Facing South

Why does the South execute more people?

In the wake of the high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful effort to save Georgia's Troy Davis from execution, media outlets are buzzing that the Davis case has sparked a new debate about capital punishment.

As many of these stories point out, a sizable majority in the U.S. still support the death penalty -- - 62 percent, according to one poll. The question is whether Davis' case will provoke a backlash.

But such polls overlook the two big divides that already shape the death penalty debate: region and race.

The regional disparity is striking. Since the Supreme Court lifted a ban on death sentences in 1976, 1,264 people have been executed in the U.S. And 921 of those executions -- or 73 percent of the total -- took place in 13 Southern states.

It's true that Texas -- and what some call its death machine -- skew the numbers: Its 474 executions account for nearly 38 percent of the U.S. total. But the fact remains: Of the many things you can call the death penalty, one fitting adjective is that it's largely Southern.

What has made the South the home base of capital punishment? As you might suspect, executions have their roots in the history of slavery. As noted in A Short History of the American Death Penalty [pdf]:

In contrast to capital punishment in the northern states, capital punishment in the South was not limited primarily to common law felonies. Rather, the death penalty was a powerful tool for keeping the slave population in submission. Crimes that interfered with the ownership of slaves were punished by death. In 1837, North Carolina, which lacked a penitentiary, had about 26 capital crimes including slave-stealing, concealing a slave with intent to free him, second conviction of inciting slaves to insurrection, and second conviction of circulating seditious literature among slaves.

This racially-influenced law-and-order mentality spilled over into other crimes: In North Carolina, stealing bank notes, "crimes against nature" ("buggery, sodomy, bestiality") and a second offense of forgery and statutory rape came to be considered capital offenses.

Racial disparity was literally written into the law with the Southern death penalty. After the Civil War, Black Codes created more crimes punishable by death for African-Americans than whites. In the 1830s, Virginia had five capital crimes for whites but an estimated 70 such crimes for black slaves.

Today, the well-documented racial disparity in death sentences has become one of the central arguments among opponents for ending capital punishment.

But less discussed is the racial divide in how people view the death penalty. For example, underneath the polls showing widespread support is one of the most well-documented facts in death penalty research: that it enjoys much higher support among whites than other racial groups, especially African-Americans.

For example, a 2005 Gallup poll was typical in finding that, while there was little difference in death penalty support among different age groups, and only a moderate 12-point gap between men and women, there was a 27-point difference between white (71%) and black (44%) support.

Indeed, recent research [pdf] by Andrew Gelman and Kenny Shirley at Columbia University found that race was by far the biggest factor in explaining differences we see in death penalty support -- more than twice as influential as the next two factors, the state where you live and the year the poll was taken. Gender, education level and age ranked even lower.

The legacy of race and racism seems clear enough in explaining much of the white South's ongoing embrace of the death penalty. But what does that mean for our new public debate about the death penalty -- especially in the place where most of the executions are happening, the South?

The answer may be disheartening for death penalty opponents. In a 2007 study [pdf], political scientists Mark Peffley and Jon Hurwitz confirmed, like many had before, that whites and blacks have vastly different attitudes about the death penalty.

It also found something else: that whites and blacks also differ in their willingness to even consider arguments about the death penalty's validity. For example, African Americans who originally supported the death penalty responded both to racial arguments (for example, "the death penalty is unfair because most of the people who are executed are black") and non-racial arguments ("too many innocent people are being executed") that were offered in opposition.

But whites presented with the same arguments were "highly resistant to persuasion" -- in fact, were actually more likely to support the death penalty after learning it discriminated against African-Americans.

Some researchers say these differences are a direct result of open racial bias among whites (see, for example, this study). Peffley and Hurwitz more charitably argue it has to do with whites seeing inequities in the criminal justice system having to do with personal failures rather than systemic problems -- more of a racial blindspot than active bigotry (which in the end may make little difference).

Either way, it's clear that views about the death penalty have become deeply ingrained in the white South -- and it will likely take more than the Troy Davis case to dislodge them.

Facing South
Facing South
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re: Why does the South execute more people?

the tradition of death in Texas is hundreds of years old, listen to the Streets of Laredo. Execution and poverty are linked, in poorer states the poor have no wealthy or active fighting for them. The poor of wealthier states have advocates and money to spend tieing up executions, the politicians do not last as long in one seat, so governors and DA's aren't embarrassed by the change of official sentiment. Mostly though it seems to come down to a branch of Christianity that advocates death, eye for eye, the fire and brimestone preachers who speak about enemies and sins more than brotherhood and forgiveness. Thou shalt not is more popular than vengence is the Lords ( as if there should be any vengence at all. ) Economics makes it hard to house someone for a lifetime if pressure is on to execute them, so more or executed. They pride themselves on not dragging it on and on, guilty or innocent, you must reap what you sow. The law can be used or misused, the same safeguards that protect the innocent protect the guilty, and the south simply does not have the resources, economically or socially, to endure the 'north' telling them what who they must be. Perhaps it is, after all, the civil war residual, and their resolution to deal with 'their own' in their own way.

re: Why does the South execute more people?

"Peffley and Hurwitz more charitably argue it has to do with whites seeing inequities in the criminal justice system having to do with personal failures rather than systemic problems"
If you just bracket out race and look at everything else, the South still looks awful. Anti-racism has become so pervasive that that's what every discussion ends up being about. But the South has been anti-labor, anti-education, anti science, anti-welfare, and so on. The New Deal was distorted by the need to please the South. In one sense it can be traced back to race, but in another sense it traces back to the planters' conviction that they deserved to rule and that no one else, white or back, was of any worth.

re: Why does the South execute more people?

I am a deep rooted Southerner who believed in the death penalty until we started hearing about all the innocent people convicted and spending years in prison until DNA proved them innocent. One wrongly executed person is one too many. The death penalty is no longer a deterent like it might have been years ago. The reasons listed in the article are probably legitimate ones. The only thing that scared me was thinking I was reading a conversation from The View. I am so tired of hearing about the south and blacks and discrimination. I think we all know by now what went on the south after the Civil War. Enough is enough. P.S. I am not aware of any African Americans that have been abused by our system. I think most of the countries in Africa is doing a good job of that themselves. The people we appear to be convicting in mass are born in America; hence, they are called Blacks, unless you want to refer to me as a German- English-American and not white.

re: Why does the South execute more people?

I think you have hit it right, rickie lee--I was going to comment that the pseudo-Christianity of the South is the largest factor. Mercy and human compassion seemingly have little or no place in the so-called Christian faith of all too many folks down South. Whether it's because of fire and brimstone preaching, or just the bitterness that comes from hardscrabble living in a still-racist society, many white folks of the lower classes think nothing about supporting capital punishment as if it was ordained in the 10 commandments.

re: Why does the South execute more people?

The legal system in this country is deeply flawed. So many inmates have been found not guilty of crimes related to sentencing with the death penalty due to DNA testing. It is frightening to imagine how many innocent have die prior to DNA. There are far many more people who are spending life in prison for crimes they have not commited where DNA is not a factor. Unfortunately, the public will not pay attention to the injustice with the legal system unless it effects them as an individual. Sad, someone should be accountable, and yes, we are still a racist country and have not really evolved.