85 Soc. F. 1281 (2006-2007)
Racial Divide in Support for the Death Penalty: Does White Racism Matter, The; Unnever, James D.; Cullen, Francis T.

handle is hein.journals/josf85 and id is 1297 raw text is: The Racial Divide in Support for the Death Penalty:
Does White Racism Matter?
James D. Unnever, Mississippi State University
Francis T. Cullen, University of Cincinnati
Using data from the 2000 National Election Study, this research
investigates the sources of the racial divide in support for capital
punishment with a specific focus on white racism. After delineating a
measure of white racism, we explore whether it can account for why a
majority of African Americans oppose the death penalty while most
whites support it. The results indicate that one-third of the racial divide
in support for the death penalty can be attributed to the influence of
our measure of white racism. The analyses also revealed that when
other factors are controlled, support for capital punishment among
nonracist whites is similar to that of African Americans. We examine
the implications of these findings for using public opinion to justify the
death penalty.
The politics of the death penalty provide a lens for studying race relations within
the United States. Because the death penalty is the ultimate expression of state
power, it is symbolically important for both the African American and white
communities (Garland 2001; Hacker 1995). The application of lethal sanctions
raises questions of equal justice before the law and, in turn, of the legitimacy of
the criminal justice process. Capital punishment is thus a policy that may provide
an opportunity for racial consensus or that may exacerbate racial conflict.
It is salient that public opinion polls reveal an extensive racial divide in support
for the death penalty. For example, the 2002 General Social Survey (GSS) shows
that 73 percent of whites and 44 percent of African Americans support the death
penalty for convicted murders - a gap of 29 percentage points (Unnever and Cullen
2007). Research on why this cleavage exists has not been very illuminating: the
gap persists even when controls are introduced for a range of known correlates of
death penalty attitudes, including political views, religion, class, gender and other
sociodemographic variables (Aguirre and Baker 1993; Cochran and Chamlin 2006;
Unnever and Cullen 2005; Unnever and Cullen 2007).
One potential source of the racial divide is white racism. Analyses of national
polls, such as the GSS and the National Election Study (NES), show that among
whites, racial animus is a strong predictor of support for the death penalty (Aguirre
and Baker 1993; Barkan and Cohn 1994; Soss, Langbein and Metelko 2003;
see also, Bobo and Johnson 2004). Even so, largely due to a methodological
artifact, the extant research has not directly explored whether white racism
is responsible for the racial divide: the studies in this area have limited their
samples to white respondents. By contrast, in the current research, we have
developed an alternative strategy for assessing racist attitudes that allows for the
Direct correspondence to James D. Unnever, Department of Sociology, Mississippi State
University, Mississippi State, MS 39762. E-mail:james.unnever@msstate.edu.

Social Forces. Volume 85, Number 3. March 2007

0 The University of North Carolina Press

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