Why Do White Americans Support the Death Penalty?

Authors

  • Joe Soss,

    1. American University
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    • For helpful comments and suggestions, we thank Leonie Huddy, Stanley Feldman, Gina Sapiro, William Jacoby, and the anonymous reviewers. In addition, we thank American University for extending generous support for this study through a 2001 Faculty Senate research grant.

  • Laura Langbein,

    1. American University
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    • For helpful comments and suggestions, we thank Leonie Huddy, Stanley Feldman, Gina Sapiro, William Jacoby, and the anonymous reviewers. In addition, we thank American University for extending generous support for this study through a 2001 Faculty Senate research grant.

  • Alan R. Metelko

    1. American University
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    • For helpful comments and suggestions, we thank Leonie Huddy, Stanley Feldman, Gina Sapiro, William Jacoby, and the anonymous reviewers. In addition, we thank American University for extending generous support for this study through a 2001 Faculty Senate research grant.


Abstract

This article explores the roots of white support for capital punishment in the United States. Our analysis addresses individual-level and contextual factors, paying particular attention to how racial attitudes and racial composition influence white support for capital punishment. Our findings suggest that white support hinges on a range of attitudes wider than prior research has indicated, including social and governmental trust and individualist and authoritarian values. Extending individual-level analyses, we also find that white responses to capital punishment are sensitive to local context. Perhaps most important, our results clarify the impact of race in two ways. First, racial prejudice emerges here as a comparatively strong predictor of white support for the death penalty. Second, black residential proximity functions to polarize white opinion along lines of racial attitude. As the black percentage of county residents rises, so too does the impact of racial prejudice on white support for capital punishment.

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