Criminological Perspectives on Race and Crime
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Criminological Perspectives on Race and Crime

Shaun L. Gabbidon

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Criminological Perspectives on Race and Crime

Shaun L. Gabbidon

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About This Book

Criminological Perspectives on Race and Crime, Fourth Edition, is the only text to look at the array of mainstream and unconventional explanations for crime as they relate to racial and ethnic populations.

Each chapter begins with a historical review of each theoretical perspective and how its original formulation and more recent derivatives account for racial or ethnic differences in offending. Included in each chapter is a review of relevant empirical tests that have investigated the value of that theory. The theoretical paradigms include those based on religion, biology, social disorganization/strain, subculture, labeling, conflict, social control, colonial, feminism, and race-centered perspectives. Gabbidon considers which perspectives have shown the most promise in explaining the relationships between race/ethnicity and crime.

Ideal for courses in either crime theory or race and crime, this text is used in Criminology and Sociology programs in the US as well as in the UK and Canada.

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A Brief Introduction to Race, Crime, and Theory

The social sciences are filled with an abundance of excellent individual books on race, crime, and criminological theory. Thus, the primary goal of this chapter is to provide a brief overview of the areas that comprise the core elements of this work. The chapter begins with an overview of race and racism, which is followed by an overview of the concept of crime and a review of the rudimentary aspects of the nature and usefulness of theory. To begin the discourse on race, crime, and theory, the chapter concludes with an illustration of the early intermingling of race and crime in religious doctrines.

Origins of Race and Racism

While today the term “race” is primarily used to refer to the grouping of people (e.g. African Americans, whites, etc.) on the basis of color and cultural characteristics, according to Feagin and Feagin (2008), the term was originally used to describe “descendants of a common ancestor, emphasizing kinship linkages rather than physical characteristics such as skin color, hair type, or facial features” (p. 4). However, by the late eighteenth century, the term began to be used to describe “physical characteristics transmitted by descent” (p. 4). The German anatomist Johann Blumenbach played a significant role in this change by creating a racial classification system in his doctoral thesis, “On the Natural Variety of Mankind” (published in 1775). Blumenbach’s system included a hierarchy of the races, listing them in the following order: Caucasians (Europeans), Mongolians (Asians), Ethiopians (Africans), Americans (Native Americans), and Malays (Polynesians).
Just as the concept of race is not new, racism, which is the use of race as the basis for discriminating against another group of people, also has a long history. Gossett (1963) documented that, while the term “race” is of recent origin, acts of racism are of ancient origin. Pointing to India and Egypt as some of the first places where the distinction of race was noted, he wrote that “the racism of ancient history, even though it had no science or biology or anthropology behind it, was real, however difficult it may be for us to judge the extent of its power” (p. 3). Gossett described some early illustrations of race prejudice in India and Egypt. Over 5,000 years ago in India, he noted, the sacred text of Hinduism, the Rig-Veda, refers to “an invasion by Aryas, or Aryans, of the valley of the Indus where there lived a dark-hued people” (p. 3). Quoting from the Rig-Veda, Gossett wrote that Indra, the god of the Aryans, “[blows] away with supernatural powers the might from earth and from the heavens the black skin which Indra hates” (pp. 3–4). In the end, Indra conquers the land for the Aryans and decrees that the defeated blacks be whipped (p. 4).
In Egypt, as early as 1350 BC, pictures in tombs portrayed people using four colors. Red was used to represent the Egyptians, while yellow represented “their enemies to the east.” White was used to represent people from the north and black for Negroes. As noted by Gossett (1963):
Color prejudice … depended on which ethnic group held sway. When the lighter-skinned Egyptians were dominant they referred to the darker group “as the evil race of Ish.” On the other hand, when the darker-skinned Egyptians were in power, they retorted by calling the lighter-skinned people “the pale, degraded race of Arvad.”
(p. 4)
Even with this long global history of racism, Frederickson (2002) has suggested that only within the last century have “overtly racist regimes” emerged. Such societies have five distinguishing features. First, the ideology of the society must be explicitly racist. Expanding on this feature, he wrote:
Those in authority proclaim insistently that the differences between the dominant group and the one that is being subordinated or eliminated are permanent and unbridgeable. Dissent from this ideology is dangerous and is likely to bring legal or extralegal reprisals, for racial egalitarianism is heresy in an overtly racist regime.
(p. 101)
Another distinguishing feature is that the racist regime codifies its beliefs by outlawing interracial marriages to create “racial purity” and a caste system based on racial differences (p. 101). The third feature of a racist regime is that social segregation is mandated by law, the purpose of which “is to bar all forms of contact that might imply equality between the segregators and the segregated” (p. 101). The fourth feature is when “outgroup members are excluded from holding public office or even exercising the franchise” (p. 101). The final feature is when the subordinated group has such limited access to resources and opportunities that most of them “are either kept in poverty or deliberately impoverished” (p. 101).
In Frederickson’s view, while there have been racialized societies where race prejudice has contributed to social stratification, none of those prior to the twentieth century constituted “overtly racial regimes.” During the twentieth century, he classified “Jim Crow” laws in the American South, South Africa under apartheid, and Nazi Germany as “ideal types” of “overtly racist regimes” (p. 101).
Even if Frederickson is correct, the racist regimes that have existed were significant contributors to the globalization of racist doctrines that, as noted throughout this book, serve as a central component of various racist criminological doctrines.


On crime, the eminent French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1938/1895) stated:
Crime is present not only in the majority of societies of one particular species but in all societies of all types. There is no society that is not confronted with the problem of criminality. Its form changes: the acts this characterized are not the same everywhere; but, everywhere and always, there have been men who have behaved in such a way as to draw upon themselves penal repression.
(pp. 65–66)
Given this suggestion, Durkheim felt crime must be normal. A glance at world history suggests that his assertion has some merits (for alternative views, see Christie 2004; Saleh-Hanna 2017). Therefore, while the nature and extent of crime have varied and continue to vary among societies, there is no society in which it has not been found. As a consequence, over time, most societies have generally defined certain behaviors as wrong or, as we now refer to them, criminal. Given this fact, most societies have sought to address crime through various programs and practices. Similarly, over time, even with Durkheim’s pronouncement, scholars have sought to explain why people violate the norms (or laws) constructed by individual societies. Such explanations (also referred to as theories or perspectives) have been diverse in both nature and scope.
In more recent times, scholars have also become interested with the over-representation of racial and ethnic minorities in arrest and victimization statistics in white-dominated and previously colonized countries around the globe (for examples, see Bowling and Phillips 2002; Brown and Barganier 2018; Chan and Mirchandani 2002; Cunneen and Tauri 2017; Gabbidon 2009; Gabbidon and Taylor Greene 2019; Glynn 2014; Hawkins 2011; Higgins 2009; Marshall 1997; Mosher 1998; Rowe 2012; Saleh-Hanna 2008; Tonry 2011; Walker et al. 2018). Relying on the United States as an example, the black population is considerably over represented in crime statistics. In 2017, blacks represented approximately 14 percent of the American population but accounted for 27 percent of the overall arrests in the United States—and an even larger percentage of the arrests for some of the more serious crime including: homicide (53.1 percent of arrests), robbery (54.3 percent of arrests), and aggravated assault (33.5 percent of arrests) (Uniform Crime Reports 2018).
While the acute arrest numbers of blacks in the United States is not indicative of the situation of racial ethnic minorities in other countries, there are similar concerns in a multitude of multiracial countries (Bucerious and Tonry 2014). Thus, irrespective of the country where the interest in racial and ethnic disparities has originated, formulating and testing the utility of theories to understand the scope and nature of the criminality and victimization have been a central focus of scholars. Before reviewing some of these perspectives, the rudimentary aspects of theory are reviewed next.

The Foundations of Theory

According to Bohm (2001), “A theory is an explanation” (p. 1). Some theory can be found in practically everything we do. When it comes to explaining crime, just about every society has scholars who have an opinion on the subject. All of these insights, however, might not qualify as scientific theory. Curran and Renzetti (2001) state that, to qualify as scientific, “a theory is a set of interconnected statements or propositions that explain how two or more events or factors are related to one another” (p. 2). Furthermore, they point out that theories are usually logically sound and empirically testable.
Theories can further be categorized by whether they are macrotheories, microtheories, or bridging theories (Williams and McShane 2018). Macrotheories focus on the social structure and are generally not concerned with individual behavior; conversely, microtheories look to explain crime by looking at groups (but in small numbers) or at the individual (p. 7). Bridging theories “tell us both how social structure comes about and how people become criminal” (p. 7). Many of the theories reviewed in the following chapters fit some of these criteria; although others fall short they nonetheless provide useful insights into race and crime. Thus, there is some discussion of nontraditional perspectives that speak to race and crime but have not been folded into the mainstream of scientific criminological theory.
Theories are valuable for a number of reasons. Curran and Renzetti (2001) provided an important summary of the usefulness of theory:
Theories help bring order to our lives because they expand our knowledge of the world around us and suggest systematic solutions to problems we repeatedly confront. Without the generalizable knowledge provided by theories, we would have to solve the same problems over and over again, largely through trial and error. Theory, therefore, rather than being just a set of abstract ideas, is quite practical. It is usable knowledge.
(p. 2)
There are several paradigms within criminological theory that are reviewed here; for example, biological approaches, some of which look to genetic inheritance to explain crime. Other theories have their foundations in the American social structure, culture, or one’s gender. Yet other theories, such as the labeling and colonial perspective, have psychological foundations. In...

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