Death Penalty Maintains Racial Inequality

The inauguration of Barack Obama, one day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, has prompted a healthy discussion in the nation about racial and socioeconomic inequality.

As part of that discussion it is important to point out that, just like the divisions in the Jim Crow south, the death penalty continues to divide us by race and socioeconomic status.

In 1976, when the Supreme Court approved the modern death penalty statutes that were supposed to ensure that death sentences were no longer arbitrary and discriminatory, the Court stated that "capital punishment is an expression of society's moral outrage at particularly offensive conduct . . ."

Yet the evidence from the past 33 years demonstrates that capital punishment remains arbitrary and that society's moral outrage continues to be expressed loudest when wealthy white people are homicide victims. As blue ribbon study commissions in California (PDF), and Maryland (PDF) have recently reiterated, empirical research across the country consistently demonstrates that a defendant who kills a white person is far more likely to receive the death penalty than a defendant who kills a person of color, and the racial configuration most likely to result in a death sentence is a black-on-white crime. Similarly, this research demonstrates that defendants whose victims are high in socioeconomic status face a significantly higher risk of execution.

The death penalty's racial and socioeconomic bias persists despite the best efforts of legislators and judges to erect fair and equitable capital punishment procedures. This bias sends the clear and morally repugnant message that society values wealthy victims more than poor and middle class victims, and white victims more than victims of color. It is one more reason to abolish capital punishment. A society that follows Reverend King's admonition to judge men and women by their character and not their skin color values the lives of all equally, regardless of racial or socioeconomic status.

And capital punishment is harmful to people of color and poor people for another reason: The death penalty aggressively consumes scarce state resources upon which many poor people and people of color depend. In cities across the country, prosecuting death penalty cases has left prosecutors' offices in dire financial straits. In New Orleans, for example, the prosecutor's office has filed for bankruptcy after being held civilly liable for wrongfully sentencing to death an innocent man. Moreover, every dollar spent on the death penalty is one dollar unavailable for community policing and other measures to make poor and African-American communities safer.

The election of Barack Obama as our Nation's 44th President shows how far we have come towards healing the wounds of slavery and systemic racial discrimination. Our continued use of the death penalty, predominately in the South, shows how far we have yet to go.

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David Morris

You know who else is being killed at an alarming rate? Unborn "african american" babies. Why do they have no rights?

David Morris

Why does the ACLU use moderators?? Is this not a free country? oh I forgot, it is free only if you walk duck step with the left


Besides prejudice itself, after the fact of a crime, I think that prejudicial factors can lead individuals to be more prone to commit a crime in the first place- and so this becomes a cycle of crime of participants and judicial systems.

For example, for years black men have complained about police following them around. And they are more likely to live in areas where that will occur. There is then just a basic psychological antagonism, a stress and tension built into everything. A person who may have already had bad encounters by the police may be even more stressed or antagonized in an area with a lot of police visibility or sirens: it's basic psychology. And stress and pressure lead to more crime- it's not as rotely a deterent as the right wing likes to believe. Police in high crime areas may also be under more stress and more likely to take innappropriate liberties.

In a culture of increased education and awareness that now seems to find creative ways to stress itself out, perhaps less rote behavioral conditioning might actually lead to less stress and frustration, and fewer crimes of passion to begin with

James Inman

Readers may be interested in our upcoming program on the death penalty in Knoxville, Tennessee:

It's free to the public, though we're asking everyone to pre-register so we have an accurate count for planning purposes.

James Inman
Editor in Chief, Tennessee Law Review


This is the the most ridiculous article i have ever read. I feel sad for the ignorant person writing such falsehood.


I have to disagree with this article. I do not think we should forget about the horrible crimes they people have committed to lead them to the death penalty. I believe it is justice. Color should not be brought into it.


David Morris...Please read the policy statement immediately above the comments section. It explains why moderators are used.

Go over to the discussion pages on abortion if you wish to share your views. You might find a more open audience.

Raven...Please help us. About what falsehood are you writing? Can you provide any cites to disprove the information provided here?

Andrea...There are two concepts in your letter. I agree that we should never forget the victims. I also agree that color should not be brought into the findings of the court. Unfortunately, our impartial judicial system is partial. People make mistakes. Prosecutors are under pressure, especially in high-profile cases, to make someone pay. Without even considering what capital punishment says about us as a nation, those weaknesses mean we cannot be certain enough of guilt to kill someone.

Against the dea...

Just once I wish that all the ones that say they are speaking for the victims would STOP! Speak for yourself! If you are a victim then say so! Don't jump on the killing bandwagon just because it seems to give you some kind of an excuse, or any other bandwagon either! If you are not a victim or a family member then you don't have to live the rest of your life with the decissions that you say that you are making on behalf of them and they in fact may be totally opposed to your point of view so you are trompling all over them. What is right about that? If you want the death penalty say it for yourself, say I am not a victim or I am a victim, but I want this, not do it for them or think about them. What you are doing is not thinking about what the real victims intentions or needs or wants are, you are thinking only of yourself so since that is so have guts enough to say so! Don't make the victims have to carry the burden for what you want, okay!

Barbara Louise

I wrote a comment and carefully enered the code. Why was I silenced?

Barbara Louise

Perhaps my long rsponse to David Morris was in error. There are other forums for that discussion.

But I have read of studies which establish that most peeople who are in favor of the Death Penalty are also Racist, Sexist, Classist, and Homophobic, andd thus more likely to find those diffferent from thmselves, especially Black people, guilty, and gladly vote for the Death Penalty also.

The problem is a world view which believes that killing people will solve our problems.


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