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Racial Disparity in the Application of the Death Penalty Essay

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Updated: May 10th, 2022


The Death penalty is essential for justice to prevail in society. However, the application of the death penalty has been criticized for being discriminatory in that some races are perceived to be favored over others. The majority in American society are of white descent. The justice system has been accused of being lenient towards the whites while the minorities of color are treated harshly with many being sentenced to death especially if their victim is white. The whites who murder the minorities of race are on many occasions apprehended and rarely is the death penalty imposed on them. The death penalty has thus been surrounded by the controversy of racial disparity, discrediting the justice system.

Introduction and Hypothesis

The concept of race has been a persistent issue in the history of America and many other countries. However, is it true that racial disparity has been employed in the sensitive issue of serving justice, by delivering death sentences mainly to the minorities? Racial disparity began even before the slavery epoch with the native inhabitants of America being brutally abused and marginalized. With slavery, racial disparity became even more pronounced and widespread. African Americans were viewed as lesser human beings without any human rights. Racism was institutionalized with all members of the society agreeing to the idea that the white race was superior to all other races. The conception of the idea of a ‘white’ race was also in an effort to deter the poor people of Caucasian descent from joining forces with the blacks in advocating for their rights. The concept of Negro was also abused to portray subjugation and inferiority. The death penalty application, in the contemporary modern justice system, continues to be based on race. The race of the offender and the race of the victim have been observed to be subjective in the delivery of the death penalty. People of color especially African Americans and Hispanics are sentenced to the death penalty than any more other race.

Historical Background

The history of America shows that African Americans mainly came to the Americas through the Atlantic Slave trade. Right from their capture in Africa, they were treated as beasts, being hunted down in Africa, with those resisting capture executed on the spot. Those who killed these people back in Africa never faced any charges as it was accepted as legal to kill slaves. Impunity was thus thriving right from the slave capturing. On their way to the Americas, they were packed like the cargo of goods in inhumane conditions that resulted in many deaths in the ocean. The dead bodies were thrown into the sea without any consideration. It is quite clear they were not treated as animals than as human beings. Those delegated with the mandate of transporting these slaves are said to have enjoyed throwing living people into the ocean and enjoying sharks feeding on them. Sharks had become accustomed to obtaining food from the slave ships and thus there were numerous sharks around these ships. Those who committed these atrocities were never charged.

In plantation slavery, slaves had no rights whatsoever. Their fate was fully in the hands of their masters, with the laws recognizing that killing a slave was not an offense. The slave owners were, therefore, free to kill slaves without any legal consequences. Many slaves lost their lives through the inhumane slavery conditions while their masters murdered others. The killing of black people had therefore come to be a usual and accepted phenomenon. After the Civil War, slavery was abolished and all black people were pronounced free. However, atrocities towards African Americans continued, Ku Klux Klan a white extremist group, was known to hunt down successful African Americans, burning and destroying their property and finally murdering them. The Jim Crow laws also facilitated the extrajudicial killing of African Americans, others being lynched. Many of the whites accused of killing African Americans either were released on lack of sufficient evidence or never arrested.

Like many other systems in America, the judicial system continues to be accused of racial disparity. New studies have shown that racial minorities continue to be prosecuted (under federal death penalty law) in large numbers that are un-proportional to their population in society. It has been shown that almost ninety percent of the selected defendants to be charged or selected for capital prosecution, especially under the provisions of the death law act, are minorities of race specifically African Americans and Mexican Americans.

Under the federal death penalty provisions, it has also been observed that there has been an increase in the number of prosecutions. However, the racial disparity has continued to rise with the minorities of color being most affected. Racial disparity applies to all other forms of capital punishment. Many have ridiculed the death penalty stating that “as a process, it has failed” (Banner, 2002).

In 1972, the then-existing death penalty statutes were abolished by the Supreme Court. The racial disparity was one of the reasons for this. Federal prosecution since then, has not taken place and the death penalty has been left to be a matter of individual states. In many cases, the decision of whether the death penalty should be applied in a case has remained under the discretion of individual judges and juries. This discretion of judges and juries being the ones responsible for the delivering of the death penalty has been a major factor that has facilitated the prevailing of racial prejudice.

‘‘Following the Furman decision, legislatures adopted death sentencing procedures that were supposed to eliminate the influence of race from the death sentencing process. However, evidence of racial discrimination in the application of capital punishment continues. Nearly 40% of those executed since 1976 have been black, even though blacks constitute only 12% of the population. And in almost every death penalty case, the race of the victim is white. Last year alone, 89% of the death sentences carried out involved white victims, even though 50% of the homicides in this country have black victims. Of the 229 executions that have occurred since the death penalty was reinstated, only one has involved a white defendant for the murder of a black person.’’ Blackmun (1994)

Race in Determining Case

The racial disparity continues to be a pertinent issue in the application of the death penalty because discrimination in the workplace is still persistent. The American Constitution states clearly that, all citizens irrespective of their color, background, family alienation, race, gender, and any other external subjective factor, are equal before the law. The Constitution, therefore, safeguards the rights of all individuals. The once institutionalized and legalized racism and discrimination has been outlawed by the constitution. The constitution is one of the most important elements of American history and is supposed to be a unifying factor observed by all.

However, the constitution declaration in outlawing racism is only in writing but practically racism is still rampant in the American society. African Americans continue to be despised and discriminated in the work place. Job acquisition is based on race rather than merit, credentials and qualification. People are still judged by the color of their skins rather than their content. The judicial system is no different. Of all the judges or juries that have passed the death penalty verdict, ninety nine percent have been reported to be whites. African Americans delegated with such cases are very few. In fact, the judicial system portrays racist order of employment (Guemsey, 2010).

Since race is important is acquiring a job, not many minorities have made it to be high ranked judges. The judiciary is one of the three arms of the government. It is very crucial in interpreting and implementing those professions made by the legislature arm of government. Therefore, the fact that most of the high ranked judges and members of the juries are whites is a point of disparity in itself. The concept of race continues to be passed from generation to generation. Therefore, the judges being whites are bound to make subjective ruling. This is so because although slavery was abolished over two hundred years ago, not much was done to ensure there was justice and reconciliation. Instead of embarking on the process of unifying the races, the system facilitated the continuation of slavery acts.

Racial segregation continued to be a pertinent issue in the American society with the blacks being secluded in almost all-important areas of the society. For example, blacks for a long time had been denied the right to vote. Without the right to vote one has no power in shaping the leadership of the country. African Americans for a long time were not allowed to mix with the white races in schools, hospitals, social amenities and many other areas. During the twentieth century, African Americans were still fighting for equal rights. The segregation in public transportation saw Rosa Parks refuse to vacate her seat to a white person. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King became prominent African Americans in the struggle for equal rights, with Martin Luther King being assassinated.

This shows that, although the law provides equal rights for all citizens, the people, who are the most important in eradicating racial disparity, have remained racially divided. In the justice system, the judges like the rest of the population remained racially divided. Racism and discrimination has made the judicial system to remain dominantly white. Since there has never been any justice and reconciliation process, the white majorities still view African Americans as property and secondary citizens of America. The slave mentality thus facilitate for the judges to pass death penalty on African Americans sparing their white counterpart who commit similar offenses.

Defendant Versus Victim

It has been observed that in a case where the defendant is white and the victim black, it is very unlikely for the judgment to be the death penalty. Most white defendants accused of murder, other serious related cases on African American, only serve a few years in prison and many even get out of prison before completing their sentence. They are released on parole. On the contrary, in a case where the defendant is African American and the victim is white, the verdict ends up culminating to a death sentence. In recent times it has been observed that the number of African Americans being prosecuted has increased yet their numbers in prison has remained constant under thirty percent. On the other hand, new prisoners have been reported to be white amounting to more than seventy percent. The controversial issue has become the number of African Americans on death penalty is steadily increasing while their crime rate remain constant. On the other hand, how come the number of whites convicted of the death penalty remains low while the number of new crimes shows that the white race has been mainly involved? Race is a variable that affects the results of a case.

Statistics have also revealed that in cases where the defendant and the victim are both from the same race, the sentence of death remains stagnant. Where the defendant is white and the victim African American then death penalty probability is even lower. However, where the defendant is black and the victim white: the death penalty is almost unavoidable. In the 1980s, Congress had directed the General Accounting Office, to carry out a study illustrating the race factor in the death sentence decision. This was to be empirically conducted to clarify whether race was still a factor in the decision making of cases. The study analyzed all death penalty cases that had been conducted up until then and conducted a study of twenty-eight cases that were reviewed with the focus being on both the race of defendant and race of the alleged discriminated victim. This study was carried out employing various intensive and extensive methodologies with the most complex states like Florida, California, and Georgia among others being analyzed. The results were released in 1990 after a conclusive research with the large volumes of collected data being unequivocal (Recinella, 2004).

Eighty two percent of the studies showed that race of the victim were indeed a key sway on whether the ruling will be for capital sentence or otherwise. Those who murdered whites were more likely to be given the death penalty as compared to those who executed blacks. In all the states the research was conducted, the data was consistent with valid evidence. In Georgia specifically, a research on two thousand four hundred cases spanning a period of seven years showed similar results no matter the variables and the change in style of analysis. The defendants who murdered whites were four times more likely to be faced with a death penalty than similar situation of violence on a black victim. Over a hundred variables were controlled in the research and it was clear that race is the most sensitive issue while determining a case.

It was argued that it was evident from the study that indeed race was more likely to influence the verdict of a judge in a murder trail than smoking would in causing a coronary ailment on the health of a chain smoker (Henderson, 2000). Race in this case was going to effect the judge to be more biased. The reports further stressed that racial disparities in the application of the death penalty was still persistent. The cases presented were further point of reference in stressing the need of streamlining the death penalty issue. Each individual state laws rather than federal laws have decided death penalty in the contemporary American society.


Since the race factor has evidently shown that indeed race is a major factor in determining a case, then it should be good if laws were stipulated clearly showing procedures to be followed in a case rather than leaving the case to judges to decide. It would also be good if minorities’ cases were left to minorities’ judges.


Racism in society continues to be a pertinent issue that has remained unsolved mainly due to the assuming it is still nonexistent. Racism acts continue to contradict the constitution yet the constitution is the base for all laws and control in the society. In a society where equal opportunities are deemed to prevail, racism should not be a point of reference. Death penalty has been selectively applied, with one race being favored over the other. The minorities of race continue to be the people most faced by the death penalty. The issues have not been addressed and continue to prevail even in the contemporary modern society.


Banner, S. (2002). The death penalty: an American history. Boston: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Blackmun, A. (1994). Federal death penalty prosecutions. New York: Springer.

Guemsey, J. (2010). Death penalty: fair solution or moral failure? Minneapolis: Learner Publishing Group.

Henderson, W. (2000). Justice on trial: racial disparities in the American Criminal Justice System. New York: Diane Publishing.

Recinella, D. (2004). The biblical truth about America’s death penalty. New Jersey: Northeastern University Press.

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