The Impact of Race on Criminal Behavior

It is widely known that people of color are more likely to be negatively impacted by the criminal justice system. Race is a factor that has been studied extensively in academic research, government surveys, media coverage, and public discourse. Social status, poverty, and exposure to violent behavior in childhood are all factors that contribute to the racial disparities in crime. Additionally, the socioeconomic status of minorities in American society is an important factor that must be taken into account when studying the disproportionate representation of minorities in crime.

Despite legislative and judicial decisions over the past few decades, African-Americans and other racial minorities are still as or more segregated residentially at the beginning of the Millennium as before the monumental changes of the 1950s and 1960s (Massey and Denton). The ghetto experience is typical of most African-Americans, and includes deep-seated poverty, unemployment, poor schools, and the lack of social opportunities associated with these transitory and disorganized neighborhoods (Hagan; Wilson). In fact, the various inequalities that exist within ghetto communities have been linked to numerous crimes, in particular homicide (Kovandzic, Vieraitis and Yeisley). The disparity hypothesis rejects the consensus approach by explaining why some races are disproportionately represented in official crime statistics and in the criminal justice system.

This hypothesis is based on the perspective of conflict theory. Conflict theory states that law is a tool used by dominant groups - those with social, political, and economic power - to maintain their privileged position over subordinate groups. The dominant groups include whites, the rich, and people with political connections. Subordinate groups include minority races, the poor, and those without political connections.

These subordinate groups pose a threat to dominant groups, so they use legal codes to prevent them from usurping their power. Behaviors often adopted by members of subordinate groups are often penalized in American society while behaviors adopted by dominant groups go unpunished. An excellent example of this is the disparity between federal guidelines for passing sentences for crimes related to powdered cocaine and crack cocaine. Crack is the preferred cocaine product for poor and minority communities because it is less expensive than powdered cocaine. However, penalties for possession of crack are a hundred times more severe than convictions for possession of powdered cocaine.

For example, a person found guilty of possessing five hundred grams of powdered cocaine receives the same mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison as a person possessing five grams of crack. More than 90 percent of people sentenced in federal courts for crack-related offenses are African-American (Walker et al.). This law imposed by dominant groups results in thousands of African-Americans being arrested, convicted, and imprisoned every year - a clear example of how law is used to control and repress certain races. Once crime is introduced into a community, criminals teach others how to commit crimes either directly or indirectly. This criminal substructure is then passed on to future generations.

Hernstein and Murray's work has been largely discredited by the scientific community but their approach to explaining disproportionate crime among certain races proved popular and has some advocates. Some minority communities seem to suffer from a disproportionate amount of crime which creates learning environments for future offenders. This rupture results in a weakened value system which compromises a disorganized community's ability to discourage deviant and criminal behavior. Overall, data from the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) shows that racial minorities are much more likely to be arrested compared to whites and other criminal justice data clearly demonstrate disproportionate representation in each succeeding part of the criminal justice system. The second theoretical explanation is the disparity hypothesis which states that multiple facets of society - namely various stages of the criminal justice system - treat some races differently than others. Control theory also plays an important role in explaining why some races are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.

Under this hypothesis, criminal justice systems treat members of some races differently which explains why some races are disproportionately represented in official crime statistics and in the criminal justice system. American media, politicians, public opinion, and even criminologists tend to focus on street crime which can lead to dramatization or exaggeration of true racial overrepresentations among racial minorities in crime and criminal justice systems. This tension can cause people to use illegitimate means in search for monetary success or engage in other deviant or criminal behavior as a way of rejecting society's expectations. Both perspectives - biological/psychological positivism and conflict theory - are used in sociology and criminology to explain disproportionate representation among certain races in official statistics on crime and criminal justice systems. Biological/psychological positivism argues that extra-legal factors influence various sectors of society including criminal justice systems while conflict theory states that law is used by dominant groups as a tool to maintain their privileged position over subordinate groups. Studies on relationship between race and criminal sentences have yielded conflicting results (Walker et al.).

Luis Mersinger
Luis Mersinger

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