On the Death Penalty, Race, Elite Opinion, and the New Social Desirability Bias

In a university course on the sociology of death and dying that I teach, we spend a few weeks discussing the death penalty. Students in my class are uniformly surprised to find on the syllabus sources that argue for it as well as authors taking up the other side of the issue.

As is the case at virtually every other institution of higher education in the country, the overwhelming faculty bias at the school where I teach, Bucknell University, is anti-capital punishment, and students do not need to be here long at all to realize it. A few years ago, Bryan Stevenson’s anti-death penalty book Just Mercy was the assigned reading for all incoming students (it remains a source prominently listed on our university’s “antiracism” resources page), and of the several dozen faculty presentations on the book, mine was the only one that furnished a critical investigation of Stevenson’s argument. The bias extends beyond Bucknell, of course, as is evident in the fact that this spring, Stevenson gave commencement addresses at four high-profile schools: Tufts, MIT, the University of Michigan, and the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

Outside the universities, one finds a decidedly different situation. Pew Research recently released new survey data on American attitudes on capital punishment that reveal a strong majority of Americans—60%—are in favor of it. The New York Times subsequently reported on something it saw as mysterious in those data. Phone surveys, it turns out, show substantially lower support for capital punishment—nearly a 10% difference—than anonymous online surveys. Pew attributes the disparity to social desirability bias. That is, the reluctance of some survey respondents to communicate their true positions on particular issues, even anonymously, in an interpersonal setting like a phone conversation because they fear losing the approval of their interlocutors.

In 2021, social desirability bias often becomes what we might better refer to as “desire to avoid political cancellation bias.” Respondents to surveys on sharply contested matters have good reason to suspect that the person interviewing them (and the organization conducting the survey) adhere to progressive views on contested topics, and those who do not hold to progressivism have seen plenty of evidence of the bad things that can happen to you when you are “outed” as “non-woke.” Just look at how Pew reports on any culturally contested topic—immigration, racial disparities, transsexualism, and homosexuality, to name a few—for evidence about the likely accuracy of that guess by respondents. (Indeed, note how in the report on the recent death penalty poll, Pew is careful to include in the title the fact that a majority of Americans are also aware that the administration of the death penalty is destined to be imperfect.)

One telling bit of evidence of the Times’ anti-death penalty skew, which is the basis of Stevenson’s book and a widely prevalent belief among university professors, can be seen in the off-hand way in which the reporter states that “there are racial disparities in how [the death penalty is] doled out.” The typical Times reader likely does not need an argument or backing data for that statement. Indeed, it is not only progressive readers of the Times who believe that to be true a priori: the Pew survey shows that 56% of their respondents believe that blacks are more likely to be sentenced to the death penalty than whites.

But is it true?

At present there are around 2,500 people on death row, and the percentage of blacks and whites is about even, around 42% each. Since the Gregg v. Georgia decision in 1976 undid the 1972 Supreme Court-enforced moratorium on capital punishment, about 56% of those executed have been white, and 34% black. Blacks are only 14% of the overall population (less than 1/7th), but they typically commit more than half the murders in the country every year; between 1980 and 2008 the figure was 52.5%. In this light, black murderers are significantly underrepresented on death row and among the already-executed.

How else could the “racial disparities” claim be supported? It might be pointed out that killers of white victims are much more likely to wind up on death row than killers of black victims. But why is that the case? The insinuation from progressives is typically that the only possible cause is explicit racist devaluation of black victims and overvaluation of white ones. But there is little evidence of significant and systematic racist animus on the part of judges, attorneys, and juries driving trial and sentencing outcomes.

Another, much more likely possible explanation for more murderers of whites than blacks on death row has to do with statistically observable differences in the typical murder of a white victim and the typical murder of a black victim. The U.S. Department of Justice, under then-Attorney General Eric Holder, completed in 2011 a lengthy report on trends in homicide rates between 1980 and 2008. The data in that report strongly support this explanation.

Let’s look at a few of the trends revealed in that report. Though whites make up more than half of all murder victims (50.3%), blacks are only a few percentage points behind at 47.4%. This means blacks are significantly overrepresented not only as murderers, but as victims of murder as well. Some 93% of black victims are killed by other blacks. Most white victims are also killed by members of their own race, but the percentage is considerably lower (84%) than it is for blacks. Of the four possible racial combinations of murders involving blacks and whites (black-on-black, white-on-white, black-on-white, and white-on-black), white-on-black murders are by far the rarest, and black-on-black murders are the most common. In the great majority of murders in which the relationship between killer and victim is known, killer and victim were acquainted with one another, but interracial murders—in which, again, blacks are greatly overrepresented as the killer—are three times more likely than intraracial murders to involve strangers. Stranger homicides are more likely to involve white victims, and nearly 1/5 of the total of stranger homicides involve black killers and white victims. Blacks are heavily overrepresented in the commission of felony murders, that is, murders that happen during another felony, frequently robbery or burglary; they commit about 60% of such murders. Most victims of felony murder, on the other hand, are white.

Not all murders meet the death penalty stipulations in state statutes. “Crime of passion” and other impulsive murders that generally involve a killer and a victim who are acquainted (e.g., intimate partner and personal conflict murders) and that make up a large proportion of all murders generally do not meet those requirements. But murders in which the crime takes place to overcome resistance or silence witnesses to another felony are death penalty-eligible in the statutes of every state in which the death penalty is legal. This means that the kinds of murders in which white victims and black killers are overrepresented statistically can be expected to disproportionately lead to death row.

Additionally, a significant number of the cities with large black populations and significant black victim murder rates—e.g., Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Milwaukee—are in states where the death penalty is outlawed or where it is next to impossible to get (often majority or near-majority black) juries to impose the death penalty on black defendants, even when the victims are also black. Thus, a large pool of (almost entirely black) killers of black victims is removed from consideration for death row in advance.

Finally, fully 40% of murders of blacks remain unsolved, twice as many as murders of whites. Why is this the case? The answer is complicated, but it is nearly certain that the widespread adherence in the black male underclass to the “No Snitching” culture of refusal to cooperate with police inquiries plays a significant role. So, still more killers of blacks escape even the possibility of death row, in this case by never being charged.

The New York Times, along with all those in higher education who echo this claim, is wrong. There is little convincing evidence that the death penalty in America is racist. Survey respondents, however, are quite aware that most cultural elites hold fervently to the belief that it is, and they know how cultural elites with progressive attitudes react to those who do not share their views, and so they tailor their public responses accordingly.

In universities, affairs work in a similar way. I have had many students in my class over the years approach me privately—after carefully avoiding any participation in class discussions of the topic—to apologize for their silence in class. They tell me they are pro-death penalty, and they are happy to finally find a course in which that position is not dismissed in advance as illegitimate and morally suspect. But they also understand only too clearly what the possible consequences are on campus for being recognized as on the “wrong” side of controversial issues that most of the faculty consider beyond the pale.

As the cultural dominance of the progressive elites in higher education and the media grows, we can expect a concomitant expansion of the phenomenon of “desire to avoid political cancelation bias.” This will have predictable effects, as those with dissenting views will feel increasing pressure to self-censor, and elites will interpret their dissimulating responses to surveys and silence in classrooms as evidence that progressivism is achieving unanimity.

The few who have the courage to speak out will reasonably expect the vicious retaliation to continue, but elites are more likely, once the numbers of open dissenters are sufficiently low, to simply pretend they do not exist at all. They will, of course, also continue to ensure that dissenters do not advance, and will prevent them from being taken up into prestigious positions when possible. But the most likely—and most sinister—future scenario is one in which the illusion of total, uncoerced agreement is still more avidly and systematically asserted. And the more dissenters refrain from expressing opposition to the official ideology, the more likely it is that in their intimidated fear, at least some of them will come to accept it. This will be called “education.”


Image: Damir Spanic, Public Domain

Alexander Riley

Alexander Riley is professor of sociology at Bucknell University and a senior fellow at the Alexander Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization.

One thought on “On the Death Penalty, Race, Elite Opinion, and the New Social Desirability Bias”

  1. There is one other form of variance not mentioned — actually having a landline phone, and then actually answering it.

    I stopped answering my landline phone more than a decade ago — it was all telemarketing garbage and anyone whom I wanted to talk to would either send me an email or call my cell. About a year ago I got rid of it entirely –why should I be spending ~$70/month on something which I never used…

    Telephone surveying is based on nearly 100% of the population having a landline phone and that’s no longer true….

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