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Racial inequality in the U.S. has no limits, especially in death penalty cases. Black Americans are overrepresented in prisons across the country. Forty-two percent of death row inmates are African American despite making up only 13% of the U.S. population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
The Black Lives Matter movement has called for several social, political, and legal reforms in response to what it calls “the war against Black people” and “Black communities” in the United States. Among these is the abolition of capital punishment because the death penalty in the United States is a “racist practice” that “devalues Black lives,” according to The University of Chicago Press Journals.
The ACLU states, “The death penalty inherently violates the constitutional ban against cruel and unusual punishment and the guarantees of due process of law and of equal protection under the law.”
Organizations like Black Lives Matter, the ACLU, and the Prison Policy Initiative represent a large body of advocacy groups speaking out against the racial disparities in the American judicial system. In addition, numerous studies reveal the death penalty’s deeply rooted racism.
The racially biased penalty is used in cases of murder, large-scale drug trafficking, or attempted murder of “certain” individuals, but it is disproportionately used against Black suspects.
“Killers of Black people are less likely to face the death penalty than [those] who kill white people,” according to AP News.
America’s judicial system consistently shows its racial biases. White defendants seem to have a higher priority than Black and brown defendants. “People convicted of killing white people are 17 times more likely to receive the death penalty than if those killed were Black, according to Vera Institute of Justice. Moreover, if both a Black and white person were to commit the same crime, the Black person would likely face harsher punishment.
Two-thirds of those on death row are convicted of crimes involving white victims. For example, from 1988 to 1994, 73% of defendants accused of drug trafficking were white, yet only 11% were convicted and sentenced to the death penalty. The remaining 89% were Hispanic or Black.
Racial Disparities In Death Penalty Sentencing Studies
These statistics are deeply rooted in America’s history. “I think what the data tells us and what history tells us is that they’re all part of the same phenomenon. The death penalty is inextricably linked to our history of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow segregation, and we wanted to put what is happening today in its appropriate context,” said Robert Dunham, the Executive Director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
After the Civil War, lynching peaked. It became a form of torture carried out mostly against Black people. As lynchings declined in the early 20th Century, executions increased soon after, replacing lynching as a tool of racial violence against African Americans. “A full 75% of those executed in the South from 1910 to 1950 were Black, even though Black people were less than a quarter of the South’s population,” reports Equal Justice USA.
A prime example of racial bias is George Stinney, a young Black fourteen-year-old boy falsely accused of murdering two white girls ages eight and eleven. He was convicted in 1944 and was executed by electric chair in the same year. He was proven innocent in 2014. It was determined that Stinney did not receive a fair trial, as he was not defended effectively. As a result, his Sixth Amendment right was violated. It was also found that Stinney’s execution was “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Stinney was not the first Black American who was wrongly sentenced. Since 1973 at least 189 people have been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death — all exonerated.
Finally, the dark history of lynching in the United States is relevant when discussing the death penalty. It is easy to conclude that the current state of the death penalty in America is directly tied to a modern equivalent of lynching.
Lynching has always been a part of racism in America. Whether carried out by police, white mobs, or politicians, it is all the same. During the 80s, the American government pushed drugs into the Black community. The consequences of which are still being felt today. The criminalization of crack cocaine, in the context of American slavery, and Jim crow era-style lynching, creates a direct line of Black people waiting to be judged by majority-white district attorneys. American white supremacy continues to use legal means to come up with new ways to destroy Black people’s lives.
Contributing Authors: Patricia Ezeanyim, August Garrett, Michael James Williams, Olivia Nwigwe, Joemi Irizarry, Dylan Santoyo, Mabel Lopez, Kenneth Mazerat, and Armon Evans
Edited by Cathy Milne-Ware
Equal Justice USA: Racial Inequity and the Death Penalty
Vera Institute of Justice: Ending the Death Penalty Is a Step Toward Racial Justice
Death Penalty Information Center: The Death Penalty in Black and White: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides
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