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.