Capital Punishment and the Legacies of Slavery and Lynching in the United States

AuthorDavid Rigby,Charles Seguin
Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterContemporary Analyses and Implications
ANNALS, AAPSS, 694, March 2021 205
DOI: 10.1177/00027162211016277
and the
Legacies of
Slavery and
Lynching in the
United States
1016277ANN The Annals Of The American AcademyCapital Punishment And Legacies Of Slavery And Lynching
Capital punishment in the United States is racialized:
those convicted of the murder of Whites are much more
likely to receive the death penalty than those convicted
for the murder of Blacks. Capital punishment is more
commonly practiced in places where lynching of Blacks
occurred more frequently and in states in which slavery
was legal as of 1860. Accordingly, scholars have debated
whether capital punishment reflects a legacy of lynching
or a legacy of slavery. Our analysis shows that lynching
on its own is a significant predictor of contemporary
executions, but that once slavery is accounted for, slav-
ery predicts executions, while lynching does not. We
argue that slavery’s state-level institutional legacy is
central to contemporary capital punishment.
Keywords: lynching; lynching legacies; collective vio-
lence; violence; slavery; executions
Capital punishment has continued in the
United States long after many other
Western nations have abolished the practice.
To explain the persistence of American capital
punishment and its racial biases, scholars have
pointed to the legacies of slavery and lynching.
Historical regimes of racial control and vio-
lence may have shaped local institutions and
culture in ways that continue to influence the
exercise of state violence. Still, scholars have
rarely considered both legacies in the same
David Rigby is a PhD candidate at the University of
North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His research looks at
migration and political change with projects on polari-
zation, changes in immigration policy-making, and
vulnerability to collective and state violence. His dis-
sertation looks at the post–civil rights era transforma-
tion of immigration politics in the United States.
Charles Seguin is an assistant professor of sociology at
Pennsylvania State University. His research seeks to
understand the dynamics of cultural and political
change and stability broadly, with a particular focus on
the roles of violence and group boundaries.

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