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
‘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
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
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
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
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
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.
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