Spring 2024

From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State: Race and Punishment in the United States

Listed in: Political Science, as POSC-360


Austin D. Sarat (Section 01)


Other than war, punishment is the most dramatic manifestation of state power. Whom a society punishes and how it punishes are key political questions as well as indicators of a state's character. The character of punishment in the United States has been shaped, throughout American history, by race and racism. This course considers the connections between punishment, race, and politics in this country. We will ask how far we have come in the journey from lynch mobs to the killing state. We also will consider whether we punish too much and too severely, or too little and too leniently, and the ways race has shaped the ways we punish. We will examine the politicization and racialization of punishment and examine particular modalities through which the state dispenses its penal power. Among the questions to be discussed are: Does punishment express our noblest aspirations for justice or our basest racialized fears and desires for vengeance? Can punishment ever be an adequate expression of, or response to, the pain of the victims of crime? When is it appropriate to forgive rather than punish? How do race and racial antagonism shape the answer to that question? Throughout we will try to understand the meaning of punishment in the United States by its intimate connections to this country’s racial history.

Limited to 15 students. Spring semester. Professor Sarat.

How to handle overenrollment: I aim to admit a mix of students from different classes and with different backgrounds in political science and in other fields in order to foster a rich interdisciplinary conversation

Students who enroll in this course will likely encounter and be expected to engage in the following intellectual skills, modes of learning, and assessment: Oral presentations, written work, group work.

POSC 360 - LEC

Section 01
Tu 1:00 PM - 3:30 PM CLAR 100

ISBN Title Publisher Author(s) Comment Book Store Price
The Book of Job New York : HarperPerennial, 1992. translated, and with an introduction by Stephen Mitchell Amherst Books TBD
Harsh Justice New York ; Oxford University Press, 2003. James Q. Whitman Amherst Books TBD
Billy Budd and Other Tales Signet Classics Herman Melville, Julian Markels (Introduction), Joyce Carol Oates (Afterword) Amherst Books TBD
All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence Vintage Fox Butterfield Amherst Books TBD
Gruesome Spectacles, Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty Stanford Law Books Austin Sarat Amherst Books TBD
Mercy on trial Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, c2005. Austin Sarat Amherst Books TBD
Lethal Injection and the False Promise of Humane Execution Stanford University Press Austin Sarat Amherst Books TBD

These books are available locally at Amherst Books.


Other years: Offered in Spring 2012, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015, Spring 2016, Spring 2017, Spring 2019, Spring 2021, Spring 2023, Spring 2025