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The role of race in the production of criminal conduct has been an issue in US criminology for decades. The fact that African Americans are disproportionately involved as offenders in the criminal justice system in the USA is not in dispute. US public health statistics consistently show homicide is a leading cause of death for black males, and the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports suggest that black offenders are responsible for most homicides involving black victims. Black males have been over-represented in both victimization and offender figures for over 35 years. This has not been the case for American Indian, Asian, or ”other race” males. Hispanic victims and offenders are not part of a separate racial group and may be counted as white, black, Asian, or American Indian.
Although explanations for these differences have ranged from biological to sociological, most of those trying to explain the differences in black and white arrest and incarceration rates focus on social, cultural, economic, or political factors. For these theorists, patterns of homicide rates by race suggest that the rates are primarily linked to exclusion and segregation – economic, racial, and ethnic -but especially to the separation and isolation of large segments of urban populations based on income and assets.
Sampson and Wilson called attention to the cultural and structural effects of racial and class segregation in 1990 (”A theory of race, crime and urban inequality”). They noted the existence of neighborhoods highly segregated by race, class, and level of family disruption that are isolated from mainstream culture and argued that these neighborhood characteristics were the result of policies of racial segregation, economic transformation, black male joblessness, class-linked out-migration and housing discrimination. They suggested that the structural and cultural disorganization that increased crime rates grew out of residential segregation and separation from work.
Not every criminologist believes that the differences by race found in official data are the result of real differences in behavior. Some criminologists argue that arrest and conviction statistics reflect the racial bias of those operating the system of justice. The strongest evidence for this position comes from studies of the use of drug laws and analyses of motorist stops. Although official definitions of crime are legislative, crime is also defined by administrative policies and enforcement practices. The police, for example, have wide discretion in decisions to arrest and charge. Given the history of race relations in the United States, it would be surprising to find that race does not play a role in some decisions to arrest and convict.
However, reviews of court studies from the 1960s to 2000 produce inconsistent evidence on sentencing disparity by race. Today, many researchers in this area think that it is important to examine context – asking, ”When does race matter?” In their review of this literature, Walker et al. (2000) suggest there is evidence that race matters when the crime is less serious, when the victim is white and the accused is not, and when the accused is unemployed. Young black males may be ”over arrested” for minor offenses and offenses involving drug possession or sale but a disproportionate number of young black males are involved in murders, rapes, robberies, and other forms of predatory crime. However, in the light of the sad history of race relations in the United States it is hard to identify the reasons for the differences in any of these arrest and offending rates. As in many areas of criminology, there is no shortage of theory, assertion, and speculation. But there is a serious shortage of well focused, dependable research on the relationship of race and crime.
- Walker, S., Spohn, C., & DeLone, M. (2000) The color of justice: race, ethnicity, and crime in America, 2nd edn. Wadsworth Thomson Learning, Belmont, CA.
- Reiman, J. (2001) The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison. Allyn and Bacon, Boston, MA.
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