White America's support of the death penalty is largely rooted in a fear of Black people.

Our cultural attitudes are unconsciously shaped by our collective history as much as they are consciously shaped by our current context. When you consider the death penalty as a tool of racial control—a way for Whites to “defend” themselves from Blacks—then Pew’s poll results make sense. What we’re looking at is the inevitable result of that history expressed through public opinion, and influenced by racialized ideas on crime and criminality. If you’re still skeptical, consider this: In 2007, two researchers tried to gauge racial differences on capital punishment and assess how Blacks and Whites responded to arguments against the practice. Their core findings with Black Americans weren’t a surprise—in general, Blacks were receptive to any argument against the death penalty.

Their findings with Whites, on the other hand, were disturbing. Not only where Whites immune to persuasion on the death penalty, but when researchers told them of the racial disparity—that Blacks faced unfair treatment—many increased their support.