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The Racist History of the Death Penalty in America

From the moment he announced his run, the Trump presidency has been steeped in racism. He called Mexicans “rapists” and “drug dealers,” complained about Africa’s “shithole” countries, and called for his white supremacist backers to “stand back and stand by.”

It’s not surprising, then, that Trump would spend the final days of his presidency putting people to death under America’s racist capital punishment system.

african american prisoner with hands in prison bars

On December 10, Trump and his now-former attorney general William Barr ordered the execution of 40-year-old Brandon Bernard, an African American man who spent half his life on death row for a crime he committed when he was just 18 years old.

Since July, the administration has put 10 people to death as part of a literal killing spree. If the Trump administration has its way, by January 20th it will have overseen the executions of 13 death row inmates in a period of just seven months.

The death penalty as a “direct descendant of lynching”

Racism has not subsided in America—it has simply taken on more covert forms. What started with the slaughter of indigenous peoples and the enslavement of Black people evolved into lynchings and Jim Crow laws. Today, it’s mass incarceration and capital punishment.

The death penalty in the US is a direct descendant of lynching, and the American South is the epicenter. More than 8 in 10 lynchings were carried out in the South, and 8 in 10 legal executions occur there today.

But legal executions are carried out in states across the country and by the federal government.

After Reconstruction, whites—especially white Southerners—used lynchings to terrorize Black Americans. But by the early 1900s the optics of giddy white crowds torturing and killing Black people in party-like gatherings began to undermine America’s image.

So lynchings became legalized executions.

By the 1930s, two-thirds of people executed in the U.S. were Black. In the South, the numbers were even worse—by 1950, Black people represented 75% of those executed in southern states.

Statue of lady Justice buried in sand

The year 1972 brought a hopeful sign that the U.S. was rethinking capital punishment when the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in its Furman v. Georgia decision.

It didn’t last long. Southern lawmakers sprang into action to pass new death penalty laws, and in 1976 the Court upheld Georgia’s new death penalty statute under the Gregg v. Georgia decision.

In a landmark case (McCleskey V. Kemp) a decade later, the Supreme Court ruled against a Black man who appealed his death sentence conviction, arguing that the death penalty in Georgia was administered in a racially discriminatory, and therefore unconstitutional, manner.

The Court didn’t deny that African Americans and whites were treated unequally in Georgia— but said the defendant would have to prove he had suffered personal discrimination. With its decision in the Court, it effectively sanctioned structural racism.

In the words of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, “McCleskey now acts as a substantial barrier to the elimination of racial inequalities in the criminal justice system, perpetuating an unfair racial imbalance that has come to define criminal justice in America.”

“Every execution deepens the culture of violence.”

-Amnesty International

Racial bias and the perception of the white victim

One of the racial disparities in our capital punishment system revolves around how victims are perceived. The death penalty is carried out for the murder of white victims at much higher rates than for Black victims, even though Black and white people are equally likely to be victims of murder.

A recent study, for example, found that 22 of 972 defendants convicted of killing a white victim were executed. By comparison, just 2 of 1,593 defendants convicted of killing a Black victim were executed.

These death penalty statistics and facts highlight the extent of racial bias in America’s capital punishment system.

  • Race of the victim is the greatest predictor of who gets executed in America; the odds of receiving a death sentence are nearly