Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What is the relationship between race and crime?

Race and Crime: A Discursive Interplay


The relationship between race and crime may be one of the most controversial issues in criminology. Much of the debate has focused on disparities in rates of law-enforcement engagement and incarceration of racialized minorities – specifically whether this results from “differential involvement” or “differential criminal justice system selection”, although there is persuasive evidence on both sides of the question, and the phenomena likely result from some combination of the two (Piquero & Brame, 2008). The intricacies of this dichotomy are extremely important and must be studied, but too great a focus on differences between people, based on relatively arbitrary categories like race, takes our attention away from the effects that these discursive labels may have on people; the causes of differential behavior and differential selection.

‘Race’ + ‘Crime’ = ?

According to Oxford University Press’s “A Dictionary of Sociology”, the term ‘race’ is sometimes now being placed in inverted commas because it is not a biologically meaningful category (Scott & Marshall, 2009). Race is a socially constructed category, which human behavior and discourses shape, and which has no basis in science (Scott & Marshall, 2009). Consistent with a labeling approach to criminology, ‘crime’ can also be seen as a largely socially constructed meaning, which is extremely subjective and relative (Scott & Marshall, 2009). The relationship between race and crime, therefore, is an exceedingly complex reciprocal action, wherein each of these discursive meanings is reproduced and reinforced (but also delimited and contradicted) by the other in an ongoing political and social evolution. Race criminalizes people and crime racializes people, but these pervasive processes also work in reverse, with people criminalizing race and racializing crime. An examination of recent criminological research will demonstrate these four sub-processes, while maintaining that the intricacies of this discursive symbiosis are far beyond the scope of this short paper.

Race Criminalizing People: ‘driving while Black’

An example that can be seen as race criminalizing people, which has been discussed widely in the media, academia and in race relations and professional police circles, is the phenomenon known as “driving while Black”, wherein racialized people are more often stopped by police, ticketed, et cetera (Kowalski & Lundman, 2007). Enough studies have documented these occurrences, using aggregate data, to imply at least some targeting of racialized minorities does occur (Warren, Tomaskovic-Devey, Smith, Zingraff, & Mason, 2006) (Tomaskovic-Devey, Mason, & Zingraff, 2004) (Schafer, Carter, Kat-z Bannister, & Wells, 2006), although the debate over differential behavior/selection enters these investigations as well, with similarly confounding questions. Other researchers have observed differentials reflecting various intersections of driver/police race/ethnicity (Gilliard-Matthews, Kowalski, & J., 2008). Much more investigation is required into the causes of this behavior, but we can clearly see that the ‘race’ of both parties in these situations affects perceived criminality.

Crime Racializing People: Ethnic and Racialized Gangs

This process also works in reverse, as we see in the example of ethnic and racialized gangs. The social constructionist approach to race fails to articulate the powerful social reality of a plurality of ethnic formations based on perceived racial differences (Scott & Marshall, "race", 2009), and these distinctions are found in the underworld as well. Some researchers have observed criminal ethnic affiliations dispersing political ideologies, or creating greater social solidarity between gang members (Coughlin & Venkatesh, 2003); others have analyzed the way ethnic and racial self-identification socializes youth for deviant behavior (Bourgois, 2003). In these and other ways, crime and criminal activity, especially with people that are from similar racialized or ethnic groups, can lead to greater levels of these forms of racial/ethnic self-identification, as well as labeling by others.

People Criminalizing Race: Media Depictions of Race and Crime

Labeling by others has long been a source of controversy with regard to media depictions of racialized people committing crimes. A number of researchers suggest that murder cases’ newsworthiness are evaluated based on how well they match up with established, discriminatory discourses about race and gender (Lundman, 2003) – if it bleeds it leads, but more so if black people make white people bleed. Many scholars have noted powerful psychological effects from this kind of media bias (Correll, Park, Judd, & Wittenbrink, 2007), some finding “news viewers cognitively link criminality with Blackness”, so that the “presence of criminality may produce negative thoughts about Blacks” (Dixon & Azocar, 2007). As this process continues, the meanings of race and crime are conflated, overlap each other, and become very confusing indeed. In the best instances this leads to a misrepresentation of current events; in the worst-case scenario it leads to bigotry and fear.

People Racializing Crime: Mock Juror Studies

Without belaboring the point about the multifaceted nature of these processes, we can see them working in another direction in the literature on mock jurors. These studies usually involve vignettes being presented to the “jurors”, with characters having different racial and other characteristics for each of the various subject groups. Depending on what kind of crime is being depicted, the race of the perpetrator and victim, and other factors, the verdicts of these juries can vary widely (Poulson, 1990). Of course, this effect has been observed in real juries as well, with the massive overrepresentation in rates of incarceration and execution for racialized people (Mitchell, Haw, Pfeifer, & Meissner, 2005). The interesting insight that mock juror research offers to this discussion is the way it can demonstrate the specific crimes that people associate with specific races. A number of researchers have found that the strongest race-effects in these studies were observed when the defendants committed a “race-stereotypical crime (e.g. embezzlement for Whites, burglary for African Americans)”; stories wherein Native Americans were described as intoxicated were also more likely to generate guilty verdicts (Struckman-Johnson, Miller, & Struckman-Johnson, 2008). This research demonstrates that people also engage in a process of racializing crime, where particular criminal behaviors are attributed to or associated with specific racialized groups.


We can see from these examples that the meanings ‘race’ and ‘crime’ are constantly changing each other and that their relationship is highly complex. When seeking to understand such unique, dynamic and sophisticated processes, we must remember to ground our investigations in an understanding of the fundamental equality of all human beings. Race is a social construction, but one with very real social consequences and must be handled with care.

Having said this, I want to return to a point I made at the beginning, about the prevalence of literature related to the vast overrepresentation of racialized minorities in the criminal justice system. The discussion has been dominated by two competing explanatory frameworks: either racialized people commit more crimes or they are being discriminated against by the police and courts. However, these theses are themselves reiterations of the ongoing construction and deconstruction of the meanings of ‘race’ and ‘crime’. While these investigations are important, they may tend to further emphasize racial difference, compounding the problem. They are useful only insofar as they help us to eliminate the unequal race relations which lead to these disparities. Are racial constructions, such as those which posit hypotheses of “differential involvement” and “differential selection”, really self-fulfilling prophecies? Academic discourses such as these disperse into other discursive arenas and can generate intolerance. We must be careful to remember that we are all individuals with consciences of our own - no need for colour-coded criminal justice.


Bourgois, P. (2003). In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Correll, J., Park, B., Judd, C. M., & Wittenbrink, B. (2007). The influence of stereotypes on decisions to shoot. European Journal of Social Psychology , 1102-1117.

Coughlin, B. C., & Venkatesh, S. A. (2003). The Urban Street Gang After 1970. Annu. Rev. Sociol , 41-64.

Dixon, T. L., & Azocar, C. L. (2007). Priming Crime and Activating Blackness: Understanding the Psychological Impact of the Overrepresentation of Blacks as Lawbreakers on Television News. Journal of Communication , 229-253.

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Lundman, R. J. (2003). The Newsworthiness and Selection Bias in News About Murder: Comparative and Relative Effects of Novelty and Race and Gender Typifications on Newspaper Coverage of Homicide. Sociological Forum Vol 18 No 3 September , 357-387.

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Piquero, A. R., & Brame, R. W. (2008). Assessing the Race-Crime and Ethnicity-Crime Relationship in a Sample of Adolescent Delinquents. Crime and Deliquency , 1-34.

Poulson, R. L. (1990). Mock Juror Attribution of Criminal Responsibility: Effects of Race and the Guilty But Mentally Ill (GBMI) Verdict Option. Journal of Applied Social Psychology , 1596-1611.

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Scott, J., & Marshall, G. (2009). "race". Retrieved Oct 27, 2009, from A Dictionary of Sociology, Oxford Reference Online: http://www.oxfordreference.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t88.e1859

Struckman-Johnson, C., Miller, M. G., & Struckman-Johnson, D. (2008). Effects of Native American Race, Intoxication and Crime Severity on Judgements og Guilt. Journal of Applied Social Psychology , 1981-1992.

Tomaskovic-Devey, D., Mason, M., & Zingraff, M. (2004). Looking for the Driving While Black Phenomena: Conceptualizing Racial Bias Processes and their Associated Distributions. Police Quarterly Vol 7 No 1 March , 3-29.

Warren, P., Tomaskovic-Devey, Smith, W., Zingraff, M., & Mason, M. (2006). Driving WHile Black: Bias Processes and Racial Disparity in Police Stops. Criminology Vol 4 No 3 , 709-739.