In the national conversation about capital punishment, wrongful convictions, financial burden on the state and morality are the central points of contention. While these factors all play a significant role in considering the death penalty’s place in modern society, they overshadow what should be the most important consideration of allowing executions to continue in the United States. Racism has been firmly entrenched in capital punishment since its inception in the American colonies. During the time of slavery, even the most minor crimes were considered capital offenses if committed by a slave. Inspiring an act of rebellion, distributing seditious literature and even the administration of medicine warranted the death penalty for slaves in certain states – not to mention more serious crimes.
These laws, which existed primarily in the South, sent the message that the right for African-Americans to live was, essentially, at the discretion of whites. Though the abolition of slavery put an end to many of these laws, the tide of lynchings that swept the American South continued the legacy of arbitrarily executing blacks accused of criminal activity – regardless of the crime’s severity or the veracity of the accusations.
Today, capital punishment is far less commonplace. It is only legal in 32 states and its application is highly restricted to certain crimes. Institutionalized racism is still very much a part of the current death penalty, however.
According to Amnesty Intentional, 77 percent of cases that resulted in an execution since 1976 involved a white victim, compared to 15 percent for African-Americans and just 6 percent for Hispanics. Furthermore, a 2007 report sponsored by the American Bar Association found that one-third of death row inmates in Philadelphia would have been given life sentences had they not been African-American.
It is jarring to think that such a blatantly racist institution could exist in this day and age, but the statistics do not lie. It is also important to emphasize the increasing prevalence of convictions that are overturned due to DNA testing in recent years. Not only are African-Americans being sentenced to death at alarming rates, a significant number of these convictions are rendered for crimes they did not commit.
Despite the overwhelming evidence suggesting the inefficiencies of capital punishment, 55 percent of Americans still support the death penalty according to the Pew Research Center. It is interesting to note that support for the death penalty among whites stands at 63 percent, while support for capital punishment in the black community sits at only 36 percent.
If all of that does not make for a convincing argument against capital punishment, consider that the cost of prosecuting cases seeking the death penalty are far more costly. With many states already in economic constraints, it is not only immoral but simply wasteful to pursue the death penalty.
The U.S. is currently the only modern industrial country that has not banned the death penalty aside from Japan. Given the dark history behind capital punishment in the U.S. and the state’s record of failure to determine guilt in cases involving the death penalty, it would behoove the United States to impose a moratorium on death sentences.