Vol. 27 No. 2 (February 2017) pp. 36-38

AT THE CROSS: RACE, RELIGION, AND CITIZENSHIP IN THE POLITICS OF THE DEATH PENALTY, by Melynda J. Price. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 220 pp. Hardcover $99.00 ISBN 978-0190205539. Paper $27.95 ISBN 978-0-19-020554-6.

Reviewed by Jolly A. Emrey, Department of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Email:

In AT THE CROSS: RACE, RELIGION, AND CITIZENSHIP IN THE POLITICS OF THE DEATH PENALTY, Melynda J. Price examines the intersectionality of race, gender, and religion with respect to attitudes about, and narratives surrounding, the death penalty. She examines how the politics of the death penalty both shapes African Americans’ understanding of citizenship and constrains their political participation. The author begins using two “concrete” death penalty cases from Texas to frame her analyses: Gary Graham and Karla Faye Tucker. The politics surrounding the Graham and Tucker executions, particularly attempts to stay their executions or commute their sentences, illustrate how race, gender, and religion factor into framing perceptions of death row inmates. In particular, Price provides a rich, descriptive narrative about stereotypes that envelop and influence public perceptions of black males in the criminal justice system compared with white females. While this may not appear novel on its face, the introduction of religion and “jail house” religious conversion of the convicted, coupled with race, does take this argument and analysis to a more nuanced level. More broadly, Price seeks to provide systematic evidence that the death penalty is an important factor that shapes how African Americans view their political citizenship in the United States, especially for those living in the metropolitan area of Houston, Texas where death penalty cases are frequently adjudicated. Price uses a mixed-methods approach including focus group interviews, quantitative methods, and analytic narrative to understand better the differences in attitudes about the death penalty among and across subgroups. This well-written book provides multiple theoretical lenses through which to understand these complex relationships surrounding the politics of the death penalty.

Chapter 1 introduces the author’s examination of race, religion, and the death penalty through a discussion of the Gary Graham and Karla Faye Tucker cases. The author identifies these as “concrete” cases given their media profiles, common factors that they share, and more importantly, factors where they diverge. The interpretations surrounding these divergent factors are influenced by historical treatment of race and gender in the United States. The author also includes a thoughtful discussion of innocence in different contexts, including legal and social, that frames attitudes blacks and whites have about the death penalty generally, and the Graham and Tucker cases specifically. With respect to religion, she finds that race and gender mediate perceptions about redemption, and these perceptions vary within racial communities and in media coverage of the two cases.

Chapter 2 contributes to our understanding of racial discrimination and the death penalty by focusing on race, death qualified juries, and BATSON challenges. Price begins this chapter discussing the democratizing features of juries in the United States. She notes the common theoretical arguments about lay jurors bringing to the courtroom their community and contemporary values when determining guilt and punishment for the accused. At the same time, she examines aspects of historical and contemporary treatment of African Americans with respect to jury selection and jury participation. This chapter includes two threads that are worth [*37] highlighting. First, the author’s discussion of the impact of BATSON on mitigating racial basis in jury selection adds to existing scholarship that has determined BATSON to be a fairly ineffective tool, especially with regard to reducing racial bias and creating greater inclusion of African Americans as death qualified jurors. The author’s discussion of “Batson” hearings and the challenges to overcoming explicit and implicit bias with preemptory challenges is exceptional and adds to our understanding of BATSON specifically and to our understanding of impact studies of Supreme Court rulings in general. Secondly, Price notes that it is not simply a problem with the test and its application. She includes a discussion in this chapter that illustrates well its flaws in this regard, but extends her analysis to additional obstacles African Americans face during the jury selection process. For example, in a community like Houston, Texas, African Americans are more likely than not to have previous negative interactions with law enforcement and to have close friends or family members who have been through the criminal courts and incarcerated. These experiences and relationships may be revealed during the selection process that results in weeding out many African Americans and limits opportunities for jury service. Price adds that African Americans share an “ambivalent” attitude toward the death penalty that includes a distrust of the state and the criminal justice system given historical and contemporary treatment. With this connection, the author begins to lay the foundation for the linkages she explores in subsequent chapters.

Chapter 3 includes empirical analyses of African Americans’ attitudes about the death penalty using an aggregation of several years of the Houston Area Survey (HAS). The author examines the effects of income, education, religiosity, gender, party identification, and individual respondent’s experience with discrimination on attitudes about the death penalty. She also seeks to systematically examine these data for evidence of “linked fate.” Linked fate suggests that African Americans who identify more closely with the historical and contemporary discriminatory treatment of African Americans as a group will be more likely to disagree with the death penalty than African Americans who identify solely as individuals. The multivariate model in this chapter yields findings that support the linked fate hypothesis and anti-death penalty sentiments. Income is also an important explanatory factor. Religion and religiosity, however, do not offer much explanatory power. An alternative theory about black racial resentment or within group resentment is offered near the close of this chapter to explain why some African Americans are not opposed to the death penalty. Although the findings in this study and previous studies linking class and ideology to attitudes about the death penalty seem well grounded, black racial resentment needs to be explored more thoroughly in this chapter to give the theory sufficient weight as a possible explanation. Exploring theories about individualism or variables that measure this trait might yield more fruit for the questions the author seeks to answer. The inclusion of racial resentment theory at the end of the chapter is interesting, but as the author notes, she does not have the data to support any conclusions about whether or not this theory helps to explain why some African Americans are more likely to support the death penalty than others. Given this, it is not clear why racial resentment theory is included at the close of this chapter.

Chapters 4 and 5 use peer focus groups to explore understanding of the death penalty and to explore understanding of citizenship and political and social inclusion. In Chapter 4, Price interviews adult members of the Houston black community to examine the role “folk knowledge” (common wisdom) that African Americans share shapes their views about the death penalty and its legitimacy as a punishment. In Chapter 5, the author uses peer focus group interviews to discuss larger issues of racial [*38] discrimination, criminal justice, political participation, and political efficacy. Focus group participant responses provide some rich context and supplement earlier narratives in this book. Some of the connections the author makes with these interviews to the many theories about race she includes in this chapter are better supported and others are tenuous at best. One of the more revealing participant statements takes the reader back to Chapter 1. While discussing the Graham and Tucker cases, some participants viewed Tucker’s execution as a symbolic exercise to make the death penalty seem less arbitrary and discriminatory.

AT THE CROSS: RACE, RELIGION, & CITIZENSHIP IN THE POLITICS OF THE DEATH PENALTY contributes to many lines of inquiry. It adds to our understanding of race and identity politics in the United States, and to existing scholarship on the discriminatory effects of the death penalty, from jury selection to conviction and execution. This book is rich with theory, the writing is clear and strong, and Price explains the assumptions of the theories very well. Price also acknowledges the limitations of the theories she cites and the limitations of her data where appropriate.
This book includes a thorough discussion of the author’s research design and her methodology as well as appendices with additional information for her empirical chapters.

In AT THE CROSS, race gets a very thorough treatment, but religion is not as prevalent, even when the two intersect. Understanding the role of religion in attitudes of African Americans about the death penalty seems more challenging to tease out or perhaps less important than presumed. The author is able to illustrate its importance in Chapter 1 with the Graham and Tucker cases, however, less successful in the later chapters. Citizenship is another common thread in many chapters, like race. Price examines citizenship in different contexts but is most successful at demonstrating its relationship to the death penalty in Chapter 2. Chapter 2 is where she examines the ineffectiveness of “Batson” challenges and other barriers to African Americans’ participation on death qualified juries. This chapter would serve well to accompany readings on BATSON in constitutional law courses. It would also be an excellent counter or companion to readings on the democratizing influences of juries in the United States.


BATSON V. KENTUCKY 476 U.S. 79 (1986)

© Copyright 2017 by author, Jolly A. Emrey.