher odds of supporting the institution to control African-American criminal behavior.
In conclusion, it is clear that there is some racism evident in support for capital
punishment. Whether it is caused by racial animosity, fear of African-American criminality or
something else, we will never be sure. But one thing is for sure; public opinion on the issue will
continue to be swayed, whether it is toward racist ideologies or against.

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Detailed Bibliography
Feagin, J. & OBrien E. (2004). White Men on Race: Power, Privilege, and the Shaping of
Cultural Consciousness. Contemporary Sociology, 33(5), 529-530.
National Opinion Research Center. (2010). General Social Survey [GSS2010.sav].
Retrieved from http://www3.norc.org/GSS+Website/Download
Peffley, M., & Hurwitz J. (2007). Persuasion and Resistance: Race and the Death
Penalty in America. American Journal of Political Science, 51(4), 996-1012.
Radelet, M. (1995). Race and Death. Index on Censorship, 24 (124), 124-125.
Sidanius, J., & Pratto F. (1999). Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social
Hierarchy and Oppression. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Soss, J., Langbein, L., & Metelko, A.R. (2003). Why Do White Americans Support the

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Death Penalty? The Journal of Politics, 65(2), 397-421.


Unnever, J. & Cullen, F. (2007). The Racial Divide in Support for the Death Penalty: Does
White Racism Matter? Social Forces, 85(3), 1281-1301.
Unnever, J., Cullen, F., & Jonson, C. (2008). Race, Racism and Support for Capital Punishment.
Crime and Justice, 37(1), 45-96.