Race and Crime

Although an arguable amount of progress has been made in the general academic treatment of race, the intersection of race and crime still proves to be a problematic topic for social science. As Sampson andWilson (1995) stated, “The discussion of race and crime is mired in an unproductive mix of controversy and silence . . . criminologists are loathe to speak . . . for fear of being misunderstood or labeled racist” (p. 37) Nonetheless, the disproportionate involvement of minorities with crime, both as victims and perpetrators, demands a systematic and balanced exploration.


I. Introduction

II. A Brief History of Race

III. Race and Modern Criminological Theory

IV. Race in American Legal History

A. Before the Civil War

B. Civil War Era

C. After the Civil War: Jim Crow Laws

D. The 1960s to the Present

V. Bibliography

I. Introduction

The meaning of race has changed significantly over the course of human history. Early theories of race assigned numerous social, intellectual, moral, and physical values to the apparent differences between groups of people. From the 17th through early 20th centuries, the study of race was defined in terms of a hierarchy of putative biological differences. In this era, scholars working from various social and natural science perspectives developed “scientific” justifications that were subsequently used to rationalize the disparate treatment of ethnic, racial, and social groups. In the decades following World War II, the concept of race increasingly came to be understood more as a social and political construction and less as a matter of biology.A considerable body of modern theory regards race as a social mechanism used to preserve unbalanced relationships of power. In this research paper, readers will encounter a brief history of race as a subject for social thought, followed by a review of more recent developments in criminological theory. Last, a discussion of race as a component of social policy with specific regard to its place in American legal history is presented.

Before one can meaningfully discuss the instrumental properties of race in a social context, a definition of the concept itself must be developed. That said, the reduction of race to a single essentialist criterion is a difficult, if not impossible, endeavor. Although phenotype or skin color may strongly inform racial categorization, historically many other characteristics have been treated as equally determinative. National or ethnic origin, social class, religion, and language have all been used to identify racially “distinct” groups. Race is thus invested with a complex social context that depends in part on the prevailing “common understanding and meaning” of society (In re Ah Yup, 1878).

Lopez (1994) defined race as follows:

A vast group of people loosely bound together by historically contingent, socially significant elements of their morphology and/or ancestry . . . an ongoing, contradictory, self-reinforcing process subject to the macro forces of social and political struggle and the micro effects of daily decisions. (p. 3)

Although this is but one scholar’s attempt to capture the attributes of an admittedly difficult concept, this definition speaks to the malleability of the term and its predominantly social, rather than biological, construction.

It is difficult to pinpoint a time in history when theories of race were first used as a tool to categorize people. Some scholars argue that the process of racial categorization, as well as the assignment of relative social values to those categories, was prevalent by the end of the Middle Ages in Europe (Winant, 2000) and by the Renaissance in England (Bartel, 1997). Sweet (1997) made the following argument:

By the time of the Columbian encounter [with the peoples of the New World] . . . race, and especially skin color, defined the contours of power relationships. . . . Biological assumptions that were familiar to a nineteenth-century Cuban slave owner would have been recognizable to his fifteenth-century Spanish counterpart. (p. 166)

Winant (2000) added the following:

The Crusades and the Inquisition and the Mediterranean slave trade were important rehearsals for modern systems of racial differentiation . . . in terms of scale and inexorability, the race concept only began to attain its familiar meanings at the end of the middle ages. (p. 45)

Less than a century ago, Italian, Irish, and southern European immigrants and their descendants were considered by many other Americans as “non-white” (Ignatiev, 1996). Oxford professor Edward Freeman espoused a prevalent late 19th-century viewpoint with the statement, “The best remedy for whatever is amiss in America would be if every Irishman would kill a Negro and be hanged for it” (Tucker, 1996, p. 34). The social status of “whiteness” was eventually conveyed on many of these immigrant groups on the basis of changes in social agreement regarding their assimilatory potential combined with the establishment of a racial identity appropriately distanced from their “blackness.” Lopez (1996) documented more than four dozen American legal decisions from 1878 to 1952 in which individuals representing various nationalities and ethnic groups had their relative “whiteness” determined in court.

As social and legal conceptions of race have evolved, an important point has emerged: Race is a matter not just of discerning group characteristics but of understanding and demarcating social relationships. The history of scholarship regarding race speaks directly to this point.

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