Death Penalty & Race in Term Paper

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This article puts forward the notion that when analyzing the "...relationships between minority groups and mainstream populations," the issue of whether the use of "formal control is applied fairly and consistently between these different groups" is a pivotal place to begin (Ruddell, et al., 2004). It is pivotal because "injustice" not only can have "a corrosive effect" on the perception of the fairness (or unfairness) of the criminal justice system; it may actually "contribute to increased crime."

The rationale behind Ruddell's study is partly sociological and partly philosophical: when ethnic minority groups "increase in number and size, they also contest the status quo," and become a "threat." As the minority group grows, so do perceived threats to the economic and social structure of the majority increase, and hence "minority communities are likely to be policed more aggressively," Ruddell continues. As a result more arrests take place in these communities - and on down the road, more executions as well.

The Journal of Human Rights published an article titled "Of rights and men: towards a minoritarian framing of male experience" which adds another level - that is gender, e.g., black men - to the well-documented disproportionate number of blacks killed for crimes. Jones, the author, quotes the Secretary General of Amnesty International, Pierre Sane, as corroborating what Adams asserted earlier in this paper; "The odds of a death sentence in which blacks killed whites has been shown to be as much as 11 times higher than in the murder of a black victim by a white person" (Jones, 2002).

Further, Sane puts forth the view that whether you live or die in the U.S. - "as a result of your crimes" - seems to be "largely determined by the colour of your own skin and the race of your victim." But the article's pivotal point is not just that minorities are unjustly singled out for death in terms of crime and capital punishment, but that there is gender discrimination in addition to racial bias in these cases.

Executions of males in the U.S. are out of proportion to the number of murders that males actually commit," Jones asserts. Women, who indeed have suffered far more than their share of pain due to the violence men tend to perpetrate upon them, nevertheless are "more likely to be dropped out of the system the further the capital punishment system progresses," Jones continues.

While women account for roughly 1 in 8 (13%) of murder arrests, they only make up 1 in 52 (1.9%) death sentences "imposed at trial level," Jones writes. As to the gender of persons on death row (at the time of the article, 2002), females made up 1 in 77 (1.3%); and when it comes to persons actually executed in the U.S. since 1976, women - who, remember, constituted 13% of arrests on murder charges - make up just 3 in 540 (0.6%).

There have been 132 death sentences imposed on women since 1973, but 76 of those sentences (57%) were subsequently overturned or commuted; the rate of overturned or commuted sentences for men is around one third of the cases. The author dips back to 1608, shortly after the Pilgrims arrived on Plymouth Rock, for some additional argumentative ammunition; of the 19,000 "confirmed what is now the United States, "only 515, less than three percent, were executions of women."

Somewhat cryptically, the author claims that men are "the disposable sex," in part because they "have been conscripted to fight nations' wars, and in part because the most dangerous work...relies upon the extensive maiming and killing of males..." Indeed, men seem disposable, Jones continues, since "every day, almost as many men are killed at work as were killed during the average day in Vietnam."

The American Society of Criminology published an article titled "On Reducing White Support For the Death Penalty: A Pessimistic Appraisal," in which the authors report that, using "survey-based experiments involving large national samples," it has been revealed that public opinion among Caucasians is "not substantially influenced by information about the over-representation of blacks on death row" (Barkan, et al., 2005). Are the authors suggesting that the white population is racist across the board, and hence, not shocked that so many blacks are on death row?

The answer to that question has to be a qualified yes; and surveys also reveal that whites are also seemingly unconcerned about the unfairness of the existing racial bias connected with death penalty executions, nor are they moved "by information about wrongful convictions in capital cases." To attempt an understanding of why public opinion is not easily swayed to a more sympathetic view of the clear bias in capital punishment cases, the authors first of all suggest that public informational campaigns relative to crime and justice are usually under-funded and hence, public opinion isn't swayed to any large degree. Secondly, they explain that support for death penalty measures "rose substantially after the mid-1960s," due to "rising crime rates and to efforts by politicians (who typically have far greater resources and impact than informational campaigns) to gain votes by using racially coded language."

In research conducted in 2002 by General Social Survey (GSS), and referenced by Barkan, 69.8% of whites favored capital punishment while only 42.1% of blacks favored capital punishment. There was a drop-off in support (across the board) for the death penalty between 1990 and 2000, however, of 11.6%. Among white participants in the survey, support for the death penalty fell from 77.4% in 1990, down to 68% in 2000 (a 9.4% drop).

The reasons Barkan offers for this decline in support for capital punishment are that, a) the homicide rate "dropped substantially in the United States beginning in 1994"; and b) the governor of Illinois received a great deal of national publicity through intense media coverage for his "moratorium on executions" in the state of Illinois.

That having been said, it remains a fact that "almost seven out of every ten whites still favored the death penalty in 2000," and that helps to keep the death penalty - dramatically and thematically prejudiced against black men though it may be - in place, since, at the outset of the article, Barkan asserted that "empirical evidence finds public opinion does indeed have a significant policy influence." And moreover, even the Supreme Court has given public views "explicit attention in its decisions" regarding the constitutionality of the death penalty..."

Not pulling punches, the authors flat out assert that "the roots of [whites'] death penalty support [lies] in racial prejudice." And the basis of those racist roots can be explained through a number of attitudes, which Barkan and his colleague identify as the following: "negative views of human nature"; the attitude that "laws [no matter how just or unjust] should be obeyed"; "fear of criminal victimization"; "salience of crime in one's neighborhood"; "religious fundamentalism"; identification with "political conservatism"; "trust in government"; "authoritarianism"; "support for civil liberties"; "interpersonal trust"; and "individualism."

And though racial prejudice is clearly "inappropriate by democratic norms," it is nonetheless linked, in the authors' minds, with support for the death penalty; and it is a "strong and stable value." And further, racial prejudice is "associated with punitiveness among whites," which is troubling. In fact, the 1992 American National Election Study concluded that "White support for the death penalty in the United States has strong ties to anti-black prejudice," the article reports.

The study shows that "White Americans' preferences for the death penalty cannot be adequately understood apart from their racial component"; in other words, support for the death penalty is indeed race-based, and for all the reasons outlined hitherto in this paper, the white community in the U.S. is, in general terms, biased against the African-American community to the extent that they respond to politicians' demagogic rhetoric endorsing punitive measures that punish blacks.

It is not editorially out of line to suggest that politicians, especially during election years - and members of the U.S. House of Representatives run for re-election every two years - embrace issues they can take tough stands on to get those all-important "undecided" voters motivated. And politicians universally want to be seen as "tough on crime," hence, their rhetoric on capital punishment plays into the fears of voters who may also have a bias against blacks.

Meanwhile, an article in The Journal of Politics ("Why Do White Americans Support the Death Penalty?") digs somewhat deeper into the impact that race has on capital punishment. "Race-coded rhetoric by public officials" and "media coverage that exaggerates black violence" are two of the most obvious reasons that whites support the death penalty (Soss, et al., 2003), along with the fact that politicians believe in "giving the people what they want," in the author's words. And a very powerful influence on whites - bolstering their pro-death penalty positions - occurs when media stories "routinely convey threatening images of black crime suspects and disproportionately portray black prisoners as 'irrational, incorrigible, predatory, and dangerous'."

The authors point out that…[continue]

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