III. Race and Modern Criminological Theory
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. Many social scientists (Mann, 1993; Stark, 1990) complicate the matter with assertions that the perceived differential between groups with regard to crime is reducible to either systematized bias or unreliable/misapplied statistics. To counter, a number of scholars (Hawkins, 1986; Hindelang, 1978; Katz, 1988; Sampson & Wilson, 1995) have provided arguments that both acknowledge the differentials while furthering the etiological debate.
As the preceding discussion implies, there are many divergent perspectives on the matter of race and crime. Accordingly, there is little broad agreement on many of the fundamental aspects of the issue. This said, it is instructive to consider some general theoretical categories of scholarship and how each has addressed the problem.
Among the oldest body of work that considers the matter of race and crime may be those which are described as sociobiological theories. These theories generally posit that criminality (or the proclivity thereto) is a matter of hereditary, genetic, or physiological flaw. Perhaps the most well-known of these is the work of Cesare Lombroso. Lombroso (1912/2006) proposed that criminals were a kind of evolutionary throwback to a more primitive condition: “The criminal is an atavistic being, a relic of a vanished race . . . a return to characteristics peculiar to primitive savages” (p. 21). Lombroso’s work spawned an examination of theorized physiological and psychological differences between criminals and “normal” people. Lombroso famously observed that “many criminals have outstanding ears, abundant hair, a sparse beard, enormous frontal sinuses and jaws, a square and projecting chin, broad cheekbones, frequent gestures, in fact a type resembling the Mongolian and sometimes the Negro” (p. 29)
In more recent years, Jeffery (1979, 1990) and Fishbein (1990) have proposed a revised version of sociobiological criminological theory. Jeffery’s (1990) work in particular concerns the interaction of genetics with environmental forces: “Genes influence behavior through pathway mechanisms such as the brain, brain chemistry and hormonal systems, all in interaction with one another and with the environment” (p. 184). Balkan, Berger and Schmidt (1980) were highly critical of this approach, calling it “a continuation of the tradition of looking for individual biological basis of criminal behavior” (pp. 18–19). Although Jeffery never expressly addressed race, adherents to the perspective nonetheless have cautioned against “the premature application of biological findings” (Fishbein, 1990, p. 55).
An individual-level theory that does expressly consider race is found in the work of Poussaint (1972). Poussaint’s theories consider the impact of rage and low self-esteem as conditioned by the African American experience: “Many of the problems in the Black community are related to institutional racism, which fosters a chronic lack of Black self-respect, predisposing many poor Blacks to behave self-destructively and with uncontrollable rage” (p. 163). The “incessant . . . [irritation] of the black man’s psyche” (Guterman, 1972, p. 231) and “estrangement, cynicism and expectations of doubledealing” (Heilbrun & Heilbrun, 1977, p. 370) add support to frustration–aggression theory. Likewise, Bernard (1990, p. 74) refined the perspective by suggesting that social factors such as urban environment, low social position, and discrimination exacerbate the conditions noted in previous studies. As Bernard’s work suggests, understanding the interplay between the individual and his or her environment is important in assessing the relationship between crime and race.
Moving beyond individual-level theories, a number of perspectives have considered the impact of culture and the broader social environment in their explanations of crime and race. Hereto, there exists considerable debate. As Sampson andWilson (1995) stated, “[Criminologists] have reduced the race-crime debate to simplistic arguments about culture versus social structure” (p. 38). As Sampson and Wilson correctly identified, the discourse is fundamentally one couched in either a “relative deprivation” structuralist hypothesis as typified by Blau and Blau (1982) or an equally unsatisfying cultural focus on “an indigenous culture” of ghetto violence offered by Wolfgang and Ferracuti (1967).
Of the two, the subculture-of-violence perspective is arguably the more widely discussed. In their elaboration of the theory, Wolfgang and Ferracuti (1967) sought to explain minority violence in terms of dominant subcultural values, which include “a potent theme of violence” that is transmitted through “lifestyle, the socialization process, [and] the interpersonal relationships of individuals living in similar conditions” (p. 140). A more recent explication of the subculture-of-violence perspective came from Luckenbill and Doyle (1989), who put forth the hypothesis that “young adults, males, blacks, lower income persons, and urban and southern residents are more likely than their respective counterparts to name a negative outcome, to claim reparation and to persevere and use force in resolving a dispute” (p. 425).
The subculture-of-violence perspective has garnered a substantial amount of criticism. Mann and Selva (1979) criticized the perspective for its over-focus on “the street lifestyle.” Haft-Picker (1980) summarized a number of concerns with her statement that “criminologists no longer agree on what the subculture of violence actually is or whether it exists at all” (p. 181).
In many regards, ecological theories of crime overcome the problems inherent to individual-level and subcultural explanations. As a general construct, ecological theories seek to identify and understand those features of communities, in particular urban communities that produce differential rates of crime (Bursik, 1988; Byrne & Sampson, 1986; Sampson &Wilson, 1995; Short, 1985). In particular, the community-level approach first elucidated by Shaw and McKay (1942/1969) identifies three structural factors that contribute most strongly to juvenile delinquency: (1) low economic status, (2) ethnic heterogeneity, and (3) residential mobility. Perhaps their most prescient finding was their demonstration that high rates of delinquency persisted in certain areas irrespective of population turnover. This finding led Shaw and McKay to reject individualistic theories of delinquent behavior in favor of studying the process of intergenerational transmission of delinquency (and crime generally) in more socially disorganized areas (p. 320). Shaw and McKay directly refuted contemporary theorists (i.e., Jonassen, 1949) who argued that ethnicity had a direct effect on observed rates of delinquent behavior.
As pertains specifically to considerations of race, the social disorganization perspective founded largely in the work of Shaw and McKay (1942/1969) continues to be among the most fecund in the study of crime. Of particular note is the work of Messner and Sampson (1991), Sampson (1987), Sullivan (1989), and Meares (1998) on the influence of family structure and disruption in minority communities.
Perhaps the most damaging criticism of the social disorganization perspective, namely, that it is founded in circular reasoning, was summarized by Bohm (1997): “That is, social disorganization is the cause of delinquency, and delinquency is an indicator of social disorganization” (p. 78). Bohm also noted that the social disorganization perspective fails to account for high crime rates in stable working-class communities.
The work of Blau and Blau (1982), mentioned earlier, has inspired explanations of crime through the lens of economic and racial inequality. The influence of extralegal factors (e.g., economic inequality) on the social control of crime is the focus of considerable scholarly debate. The mass of the discourse is built around issues of race and social class examined from a conflict perspective (Eitle, D’Alessio, & Stolzenberg, 2002, p. 557). Liska (1987) asserted that “law making is assumed to reflect the interests of the powerful; those activities are criminalized that threaten their interests” (p. 77) Racial threat theory expands on the conflict perspective to suggest that law violations by racial minorities can be perceived as particularly threatening to those in power and will therefore be met with greater force (Liska, 1987, p. 77).
Blalock (1967) is generally viewed as the primary exponent of racial threat theory. Blalock argued that one may use the relative minority population size to predict the ways in which a majority population will exercise social control. According to his perspective, as the percentage of non-whites increases, they are perceived to constitute a political and economic threat to the white majority. The growing minority in essence “forces” members of the white majority to compete for jobs and other economic resources. As the minority population grows, it competes with whites for social resources, such as political power. Racial discrimination is, according to this perspective, an attempt by whites to subvert racial minority efforts to exercise power. As an extension of this perspective, those things that become criminalized, and the ways in which the criminal justice system is structured to respond, reflects the interests of the majority population and its attempts to preserve social power.
Numerous studies support the conclusion that the size of the minority population influences social control (Bobo, 1983; Chamlin, 1989; Fossett & Kiecolt, 1989; Giles & Evans, 1986; Giles & Hertz, 1994; Glaser, 1994; Matthews & Prothro, 1966; Taylor, 1998; Wright, 1977). Despite this consensus, critics have identified a number of problems that undercut the racial threat perspective.
Liska (1987, p. 78) provided one of the more damaging critiques. Citing problems of “epistemic and theoretical linkage,” he contended that theorists have generally failed to properly operationalize and connect concepts such as “ruling class interests” and “threat.” Moreover, he held that the problems extend throughout the literature, for the following reasons:
Because the critical causal variables are not well defined, theoretically and operationally, and are not clearly linked to each other in the form of propositions or a causal model, the relevant research literature is also not well defined and integrated. (p. 78)
As readers can see, there are numerous theoretical perspectives through which one might approach the topic of race and crime. Each contributes to the broader understanding of the matter while presenting methodological or structural issues that remain to be reconciled. In this, one may view the body of criminological theory as a continually evolving construct. As readers will see in the following section, this metaphor of evolution also fits the history of American legal process with regard to race.