Sacrificial Lambs: Racial order and the American death penalty

Stream: Panel 70 - Comparative Politics: Prejudice and Ethnic & Religious Minorities 
Date: Wednesday, 28 September 2016
Time: 9.00 am – 10.30 am


In 1976, the supreme court of the United States voted to overturn a four-year national moratorium on executions, restoring capital punishment to the United States. Today, the US remains the only highly developed western democracy that retains an active system of capital punishment; a system characterized by procedural inefficiencies, endemic racism and error. This paper gives an account of why the US chose to retain capital punishment in 1976. To do this, the paper develops a new theoretical framework for understanding the relationship between southern lynching, capital punishment and retention. The paper conducts a historical institutionalist analysis of the American death penalty, exploring the ways in which competing racial orders shaped the function and meaning of the institution from postbellum Reconstruction in 1865, to retention in 1976. The paper utilizes theories of path dependency through a racial orders framework, arguing that at three critical junctures, the institutional meaning of capital punishment as a symbol of white supremacist racial order is reiterated. Importantly, this process of ideological reiteration occurs in the midst of, and in spite of, comprehensive egalitarian structural progress. It is proposed that the US retained capital punishment due to an abiding ideological commitment to a white supremacist racial order, historically embedded in the institution of capital punishment. These findings testify to the power and resilience of political ideas, and their ability to inform agency and influence the direction of political development, even in the midst of comprehensive structural change.


Josh Thorp (Presenter), UNSW
Josh is a research assistant in the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales. In 2015, Josh finished his honours degree in development studies, analysing the institutional development of America's death penalty. Josh is currently undertaking a research internship for Reprieve, an organisation conducting political advocacy and offering legal assistance to those facing the death penalty worldwide.