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In “Toward a Theory of Race, Crime, and Urban Inequality,” Sampson and Wilson (1995) argued that racial disparities in violent crime are attributable in large part to the persistent structural disadvantages that are disproportionately concentrated in African American communities. They also argued that the ultimate causes of crime were similar for both Whites and Blacks, leading to what has been labeled the thesis of “racial invariance.” In light of the large scale social changes of the past two decades and the renewed political salience of race and crime in the United States, this paper reassesses and updates evidence evaluating the theory. In so doing, we clarify key concepts from the original thesis, delineate the proper context of validation, and address new challenges. Overall, we find that the accumulated empirical evidence provides broad but qualified support for the theoretical claims. We conclude by charting a dual path forward: an agenda for future research on the linkages between race and crime, and policy recommendations that align with the theory’s emphasis on neighborhood level structural forces but with causal space for cultural factors.
In the prior article in this volume, Robert Sampson and colleagues (2018) take theoretical and empirical stock of a framework they presented twenty years ago. They find broad empirical support for its core tenets. Differences in disadvantage explain most, if not all, observed gaps in violent crime between Black and White neighborhoods; disadvantage also operates similarly to foster crime in Black and White areas. The authors also lament the limited research on the key intervening mechanism of community social organization, particularly its cultural and political sources, that links disadvantage to crime. I have two primary goals in commenting on this article. First, in keeping with their assessment, I provide my take on their agenda for extending the framework beyond the Black-White divide, giving greater attention to the political sources of community social organization, and considering reciprocal relationships between crime, race, and disadvantage. Second, I elaborate on how my views differ from Sampson and colleagues’ regarding strategies to empirically validate the racial invariance thesis, the breadth of support for the thesis beyond its core tenets, and the role of culture. I provide these critiques to encourage further work exploring the explanatory power of Sampson and colleagues’ thesis, and, to thereby foster a better understanding of enduring inequities in violent crime between racialized minority populations and Whites. Without their ecologically-based approach, we run the risk of essentializing minorities as criminogenic, like recent work espousing cultural (devoid of structural) and biological (devoid of social) explanations for the race-crime link.
For over a century, scholars have traced higher levels of serious crime in minority compared to White neighborhoods to stark socioeconomic inequality. Yet, this research is largely cross-sectional and does not assess how ethnoracial differences in crime patterns evolve over time in response to shifting structural conditions. The new century witnessed substantial changes to the circumstances that undergird the ethnoracial divide in neighborhood crime as well as a national crime decline. How are the changing dynamics of urban inequality reinforcing or diminishing racial and ethnic disparities in neighborhood crime in the context of the “Great American Crime Decline”? We address this question by first identifying distinct paths of violent and property crime change between 1999 and 2013 for almost 2700 neighborhoods across eighteen cities. We then assess how initial and changing levels of disadvantage, housing instability, and demographics explain divergent crime trajectories within neighborhoods. We find that most neighborhoods have lower levels of homicide and burglary than fifteen years ago. However, homicide and burglary increased in some neighborhoods, and this trend is largely limited to Black neighborhoods. Disadvantage and the housing crisis are critical in accounting for the heightened risk of neighborhoods having increasing rather than decreasing crime trends. In contrast, immigration is linked with declining and stable trends in violent and property crime. Overall, results indicate a widening of the racial-spatial divide for the most marginalized communities in the United States.
Latino and Black males are more likely to suffer serious violent victimization compared to White males, and it is likely that economic disadvantage and other individual level differences play a key role in these disparities. This study of self-reported data from the National Crime Victimization Survey (1973–2010) is the first effort to assess three important issues: 1) the extent to which the relationship between serious violent victimization and race and ethnicity can be accounted for by age, location of residence, poverty status, and employment; 2) whether these factors have similar influences among Black, White, and Latino males; and 3) whether the net risk for violence associated with race and ethnicity has diminished over time. Our results show that disparities between Black and White male violent victimization decrease approximately 70% once age, location of residence, poverty status, and employment are taken into account, and that differences between Latinos and White males are fully accounted for by these factors. Poverty status is the only factor that varies in the strength of its association with violence across groups. We also find little evidence to suggest that the association between race, ethnicity and victimization risk changed significantly from 1973 to 2010, once other factors are considered. Despite notable declines in violence over this time period, Black and White disparities in male victimization persist over the past four decades; however, the relationship between poverty status and violence has increased some for Black and White males.
Policies, Politics, and the Plight of Race and Ethnic Groups
Exciting changes are happening in criminal jurisdiction in Indian country at the national level. Due in large part to activism on the part of Native women, Congress has attempted to improve criminal justice on tribal lands. The reforms do not go far enough, however, and many of the recent legal changes have not yet been challenged in the federal courts. This article will preview many of the legal issues likely to ignite a firestorm of litigation and lobbying around issues of crime in Indian country. This article will also wrestle with the difficult question of whether tribal nations should adopt or sustain the typical carceral law and order model used by Anglo-American governments. In an effort to take advantage of the changes in federal law, tribal nations are explicitly required to comply with certain Anglo-American norms. The risks and rewards of such adherence will also be explored.
The immigration enforcement system today affects different subgroups of Latinos; it reaches beyond the undocumented to immigrants who hold legal statuses and even to the U.S.-born. States have enacted their own enforcement collaboration agreements with federal authorities and thus Latinos may have dissimilar experiences based on where they live. This article examines the effects of enforcement schemes on Latinos’ likelihood of reporting crimes to police and views of law enforcement. It includes documented and U.S-born Latinos to capture the spillover beyond the undocumented, and it is based on four metropolitan areas—Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, and Chicago—to comparatively assess the effects of various enforcement contexts. Empirically, it relies on data from a random sample survey of over 2000 Latinos conducted in 2012 in these four cities. Results show that spillover effects vary by context and legal/citizenship status: Latino immigrants with legal status are less inclined to report to the police as compared to U.S.-born Latinos in Houston, Los Angeles, and Phoenix but not in Chicago. At the other end, the spillover effect in Phoenix is so strong that it almost reaches to U.S.-born Latinos. The spillover effect identified is possible due to the close association between being Latino or Mexican and being undocumented, underscoring the racialization of legal status and of immigration enforcement today.
Using a wide array of official and unofficial data spanning two decades in the neighborhoods of Chicago, we explore connections between legal cynicism, the electoral regime of Mayor Richard M. Daley, and citizen calls for police assistance and police reports of drug crime. We find that the disproportionate concentration of legal cynicism about law enforcement in African American neighborhoods played a prominent and insufficiently understood role in building opposition to Mayor Daley’s political machine. This race linked legal cynicism was grounded in neighborhood concerns about effective prevention of and protection from drug crime. The more punitive than preventative and protective approach to drug law enforcement that characterized the politics of the Daley crime machine contributed to a legacy that foreshadowed the growing and ultimately explosive demands for new mechanisms of police accountability in Chicago.
A large body of social science consistently documents race differences in the U.S. criminal justice system and in related perceptions of justice. It is now beyond dispute that the criminal justice system is racialized in a plethora of ways that have consequences for how people perceive justice. Another vast body of literature documents the importance of perceptions of procedural justice in people’s satisfaction with dispute management and outcomes. Informed by these two well-established literatures, we draw on original quantitative and qualitative data, including a random sample of interviews with 120 men in three California prisons, to present an empirical analysis of prisoners’ experiences with the prisoner grievance system, their level of satisfaction with the process and outcomes of that system, and their perceptions of fairness. We find an absence of race effects regarding how fairly they say they have been treated in the past by the criminal justice system and in how they assess justice in the prisoner grievance system in particular. Specifically, we find that: 1) male prisoners’ perceptions of whether the overall criminal justice system has been fair to them in the past does not vary by race in statistically significant ways; and 2) the dominance of substantive grievance outcomes over procedural elements in prisoners’ satisfaction holds regardless of racial self-identification. We explain these findings by arguing that prison may perversely level the attitudinal gap among those who are subject to this profound experience of state power.
Critical Views on Race, Rights, and Criminal Justice
Prominent U.S. police officials have advocated greater acknowledgement of the role of law enforcement in historical racial injustice, including violence, in hopes of transforming police community relations. While an encouraging development, these calls for transformative justice understate the scope of this historical and contemporary problem, neglecting the often extralegal nature of police involved violence and injustice, its array of spectacular and more subtle forms, and the layered roles of state and non-state actors in perpetrating and sanctioning White supremacist violence. Drawing on historical records of racist violence implicating police, this paper analyzes overlapping aspects of White supremacy in policing, including racist ideologies and political acts of law enforcement officers and officials, and more routine underpolicing of White supremacism by legal authorities. This backdrop of normative racist violence - physical, cultural, and structural – must inform a contemporary transformative justice agenda, including demands for explicit and robust protection from White supremacism in policing.
In recent years, there has been a surge of discussion, debate, and research on the topic of implicit bias. Implicit bias has become the go-to form of racial bias that many academics, practitioners, and policy makers have identified as important and timely to study (Eberhardt et al., 2004; Levinson and Smith, 2017). Interventions to address implicit racial bias in policing have been particularly popular (Fridell 2008). Arguably, combatting implicit racial bias presents itself as a tool for protecting civil rights. This essay examines the emergence of the implicit bias paradigm as a way to address racial bias in justice system outcomes. The first part provides an overview of implicit bias, including how it is defined, how it is measured, and how it impacts the justice system. The second part examines the term “implicit bias.” This section assesses implicit bias as a social problem and considers whether the label illuminates or obscures the reality of racial bias in the criminal justice system. The discussion considers whether “implicit bias” is viewed as a more appealing approach for dealing with racial bias because it does not assign racial blame. The third part considers the contours of the relationship between implicit bias and explicit bias. The discussion highlights the interconnectedness between the two forms of racial bias. Is the implicit bias approach a signal of racial retrenchment? The final section considers how elementary and secondary education could be used as a proactive strategy for addressing implicit racial bias.
In recent years, we have witnessed various efforts by the federal government to advance our justice system and improve public safety. Collaborations across justice and service agencies and research on what works in criminal justice policy have been central in criminal justice reform activities. Within the juvenile justice arena, reducing rates of victimization and delinquency, as well as implementing strategies to reduce racial and ethnic disparities remain priorities. In this essay, I discuss how research on neuroscience and brain development, and racial and ethnic disparities in justice system outcomes has informed juvenile justice policy and procedural protections for youth. I also review how school policies and practices can perpetuate racial and ethnic disparities in justice outcomes. Throughout the essay, I discuss the federal government’s role in supporting research to advance policies and practices designed to reduce these harms. I highlight the implications of these activities and ways in which data and research can continue to play a key role in realizing equal opportunity and justice for all youth, especially as they are the most vulnerable members of society.