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Young Research

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Persuasion and Resistance: Race and the Death Penalty in America
Mark Peffley Jon Hurwitz
University of Kentucky University of Pittsburgh

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).

he conventional wisdom on public opinion toward the death penalty in the United States, as summarized nicely by Ellsworth and Gross, is that people “feel strongly about the death penalty, know little about it, and feel no need to know more” (1994, 19). As a consequence of these feelings, the authors argue, attitudes tend to be relatively crystallized and, therefore, unresponsive to question phrasing or arguments that are contrary to an individual’s belief. We must wonder, then, why views of the death penalty vary so dramatically over time and across contexts. Gallup surveys document a...

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