Our country has been killing people by race for a very long time. The most widespread current version of this phenomenon is known as the death penalty.
The latest news on this front is that on December 17, New Jersey became the first state to ban executions since the Supreme Court voted to allow states to bring back the death penalty in 1976. You'll also recall, however, that Illinois Governor George Ryan cleared Death Row and denounced the error-riddled death penalty in his state in 2003 with his dramatic declaration that "I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death."Moratoriums on the death penalty have also been imposed in other states, including Florida, Maryland and California, at various times.
We can argue the morality and the effects (as I have in past posts and will in future ones) of state-sanctioned killing. But we too rarely get the cold numbers on what actually happens when we make it our public policy to murder those convicted of murder.
If you're looking to inform your own stance in the death-penalty argument beyond matters of fist-pounding personal morality, you'll want to familiarize yourself with the following stats cited by Harris:
From 1989 to 1998 in Georgia, “those suspected of killing whites are 4.56 times as likely to be sentenced to death as those who are suspected of killing blacks.” (Paternoster, Pierce, and Radelet, "Race and Death Sentencing in Georgia 1989-1998")
From 1973 to 1979, the odds of a death sentence for those convicted of
killing whites in Georgia were 4.3 times higher than the odds of a
death sentence for those convicted of killing blacks. (David C. Baldus et al., "Equal Justice
and the Death Penalty," 1990)
Between 1976 and 2005, 51% of all American murder victims were white. The percentage of executions for which the murder victim was white was 79%. For the same period, 47% of all murder victims were black. The percentage of executions for which the murder victim was black was 14%. (Death Penalty Information Center)
In a multi-state study, "the Maryland pattern mirrors what we find in Illinois and New Jersey. Specifically, the probability of being sentenced to death increases as the population in which the victim lived becomes whiter.” (Testimony of Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree to the New Jersey Death Penalty Commission, 2006)
In Texas, the extra costs of the death penalty amount to about $2.3 million per case.In North Carolina, the death penalty costs $2.16 million more per execution than a sentence of life imprisonment. Florida spends $51 million a year on executuions above and beyond what it would cost to punish all first-degree murderers with life in prison without parole. In California, the death penalty now costs taxpayers more than $114 million a year beyond the cost of imprisoning convicts for life. California and federal taxpayers have paid more than $250 million for each execution in that state. ("Cost of the Death Penalty and Related Issues," Testimony of Richard C. Dieter, Executive Director, Death Penalty Information Center, to the Colorado House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, 2007)
In 1991, New Jersey spent $16 million to impose the death penalty, and the next year the state laid off 500 police officers because it could not afford to pay them. In 1995, Jasper County, Mississippi spent three times more on a capital trial than it spent on its libraries, and, lacking even parking meters to raise revenue, had to increase property and automobile taxes to obtain the funds. (Katherine Baicker, "The Budgetary Repercussions of Capital Convictions," 2004)
What is needed, says Harris, is for the nation to "change the frame of reference from [a focus on] white victims -- a theme that has been used throughout history to justify the execution of blacks -- to the needs of communities and how to address them."
Thanks to Harris for sharing these statistics with me. As I said to him after his presentation, I hope the Institute takes these and other formidable statistics on the road, Al Gore-style, to help arm opponents of the death penalty and give pause to its supporters. Harris says the Institute is taking a hard look at doing so. If you want to weigh in, offer support, or learn more about their work, visit their web site.
By the way, the three-day Kirwan Institute conference on race, its first, offered dozens of panels ranging from "Incarceration as the New Jim Crow" to "Race and Spirituality." I led a "Race and Media" panel in which I was joined by Janine Jackson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and Afraid of the Dark author Jim Myers. Check in with the Kirwan web site about the Institute's work on addressing racial and ethnic disparity.
(The photo is of a lynching in Omaha, Nebraska in 1919.)