Public Opinion of Capital Punishment: An Intersectional Analysis of Race, Gender, and Class Effects

Published date01 December 2019
AuthorBrooke Nodeland,Adam Trahan,Andrekus Dixon
Date01 December 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Public Opinion of Capital
Punishment: An Intersectional
Analysis of Race, Gender,
and Class Effects
Adam Trahan
, Andrekus Dixon
, and Brooke Nodeland
Extant research on the demographic correlates of capital punishment opinion has separately ana-
lyzed race, gender, and class. Intersectionality has shown a flaw of this approach is that these
characteristics overlap and interact to shape people’s identities and opinions. Using data from the
Cumulative File of the General Social Survey (1972–2016), we regressed capital punishment opinion
on respondents’ race, gender, and class intersections. Findings show wide variation in opposition to
capital punishment. Implications of the findings, including the superiority of the intersectional
approach, are discussed.
capital punishment opinion, intersections, race, gender, class
Capital punishment endures in the United States in large part because a majority of Americans
continue to support the practice. Data from the 2016 Gallup poll show 60%of respondents supported
and 37%opposed capital punishment (Jones, 2016). Bohm (2014) outlined five ways in which
public opinion buoys the death penalty system. First, legislators are generally averse to taking action
that is antithetical to the preferences of their constituents. Second, local prosecutors feel pressure to
file charges that will assuage the citizenry. Third, trial and appellate-court judges likewise feel
pressure to deliver rulings that are politically popular. Fourth, governors often choose whether to
veto death penalty legislation based on the preferences of their constituents. Fifth, justices in state
and federal courts can rely on the “evolving standards of decency” in deciding whether death penalty
laws violate the Eighth Amendment. In two recent landmark Supreme Court cases, the majority
relied on extensive analyses of public opinion in deciding to abolish capital punishment for the
mentally retarded (Atkins v. Virginia, 2002) and juveniles (Roper v. Simmons, 2005).
An issue of concern, however, is that the American public is not homogenous in its attitudes
toward capital punishment. Studies have shown, over time and across different method ological
University of North Texas, Denton, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Adam Trahan, Department of Criminal Justice, University of North Texas, 1155 Union Circle, Denton, TX 76203, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2019, Vol. 44(4) 452-469
ª2018 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016818818687
designs, that support and opposition to the death penalty are concentrated among certain identifiable
groups. Supporters of capital punishment are disproportionately White (Bobo & Johnson, 2004;
Cochran & Chamlin, 2006; Johnson, 2001), male (Cochran & Sanders, 2009; Robbers, 2006; Stack,
2000), protestant (Grasmick & McGill, 1994; Young, 1992), politically conservative (Longmire,
1996; Young, 1991, 1992), married (Bohm, 2014; Fox, Radelet, & Bonst eel, 1990–1991), and
undereducated. Such findings led Unnever and Cullen (2007a, p. 125) to assert that legislators,
governors, and justices who have affirmed the death penalty based on the supposed attitudes of the
majority have, in fact, “represented the sentiments of White America” and disregarded opposition
among minority groups.
Demographic variations in capital punishment opinion have been well established. However,
exploring group-level variation in the manner of extant research still fails to capture the actual
variation of death penalty opinion. Blacks are not themselves homogenous nor are women or the
educated, and there is certainly variation of death penalty opinions within each group. Consider, for
example, the sizable literature on race and capital punishment opinion. This research shows that
levels of support for capital punishment are approximately 30 percentage points lower for Blacks
than Whites (Bohm, 2014; Dugan, 2015; Fox et al., 1990–1991). While there is no reason to doubt
the veracity of these findings in the aggregate, they fail to capture the nuances within different racial
groups. For instance, a significant proportion of Blacks are, of course, men. We know that, in the
aggregate, men are more likely to support capital punishment than women (see Bohm, 2014). This
begs the question, “what about Black men?” Does being a male, which is associated with higher
rates of death penalty support, counterbalance the lower levels of support observed among Blacks? If
so, do rates of support among Black men resemble those of White women? Our history of isolating
these characteristics in statistical models has left these questions unanswered.
Our custom of studying race, class, gender, and other demographic characteristics separately has
left us with a dearth of information to determine the actual variation of capital punishment opinion in
the United States. Except for a few studies, we know nothing of how capital punishment opinion may
vary across different intersections of race, gender, and class. The study presented here was designed
to fill this gap in the empirical record. Using data from the General Social Survey (GSS), we classify
respondents into categories representing the combination of their race, gender, and education to act
as a measure of class. Capital punishment opinions are then regressed on the intersection of respon-
dents’ race, gender, education, and standard control variables to assess differences in support and
opposition across each group. This investigation reveals significant variation in capital punishment
opinions across social groups and differences in the ways that race, class, and gender interact to
shape attitudes toward the ultimate sanction.
Race is the strongest extant correlate of capital punishment opinion. It is a more potent predictor of
capital punishment support and opposition than any other variable tested to date. With few excep-
tions (see Mallicoat & Brown, 2008), research on race and capital punishment opinion has focused
on differences between Blacks and Whites. Findings show that Blacks are far more likely than
Whites to oppose capital punishment. Gallup polls that most recently report data on race show 68%
of Whites favored capital punishment, compared to 39%of Blacks (Dugan, 2015). Such a sizable
racial divide has been observed over time and across different methodological designs. Fox, Radelet,
and Bonsteel (1990–1991) analyzed race differences in death penalty opinion across 15 iterations of
the GSS from 1972 to 1988. White support for the death penalty was significantly higher than Black
support in each iteration of the survey, with an average difference of 30 percentage points. Bohm
Trahan et al. 453

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