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Racial prejudice and the death penalty: a research note.

THE AMERICAN PUBLIC'S SUPPORT OF THE DEATH PENALTY HAS BEEN INCREASING steadily since the mid--1960s. Public support of the death penalty for persons convicted of murder has increased from 51% in 1969 to 78% in 1991 (The Gallup Report, 1991). Interestingly, 71% of the Gallup Poll respondents in 1991 stated that they would continue to support the death penalty for murder even if they were provided with evidence showing that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent to murder. Some researchers have noted that the American public's strong support of the death penalty continues despite the public's meager knowledge of the death penalty and its effects (Bohm et al., 1991; Ellsworth and Ross, 1983; Grogger, 1990).

Race as a Selective Dimension

Bohm (1991) and Aguirre and Baker (1991) have noted that race is one of the characteristics over the last 50 years that has distinguished death penalty proponents from death penalty opponents. In particular, Finckenauer (1988) has observed that public support for the death penalty is linked to personality characteristics such as racial prejudice. For example, Taylor et al. (1978, 1979) and Stinchcombe et al. (1980) have shown that opposition by white persons to school busing for racial equality is strongly associated with their support for capital punishment, e.g., the death penalty. Cohn et al. (1991) have suggested that white persons' support of punitive measures, such as the death penalty, is a reflection of their racial prejudice toward Black persons. Accordingly, Young (1991) has suggested that white persons support the death penalty because they believe it to be the best deterrent to criminal actions committed by Black persons. Thus, on the one hand, these studies suggest that public support for the death penalty is not color blind (i.e., Benjamin, 1989). On the other hand, these studies suggest that white persons' support for the death penalty is a form of symbolic racism (i.e., Fosset and Kiecolt, 1989; Jelen, 1990).

Our purpose in this article is to enhance our understanding of the suggestion that white persons' support for the death penalty is a form of symbolic racism. In particular, we examine the association between racial prejudice toward Black persons by white persons and their support for capital punishment. The metatheoretical framework for our study is based on the observation that white persons' support for punitive measures for criminals has increased in accordance with the enhanced visibility of Black persons within crime contexts (Staples, 1976; Paternoster, 1984; Radelet and Vandiver, 1986). Second, white persons have increased their support of capital punishment, as a punitive measure, because it represents the best deterrent to criminal actions committed by Black persons. As a result, one would expect to find an association between racial prejudice toward Black persons expressed by white persons and their support for capital punishment. In other words, our analysis of public opinion permits us to examine how persons structure their interpretation of symbolic events and/or issues (see, for example, Newman, 1990; Gamson, 1988).

Data and Method of Analysis

The data for this study were taken from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) 1984 General Social Survey (GSS). The 1984 GSS utilized a full probability sample of household clusters (Davis and Smith, 1986: 371--381). The sample for this study from the 1984 GSS consists of 1,473 white respondents. Interview schedules contained items focused on a respondent's sensitivity to race relations in the U.S., crime, and capital punishment. Models were tested through the use of logistic regression analysis (Knoke and Burke, 1978). In the model to be specified, racial prejudice interacts directly with support for capital punishment.

A racism scale was constructed from seven race-relation questions asked in the 1984 survey. These questions were selected because they focus on a respondent's choice to discriminate if given the opportunity to do so, and because these questions, or variants of them, have been employed by researchers as empirical measures of racial prejudice in the U.S. white population (Hyman and Sheatsley, 1956, 1964; Sheatsley, 1966; Greeley and Sheatsley, 1971; Taylor et al., 1978, 1979; Stinchcombe et al., 1980). A statistical test of reliability conducted on the racism scale revealed a strong item alpha coefficient of .781. We have provided the correlation matrix in Table 1.

Table 1: Preferred Model of Direct Effects of Racism, Age, and Sex, and

the Interaction Effect of Racism and Education on the Likelihood That the Respondent Favors the Death Penalty
 Parameter Standard Chi- of the Null
Effect Estimate Error Square(1) Hypothesis
Intercept 2.428 .332 53.49 .000
Racism -0.115 .050 5.32 .021
Age -0.464 .174 7.05 .007
Sex --0.635 .174 13.18 .000
Fear -0.202 .171 1.38 .239
Racism/Educ -0.332 .109 9.27 .002

(1.)All one degree of freedom tests.


One can note the following significant direct effects in Table 1. First, persons who favor the death penalty are likely to be racially prejudiced. The log-odds of favoring the death penalty decreases by .115 for persons who are not racially prejudiced. In other words, the likelihood that a person is racially prejudiced and favors the death penalty is increased by .115 log-odds. Second, the likelihood that older persons favor the death penalty is decreased by .464 log-odds. Given the manner in which we treat "age" as a variable in this article, older persons (40 years or older) are less likely to favor the death penalty than young persons (39 years and younger). Third, the likelihood that females favor the death penalty is decreased by .635 log-odds. That is, females are less likely to favor the death penalty than males. Table 1 also reveals a significant interaction effect between racial prejudice and education. That is, the likelihood is decreased by .322 log-odds that a respondent with increased levels of educational attainment is racially prejudiced and supports the death penalty.


The most important finding of this study is the statistically significant association between racial prejudice and public support for the death penalty. This finding shows that white persons who are racially prejudiced are significantly more likely to favor the death penalty than white persons who are not racially prejudiced. Our finding tends to confirm Stinchcombe et al.'s (1980) general finding that a statistically significant relationship exists between public attitudes toward the death penalty and equality toward Black persons. In addition, our finding suggests that white racial prejudice is expressed symbolically in the support of capital punishment by white persons. That is, our finding suggests that white persons support capital punishment because it serves as an outlet for expressing anti-Black attitudes. For example, our results show that there is no statistically significant relationship between fear of criminal victimization and support for the death penalty -- effect of FEAR in Table 1. As a result, the white respondents in this study do not support the death penalty out of fear regarding criminal victimization.

Concluding Remarks

Our findings have shown that there is a very close association between white racial prejudice and support for the death penalty. In particular, white persons who choose to discriminate against Black persons are more likely to support the death penalty. The construction of a racism scale has permitted us to examine how the white public feels about punitiveness in U.S. society. Delgado (1989) has noted that researchers must continue to use data analysis as a creative tool for examining the intricate character of equality in U.S. society. To this end, we have used a racism scale to permit a closer examination of public opinion. Perhaps the next step is to examine the contexts that shape white puboic opinion in order to isolate the emergence and/or occurrence of anti-Black attitudes.

Appendix A

Racism Scale Questions

RACMAR: Do you think there should be laws against marriages between (Negroes/Blacks) and white?

RACDIN: How strongly would you object if a member of your family wanted to bring a (Negro/Black) friend home to dinner?

RACPUSH: (Negroes/Blacks) shouldn't push themselves where they're not wanted.

RACSEG: White people have a right to keep (Negroes/Blacks) out of their neighborhoods if they want to, and (Negroes/Blacks) should respect that right.

RACOPEN: Suppose there is a communitywide vote on the general housing issue. There are two possible laws to vote on. Which law would you vote for? One law says that a homeowner can decide for himself whom to sell his house to, even if he prefers not to sell to (Negroes/Blacks). The second law says that a homeowner cannot refuse to sell to someone because of their race or color.

RACSCHOL: Do you think white students and (Negro/Black) students should go to the same schools or to separate schools.

RACHOME: During the last few years, has anyone in your family brought a friend who also was a (Negro/Black) home for dinner?


Aguirre, A., Jr., and D.V. Baker 1991 Race, Racism, and the Death Penalty in the United States. Berrien Springs, MI: Vande Vere Publishing.

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Title Annotation:Rethinking Race
Author:Aguirre, Adalberto; Baker, David V.
Publication:Social Justice
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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