Capital Punishment and Vigilantism: A Historical Comparison

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Capital punishment is an extremely contested issue within the public sphere of the United States of America. Many people disagree over the necessity of such brutal methods when it comes to punishing convicted offenders. Some argue that capital punishment acts as a justifiable penalty because the victim and the victim’s family are appeased for their loss. While several opinions proclaim that the death penalty is fair, many state legislatures are considering banning the practice. Even the Supreme Court has been implicated to assess whether or not capital punishment is unconstitutional. Several studies present research that attempts to draw the comparison between current capital punishment laws with racist activity from the past that is now illegal. Capital punishment should be abolished because it developed from the racist culture of vigilantism which means that the criminal justice system is unjust.

Experts are convinced that institutional racism exists within the criminal justice system. Mark Peffley and Jon Hurwitz observe several instances where blacks face discrimination in the court system. Blacks are more likely to be executed than whites who are convicted of murder. African Americans are also more unlikely to serve on a jury because they are often dismissed for unfounded reasons. The scholars also point out how whites tend to attribute race with crime creating an unfair perception towards the criminality of black individuals, “The discriminatory nature of capital punishment, in other words, is more than a mere perception. It is a reality,” (Peffley and Hurwitz 997). Capital punishment is not immune to racist ideologies. Many can observe the prejudice that occurs within the legal system suggesting that there must be a reason for the obvious overrepresentation of African Americans on death row. How criminals are convicted is not always neutral.

Statistics prove that there is an uneven distribution of African Americans being sentenced for capital punishment than whites. Scott Phillips considers how black people are 1.75 times more likely to receive the death penalty than whites (4). This percentage establishes the discrepancy between races when sentencing for the death penalty. Phillips examines the peculiarity of the difference in the nature of the crimes committed by blacks and whites, “The bottom line is straightforward: the DA sought death against black defendants and white defendants at the same rate even though black defendants committed less serious murders, as defined by the DA’s own track record,” (5). African Americans were disproportionately convicted for death row when research shows that white people were more likely to participate in crimes that involved more extensive acts. Blacks were being over criminalized creating a discriminatory pattern of killing African Americans for murders that were generally considered to be less worthy of capital punishment. Race plays a role in the administration of punitive reproach for capital murder.

Exploitation based on race is naturally a factor that determines how to implement the death penalty because violence has always been racialized in America. Experts contextualize vigilantism within the time of Jim Crow when white people used violence to keep black people in an inferior class, “We therefore suggest that the vigilantism largely intended to ensure that newly freed blacks reverted to their prior subordinate status had enduring effects on another lethal punishment,” (Jacobs, Carmichael, and Kent 658). After the Civil War, ex-slaves were exposed to the same violence as when they were enslaved. They were no longer bound by law to serve white people, so they became a threat to the social order of domination. Violence through casual policing by ordinary white citizens through vigilantism was a socially accepted method at controlling the black population. In this case, history repeats itself creating a similar context in the 21st-century debate on capital punishment.

Racial superiority has been integrated into the American ideal of punishment for committing a crime. Jacobs and his team of researchers convey an understanding of the insidious nature of institutional racism, “This fierce passion for violent control in the past nevertheless enhances the plausibility of claims that the harsh methods used to maintain the dominance of whites over blacks persist in sufficient strength to influence recent legal decisions about death sentences” (Jacobs et al. 659). The racist foundation of the American legal system directly manifests in capital punishment. Legislation has historically been written to deny certain citizens equal protection under the law. The Supreme Court has a record of upholding unconstitutional laws that are later revealed as discriminatory. The issue of capital punishment is no different than older forms of federally sanctioned forms of oppression carried out against African Americans.

The research compares the historical prevalence of the vigilante-style of punishment, lynching, with the various opinions of white residents of states where lynching occurred the most, “...our analyses do reveal a substantively important main effect among whites for the indicator of a vigilante tradition. White respondents residing in states with a history of frequent lynching are significantly more likely to express support for the death penalty” (Messner, Baumer and Rosenfield 582). Corporeal punishment for crimes becomes more severe in states where white people took the law into their own hands to carry out systematic violence against black people during Jim Crow. Capital punishment is an acceptable modern-day mechanism of racial marginalization. The court system relies on the traditional vigilante opinions of white America to continue to incarcerate and execute African Americans at an unbalanced rate.

The historical narrative illuminates how many Americans are still convinced that racism is a problem of the past because of an apparent decrease in vigilante racism. One argument published in The Washington Post dismisses that race is the least important influence, “The short story is that capital punishment has become a partisan attitude, associated with general conservatism” (Gelman). The trouble is that the writer, Andrew Gelman, fails to portray a critical analysis of the historical context of capital punishment. He only relies on superficial conclusions that racism disappeared with the Civil Rights movement. Gelman pays no consideration to the intrinsic nature of racism since the law cannot legally be explicit about the discriminatory practices of the criminal justice system. He neutralizes the existence of studies that suggest that race plays a huge part in capital punishment by trivializing race and attaches any logical component of bias to political party affiliation.

In conclusion, capital punishment is an outdated method of criminal justice that is inherently racist against African Americans. The legal system would be more just if government authorities reconsidered the death penalty. Many studies reason that current statistics implicate that discrimination is prevalent towards blacks in the case of capital murder charges. Harris County in Texas is just one of many places in America that performs court rulings based on the prejudice jurisdiction of the District Attorney’s office. The public must become aware of the historical conditions that created death row by not stifling the source of why a conversation about race is necessary. Viewing the issue through a lens of critical race analysis is the best way to account for the facts that point to a correlation between vigilantism and capital punishment.

Annotated Bibliography

Phillips, Scott. "Racial Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment." Hous. L. Rev. 45 (2008): 1-10. Web. 10. Apr. 2014.

Scott Phillip’s main argument is that race determines the outcome of trials where the defendant is sentenced to capital punishment. Scott studies the figures from Harris County in Texas and compares the results of findings that suggest that African Americans are sentenced to death row more than whites as well as sanctioning capital punishment is more likely to happen if a victim is white. The source is useful because it contains a specific case study that focuses on facts that distinguish between the decisions made by the District Attorney’s office and a jury. This fact complements other findings in resources that do not address how the DA is involved.

Messner, Steven F., Eric P Baumer, and Richard Rosenfeld. “Distrust of Government, the Vigilante Tradition, and Support for Capital Punishment.” Law & Society Review 40.3 (2006): 559-590. Web. 10. Apr. 2014.

The main idea of this article is that race and the exposure to a culture of vigilantism affect the level of distrust that an individual has towards the correlation of racism and opinions on capital punishment. The author’s research provides an analysis of a GSS survey. They conduct a study that observes the intersection of vigilante history with attitudes distrust towards the government. The source is useful because it gives evidence that offers an analysis that connects capital punishment to an institutional system of prejudice. The content of the essay provides objective information and is highly useful for creating an argument that defends the existence of racism within the implementation of the death penalty.

Peffley, Mark, and Jon Hurwitz. “Persuasion and Resistance: Race and the Death Penalty in America.” American Journal of Political Science 51.4 (2007): 996-1012. Web. 10. Apr. 2014.

The main argument of this essay reiterates the importance of studying the connection between vigilantism and capital punishment. The study included supports the main theme and uses a survey to describe the difference between the opinions of white and black people when it comes to capital punishment. The research and conclusions of this paper are significant because they give a more nuanced perspective on the presence of racism and strengthen the argument in other sources that are used. The information provided is original and objective.

Works Cited

Gelman, Andrew. “Understanding Death Penalty Attitudes: Conservatism is Not the Same as Racism.” The Monkey Cage. The Washington Post., 31. Mar. 2014. Web. 10. Apr. 2014.

Jacobs, David, Jason T. Carmichael, and Stephanie L. Kent. “Vigilantism, Current Racial Threat, and Death Sentences.” American Sociological Review 70.4 (2005): 656-677. Web.10. Apr. 2014.

Messner, Steven F., Eric P Baumer, and Richard Rosenfeld. “Distrust of Government, the Vigilante Tradition, and Support for Capital Punishment.” Law & Society Review 40.3 (2006): 559-590. Web. 10. Apr. 2014.

Peffley, Mark, and Jon Hurwitz. “Persuasion and Resistance: Race and the Death Penalty in America.” American Journal of Political Science 51.4 (2007): 996-1012. Web. 10. Apr. 2014.

Phillips, Scott. "Racial Disparities in the Capital of Capital Punishment." Hous. L. Rev. 45 (2008): 1-10. Web. 10. Apr. 2014.