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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 four times higher if the defendant is Black.

  • The states with the highest lynching rates are the states with the highest execution rates.

  • Between colonial times and 1990, approximately 18,000 people were executed; only 30 cases involved the execution of a white person for the murder of a Black person.

  • Of the chief District Attorneys in counties using the death penalty in the United States, nearly 98% are white and only 1% are African American.

  • 42% of the people on death row are African American and 34% of those executed. Yet only 13% of the population is Black.

  • Since executions resumed in the US in 1977, 295 African American defendants have been executed for interracial murders of white victims, while only 21 white defendants have been executed for interracial murders of African Americans.

  • 366 people were executed for juvenile offenses before the Supreme Court banned such executions in 2005.

Explicit and implicit bias

Black people and people of color face racial discrimination at every turn, from explicit racism in policing to the subconscious (and often conscious) racial biases of jurors, judges, and prosecutors, and the media.

Black and brown jurors are often excluded because of their race, even though the Constitution prohibits such discrimination. In capital cases prosecutors use a jury selection process known as “death qualification” to eliminate jurors who are not willing to vote for the death penalty. This process has a disproportionate racial impact, often excluding qualified jurors of color from serving.

Rear view of a advocate communicating with the jurors in the court house

The media also bears responsibility. White murder victims are frequently given front page attention, while Black victims are ignored or marginalized. Black men are overrepresented as perpetrators of crime in the media and vilified more often.

The news media overreports on homicides committed by Black people against whites, even though homicide is largely an interracial crime. In this way and others, the media perpetuates a narrative of white victimization.

“There is no justice in killing in the name of justice.”

-Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Abolishing the death penalty

Every victory—from the abolition of slavery to the Civil Rights Act to the election of our nation’s first Black president—has been accompanied by a swift and vicious backlash. We see it all around us today.

The death penalty is an extension of our racist criminal justice system. As author and civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander notes, there are more African Americans locked up or under state control today than were enslaved before the Civil War began.

“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,” said MLK Jr. The death penalty must be abolished if we ever want to achieve a truly just and peaceful world.

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