Barack Obama just announced his disappointment with the Supreme Court ruling making it unconstitutional to execute those who rape children. Many were surprised that he would support capital punishment given that it is a position traditionally associated with conservatism. But I wasn’t surprised. Like affirmative action, the death penalty is just another policy Obama supports because it so clearly discriminates against white people.
The role of race in executions first became a hot topic in 1972 when the Supreme Court placed a moratorium on executions because of the way Georgia was allowing race to creep into the punishment process. Georgia was doing a good job of instructing jurors during the guilt/innocence phase. But, then, they allowed jurors – so often twelve white people - unbridled discretion in deciding which convicted murderers were to be executed.
Consequently, for a time, there was an 89% chance that a black man would be sentenced to death (sentenced in Georgia but not actually executed) for killing a white man. During the same time period, the likelihood of a white man being sentenced to death for killing a black man was 0%.
So, in 1972, when data convinced the High Court that the death penalty was unconstitutional – not per se but as applied – the justices made states re-write their death penalty statutes (See Furman v. Georgia, 1972). The Court wanted to make certain that – at least when assigning the ultimate penalty – race took a back seat to legal sentencing factors.
States did re-write their statutes and the Court approved of new capital punishment sentencing procedures in Georgia (and elsewhere) in a case known as Gregg. This ushered in what is now known as the post-Furman era.
Criminologists have been keeping a watchful eye on death penalty demographics throughout the post-Furman era. For example, Robert Bohm – formerly a professor in the UNC system where I teach - published an article on race and the death penalty after the first 120 post-Furman executions. Bohm was forced to admit that a majority of those 120 executions were of whites.
Nonetheless, Bohm tried to argue for the possibility of a racial conspiracy against blacks in the post-Furman era. By breaking the first 120 post-Furman executions into deciles (ten groups of twelve) he was able to detect a possibly racist trend. This view was based on the fact that 75% of the first twelve executions were of whites while just over 50% of the first 120 executions were of whites.