Why does the South execute more people?

In the wake of the high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful effort to save Georgia's Troy Davis from execution, media outlets are buzzing that the Davis case has sparked a new debate about capital punishment.

As many of these stories point out, a sizable majority in the U.S. still support the death penalty -- - 62 percent, according to one poll. The question is whether Davis' case will provoke a backlash.

But such polls overlook the two big divides that already shape the death penalty debate: region and race.

The regional disparity is striking. Since the Supreme Court lifted a ban on death sentences in 1976, 1,264 people have been executed in the U.S. And 921 of those executions -- or 73 percent of the total -- took place in 13 Southern states.

It's true that Texas -- and what some call its death machine -- skew the numbers: Its 474 executions account for nearly 38 percent of the U.S. total. But the fact remains: Of the many things you can call the death penalty, one fitting adjective is that it's largely Southern.

What has made the South the home base of capital punishment? As you might suspect, executions have their roots in the history of slavery. As noted in A Short History of the American Death Penalty [pdf]:
In contrast to capital punishment in the northern states, capital punishment in the South was not limited primarily to common law felonies. Rather, the death penalty was a powerful tool for keeping the slave population in submission. Crimes that interfered with the ownership of slaves were punished by death. In 1837, North Carolina, which lacked a penitentiary, had about 26 capital crimes including slave-stealing, concealing a slave with intent to free him, second conviction of inciting slaves to insurrection, and second conviction of circulating seditious literature among slaves.
This racially-influenced law-and-order mentality spilled over into other crimes: In North Carolina, stealing bank notes, "crimes against nature" ("buggery, sodomy, bestiality") and a second offense of forgery and statutory rape came to be considered capital offenses.

Racial disparity was literally written into the law with the Southern death penalty. After the Civil War, Black Codes created more crimes punishable by death for African-Americans than whites. In the 1830s, Virginia had five capital crimes for whites but an estimated 70 such crimes for black slaves.

Today, the well-documented racial disparity in death sentences has become one of the central arguments among opponents for ending capital punishment.

But less discussed is the racial divide in how people view the death penalty. For example, underneath the polls showing widespread support is one of the most well-documented facts in death penalty research: that it enjoys much higher support among whites than other racial groups, especially African-Americans.

For example, a 2005 Gallup poll was typical in finding that, while there was little difference in death penalty support among different age groups, and only a moderate 12-point gap between men and women, there was a 27-point difference between white (71%) and black (44%) support.

Indeed, recent research [pdf] by Andrew Gelman and Kenny Shirley at Columbia University found that race was by far the biggest factor in explaining differences we see in death penalty support -- more than twice as influential as the next two factors, the state where you live and the year the poll was taken. Gender, education level and age ranked even lower.

The legacy of race and racism seems clear enough in explaining much of the white South's ongoing embrace of the death penalty. But what does that mean for our new public debate about the death penalty -- especially in the place where most of the executions are happening, the South?

The answer may be disheartening for death penalty opponents. In a 2007 study [pdf], political scientists Mark Peffley and Jon Hurwitz confirmed, like many had before, that whites and blacks have vastly different attitudes about the death penalty.

It also found something else: that whites and blacks also differ in their willingness to even consider arguments about the death penalty's validity. For example, African Americans who originally supported the death penalty responded both to racial arguments (for example, "the death penalty is unfair because most of the people who are executed are black") and non-racial arguments ("too many innocent people are being executed") that were offered in opposition.

But whites presented with the same arguments were "highly resistant to persuasion" -- in fact, were actually more likely to support the death penalty after learning it discriminated against African-Americans.

Some researchers say these differences are a direct result of open racial bias among whites (see, for example, this study). Peffley and Hurwitz more charitably argue it has to do with whites seeing inequities in the criminal justice system having to do with personal failures rather than systemic problems -- more of a racial blindspot than active bigotry (which in the end may make little difference).

Either way, it's clear that views about the death penalty have become deeply ingrained in the white South -- and it will likely take more than the Troy Davis case to dislodge them.