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Persuasion and Resistance: Race and the Death Penalty in America


  • This project was funded by National Science Foundation Grant #9906346. The authors wish to acknowledge the help of James Avery, David Barker, Scott Beach, Chris Bonneau, James Druckman, Richard Fording, Steven Manners, Richard Schulz, Joe Soss, Charles Taber, Nicholas Valentino, D. Stephen Voss, and three anonymous reviewers.

Mark Peffley is professor of political science, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY 40506 ( Jon Hurwitz is professor of political science, University of Pittsburgh, 4600 Posvar Hall, Pittsburgh, PA 15260 (


Although there exists a large and well-documented “race gap” between whites and blacks in their support for the death penalty, we know relatively little about the nature of these differences and how the races respond to various arguments against the penalty. To explore such differences, we embedded an experiment in a national survey in which respondents are randomly assigned to one of several argument conditions. We find that African Americans are more responsive to argument frames that are both racial (i.e., the death penalty is unfair because most of the people who are executed are black) and nonracial (i.e., too many innocent people are being executed) than are whites, who are highly resistant to persuasion and, in the case of the racial argument, actually become more supportive of the death penalty upon learning that it discriminates against blacks. These interracial differences in response to the framing of arguments against the death penalty can be explained, in part, by the degree to which people attribute the causes of black criminality to either dispositional or systemic forces (i.e., the racial biases of the criminal justice system).