Yesterday, Slate.com writer Jamelle Bouie wrote about a Pew survey and why he thinks so many more white people support the death penalty. Spoiler: It's racism. Now before jumping in, let's go ahead and make one thing perfectly clear, there are racial disparities when it comes not just to the death penalty, but to criminal punishment in general. And also, those disparities are bad.
That said, Bouie is completely wrong when it comes to why white people like the death penalty so much. Or, to be more exact, his argument is without meaningful support. He could in fact be right, but he certainly hasn't made his case.
He first lays out the Pew data:
Overall, 55 percent of Americans support capital punishment, and 37 percent are opposed. Among whites, however, support for the death penalty jumps to 63 percent, compared to 40 percent for Hispanics and 36 percent for blacks.
So far so good, but Bouie is concerned with the why, not just the what. To begin his explanation for why white people like the death penalty, he first reminds us of its racist historical use:
Before we get into why whites are so supportive of the death penalty, it’s important to remember this: There’s no separating capital punishment from its role, in part, as a tool of racial control.
There's a bit of internal inconsistency in this statement's logic. It's that "in part" bit. That phrase implies there's another part, and if there is that other part, then a sufficiently sophisticated mind actually can separate one part from the other part. That's kinda what it means for there to be parts. And what is that other part? Capital punishment's use as a tool of crime control. And you know why it's so easy to mentally separate these two parts? Because capital punishment predates racially diverse civilization. Ancient Greece didn't exactly have a lot of black people in it, but you could be sentenced to death for the crime of giving funeral rights to a traitor, or corrupting the youth with your weirdo philosophy.
So, there is in fact some separating capital punishment from its role as a tool of racial control. And duh, the Pew data bears it out. 36% of blacks support it. If you were to ask about things with more direct ties to racism, such as segregation or lynching, we suspect the number of black supporters would be considerably lower. We think it's safe to say that the black supporters of the death penalty probably do a bit of separating.
Bouie concludes his article with this:
It sounds glib, but if you needed a one-word answer to why whites are so supportive of the death penalty, “racism” isn’t a bad choice.
And for no particular reason, these seems to us a good place to introduce some other statistics, and we decided on the racial breakdown of people who've been executed since 1976. No surprise, blacks are grossly over-represented, making up 34% of those executed, about twice their percentage in the population.
That disparity is alarming for sure, but it should also set off a red flag as it relates to Bouie's argument. What about the other people? 56% of those executed were white. So, in Bouie's interpretation of America, white people aren't only using the death penalty for racial control, but are so hell bent on keeping the blacks in line that they'll kill 5 white people just to kill 3 black people. We're either really bad at being racist, or still working through some fodder left over from the Clone War.
We think Bouie's argument has some holes in it now, but it's not quite sunk. Maybe white people don't realize how many other whites are executed. Or maybe they're just happy with the disparity because it both kills the criminals who need killing, and also keep the blacks in line. If only there was a way to corroborate Bouie's theory.
And thankfully there is! Great thing about America is that it's racist to just about everyone, and it's got a lot of different races to be racist against. So let's look at Asians. They were abused in the construction of the continental railroad, their home countries have been exploited by colonial trade, and there was that slight incident where we imprisoned every single Japanese person in the country. Asians make up about 5% of the American population, but are an even tinier number of those executed.
Of course, most of the death penalty states are in the South, which has a smaller Asian population. In Alabama, they're only 1.2% of the population, but also only 0.5% of current death row inmates. In Texas, Asians are 4.2% of the population and 1.3% of death row inmates. And looking at California where Asians are 13.9% of the population, and where you'd expect a history of racism against Asians to have its strongest lingering effect, they're only 3.4% of death row inmates.
What can we conclude from all this? That if white people favor capital punishment because they're racist, then they suck at racism. And that Bouie sucks at talking about race and the death penalty, because he also quotes another interesting figure from the Pew study: 64% of white protestants support the death penalty. Now we haven't read our Bibles in a while, but we're pretty sure there's some stuff in there about justice, and morals, and eyeballs and some other such things, and that maybe the reason why white protestants are so much in favor of the death penalty isn't because of racism, but because they have a different take on criminal justice generally.