The Delaware Supreme Court recently struck down the state’s death penalty on Sixth Amendment grounds. In November, California, the largest state in the country, will have a ballot initiative to end the death penalty.
It’s almost certain that the United States has executed innocent people, and death row inmates are being exonerated with DNA evidence across the country. With the possibility of a Supreme Court that is appointed by Democrats, it’s increasingly likely that the death penalty will eventually be banned in the United States.
But despite the liberalization that has happened in America in recent decades on issues like gun control, marijuana legislation, and LGBTQ rights, the death penalty has proven stubbornly resistant to a change. A recent Gallup poll finds that 61 percent of Americans still favor the death penalty; Pew places support at about 56 percent. That’s lower than in the early 1990s, when 80% of Americans supported the death penalty, but it’s still high when compared to other industrialized nations, and a far smaller gain than other progressive political causes have made in the U.S. during the same time period.
Why has support for the death penalty proven so consistent among Americans? Our research shows one possible reason: namely, support for the death penalty is deeply linked to larger questions of racism in America.
In trying to answer these questions, we created a model that used several academic data sources and controlled for race, income, education, ideology and party to explore how racism affects attitudes about the death penalty. And when we ran the numbers, we found that people who harbor racist stereotypes about black people and those with racial resentment towards the position of black people in American society are far more supportive of the death penalty than those with more tolerant attitudes.
In other words, the data clearly show that the death penalty isn’t a party-line issue—it’s a racism issue.
The links between the death penalty and racism
We know, first and foremost, that support for the death penalty is most highly concentrated among older white Americans.
According to data from the 2016 American National Election Studies, a survey of 1,200 eligible voters taken in late January, 79% of Republicans support the death penalty, while only 45% of Democrats do. 63% of white people support the death penalty, compared with 42% of black people and half of all people of color. Among those less than 30 years of age, support stands at only 46%, while 65% of those 50 years and older favor the death penalty.
One question on the ANES survey asks respondents, “Do you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?” We compared this data with other ANES questions that ask respondents questions about racial resentment—such as whether they think black people are lazier and more violent than white people.
As the chart below shows, whites who displayed high levels of racial resentment in their responses were far more likely to support the death penalty.
Interestingly, this effect is not true among Latinos. Latinos who harbor more resentful views or negative stereotypes of black people are no more likely to favor the death penalty than those without resentful views. This suggests that the death penalty is uniquely tied to race for whites—maybe unsurprising, given its long history as a tool for racial oppression.
The death penalty is being successfully killed by high-knowledge Democrats
Even though support for the death penalty doesn’t fall neatly along party lines, there is still a link to partisan politics—namely, Democrat-controlled states are much more likely to abolish the death penalty than those controlled by Republicans.
As the chart below shows, in 2012, 74% of Democrats supported the death penalty, compared to about 84% for Republicans and 81% for Independents. Between 2012 and 2016, Democrats and Independents have become significantly less likely to support the death penalty. Among strong Democratic partisans, there is now only a 45% probability of support for the death penalty, compared to 85% for strong Republicans.
The explanation for the emergence of partisan polarization on death penalty attitudes can be found in the shifts within the Democratic coalition. First off, we find that Democrats are no longer divided along racial lines—our model of 2016 opinions shows no significant differences in support probability between Democrats of different racial backgrounds. Second, and perhaps even more important, Democrats with high levels of political knowledge are now significantly less likely to support the death penalty than those with low levels of political knowledge. As shown in the chart below, probability of support among “high knowledge” Democrats—defined by the survey as Democrats who correctly answered a series of questions about American politics and government—is only 35%. This group, more than any other, is pushing the death penalty toward abolition.
America will probably abolish the death penalty—eventually
Though several states have curbed the use of, or entirely abolished the death penalty, it still exists in 31 states. The increasing difficulty in obtaining the drugs used to carry out lethal injections has also slowed the pace of executions. Executions per year have steadily declined, from 52 in 2009 to 28 in 2015 and 15 so far in 2016. One study finds, “Only 2% of the counties in the U.S. have been responsible for the majority of cases leading to executions since 1976.”
But even if states don’t vote to abolish the death penalty, the Supreme Court appears ready to strike, accepting two death penalty cases for its upcoming term. Both cases include sympathetic defendants: one, a black man whose trial included testimony claiming that black people are more prone to violence than whites and another includes a man with severe mental disabilities. Justices Breyer and Kennedy had previously signaled opposition on the grounds that the death penalty was applied too inconsistently. Ginsburg joined a Breyer dissent declaring death penalty unconstitutional and it’s likely Sotomayor believes this as well. It’s unlikely Kagan would dissent with the conservatives, particularly if Kennedy is on board.
The Court as it is currently will continue to limit the death penalty; a Court with a liberal majority could end the death penalty for good, while a Court with one or more new justices appointed by Donald Trump would likely uphold it. (Trump has signaled strong support for the death penalty, especially for people who kill police officers.)
The death penalty has a fraught history in the United States. It has roots in lynching, a form of extra-judicial terrorism that propped up white supremacy. A study by the Equal Justice Institute finds, “the decline of lynching in the studied states relied heavily on the increased use of capital punishment imposed by court order following an often accelerated trial.” Black men were frequently executed for rape, though white men rarely did. According to the ACLU, “Between 1930 and 1976, 455 men were executed for rape, of whom 405 – 90 percent – were black.” The youngest American in the 20th century who was executed was a black 14 year old, convicted in a trial that was deemed unfair 70 years after his execution.
Even today, there are stark racial biases in who faces death, and for what crimes. These disparities persist today.
The death penalty can’t be separated from America’s long history of racial oppression. Luckily, the social liberalization of the country combined with judicial challenges may, eventually, make state-sponsored executions a thing of the past.
Jason McDaniel is an Associate Professor of Political Science at San Francisco State University who specializes in race and voting behavior.
Sean McElwee is a policy analyst at Demos Action.