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Searching for a better understanding of race and ethnic differences in violent crime.

Darnell F. Hawkins (ed.), Violent Crime: Assessing Race and Ethnic Differences Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 448.

Racial and ethnic differences in violence and other forms of criminal behavior have been the subject of study for more than a century in the United States, and many important facts have emerged from this research. One of the most notable is that although African-American rates of homicide offending have been, at various times in history, substantially higher than those of whites, an individual's race or ethnicity is a very poor predictor of their likelihood of committing an act of violence. This apparent contradiction reflects the fact that homicide and other forms of serious violence are relatively rare events among all race and ethnic groups--in other words, we are more similar than different when it comes to the use of violence.

Another important finding, established more than fifty years ago in the work of sociologists Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay, is that the "social ecology" of an area is key to understanding associations between race, ethnicity, and violence. (1) Prompted in part by the fact that new immigrant groups (such as Italians, Irish, Jews, Slavs, and Poles) were being blamed for the crime problem in Chicago in the early twentieth century, Shaw and McKay studied the relationship between the ethnic composition of an area and its delinquency rate. They discovered that high rates of crime persisted in certain core areas of Chicago despite large ethnic turnover. They also found that the rates of crime for the different ethnic groups varied depending on the structural characteristics of the community in which they resided. These early observations were important because they showed that criminal behavior could not be an "inherent" characteristic--for example, a cultural value or preferred way of behaving--of a particular race or ethnic group. If race or ethnic groups were inherently "criminal" or "violence-prone," they would exhibit similarly high rates of crime violence regardless of where in the city they lived. If race or ethnic groups were inherently prone to crime, it would be unlikely that certain areas of the city sustained high rates of delinquency despite large-scale ethnic turnover in those areas. Rather, their work suggested that broader social and economic structural conditions set the stage for the level of crime in an area as well as the differences in crime one could expect to see between race and ethnic groups.

These findings provide the backdrop for the research presented in Darnell Hawkins's new edited volume, Violent Crime: Assessing Race and Ethnic Differences. (2) The rich selection of chapters in this book includes empirical research that describes and assesses group differences in homicide and other forms of violence. It also includes careful critiques of existing perspectives and new refinements of existing theoretical frameworks. Readers of this volume will come away with new insights into the study of race, ethnicity, and crime, and a deep appreciation for the complexity of the topic. This complexity will leave many readers with the sense that important questions remain unanswered, and they will wonder why we do not know more than we do. The simple fact is that much more research is needed if we want to understand fully the relationships between race, ethnicity, and violence in the U.S. as well as in other nations.

In the first section of the book ("Homicide Studies"), researchers present their findings about race and ethnic differences in homicide for five very different U.S. cities: Milwaukee, Miami, Los Angeles County, Houston, and Chicago. Because official data on homicide traditionally have not allowed for assessments of group differences beyond simple black versus white comparisons, many of the findings presented here will be new to social scientists. The second section of the book (entitled "Other Contexts, Settings, and Forms of Violence") contains studies of ethnicity and violence in Canada and New Zealand, racist violence in the U.K., and intimate partner violence. The third and final section of the volume includes chapters that are devoted to theoretical assessments and critiques of frameworks designed to understand race, ethnicity, and violence in America. It also contains two chapters that examine the factors associated with violence among young males.

In the first section devoted to homicide research, Harold Rose and Paula McClain find in Milwaukee that homicide rates in the early 1990s were approximately twice as high among blacks as they were among Hispanics, and Hispanic rates were nearly five times greater than those of whites. Similarly, in Los Angeles County, Houston, and Chicago, researchers Marc Reidel, Victoria Brewer Titterington and Kelly Damphousse, and Calvin Johnson and Chanchalat Chanhatasilpa (respectively) find black homicide rates to be higher than Latino rates, and Latino rates greater than white rates. In Miami, Ramiro Martinez finds that blacks experience the highest homicide rates as well, but he also finds that the newest immigrants-Haitians--have homicide rates that are much lower than expected on the basis of economic status or popular stereotypes. Many other findings are reported in each of the chapters, including some that are contradictory across cities. For example, in some of the cities Latino homicide rates are found to be close to those of whites, while in other places the differences are much larger. In some of the analyses, researchers are able to show that the differences between race and ethnic groups are reduced when economic factors are taken into account, while in other analyses the differences are relatively unaffected when these factors are examined.

Part of the difficulty one faces when trying to understand these seemingly disparate findings is that each of the analyses incorporates different kinds of data about the characteristics of the homicides and about the social and economic conditions prevailing in its respective cities. For example, some of the researchers included homicide data covering several historical periods, while others presented information that was limited to specific eras, including several that were limited to years in which black youth homicide was at its highest (the early 1990s). In other instances, the researchers presented information about race and ethnic differences for specific forms of homicide (such as stranger versus non-stranger), while others restricted their analyses to homicide in general. Given the difficulties that are involved in the laborious culling of information from official records, the variations across studies are to be expected. However, the differences in both data and analyses across the five cities make it difficult for the reader to determine the conditions under which homicide rates are likely to be low, as well the conditions under which race and ethnic differences in homicide are likely to be small or large.

Nonetheless, some very general conclusions can be drawn from these studies. In each of these five places, black homicide rates are higher than those of other groups and statistical controls for area poverty levels do not eliminate these differences even though poverty is related to homicide as well. These patterns mirror those found at the national level and in other homicide research, and they suggest that some set of factors beyond economic deprivation is responsible for remaining differences between blacks and other race or ethnic groups.

How one would go about searching for these other factors is presented in Part 3 of the book ("Explaining Racial and Ethnic Differences"). In this section, readers find several theoretical frameworks designed to understand race, ethnicity, and violence in America including chapters on black male violence and a chapter on white southern violence. Also included in Part 3 are the results of two empirical studies that attempt to account for black-white differences in young male violence.

Before turning to the theoretical developments and assessments, the findings about race, ethnicity, and violence in other contexts (Part 2 of the book) should be noted. Here readers can learn some of the ways in which these characteristics are related to violence outside of the U.S. In analyses based in Canada, New Zealand, and the U.K., the general conclusion that race and ethnicity matter in some contexts but not others is true as well. The chapters on how gender intersects with race, ethnicity, and violence (including intimate partner violence) suggest that there are good reasons to expect that the patterns in "women's violence" might not be the same as those found in "men's violence." Although these chapters are not focused on homicide rates, taken together they suggest an even greater complexity to the study of race, ethnicity, and violence. This is, in part, because the groups studied are not the same as those traditionally studied in the U.S.

The research presented in these first two sections provides valuable lessons for students of race and ethnicity as well as for those interested in gaining a better understanding of crime and violence. In my own teaching experiences, I have found that students are surprised to learn that race and ethnic categories are social constructs, and that the categories themselves vary across countries and over time. Many, though not all, students know that the term "race" in the U.S. primarily refers to differences in skin color, even though biological research clearly shows that this conception is arbitrary and that there is no single set of traits that distinguishes one group from another. In the U.S., data collected on the race of arrestees or victims of violence by federal agencies relies on the Census Bureau definition of race. Since 1977 this has included five broad, but mutually exclusive, categories: "white," "black," "American Indian, Eskimo, or Aleut," "Asian or Pacific Islander," and "other." Because most of the empirical research on race and ethnic differences in violence and offending was conducted during the past twenty-five years, and because the latter three racial groups constitute small proportions of the population, most empirical studies of criminal violence have been restricted to comparisons of "whites" and "blacks."

Students are also unaware of the fact that no other country in the world uses this classification scheme for describing minority and majority population groups, and only a handful of countries keep records on an offender's "race." These countries include England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. (England keeps data that allow for comparisons between "whites" and "Afro-Caribbean" in prison statistics; Canadian data permit "native" versus "non-native" comparisons; Australian data permit "Aborigine" versus "non-Aborigine" comparisons; and New Zealand data allow for comparisons between "Maori-Pacific Islanders" and "others.") According to Michael Tonry, many nations do not keep race-based crime statistics primarily for two reasons. (3) First, many countries view race as irrelevant and fear that keeping such data would serve to create or reinforce stereotypes about minorities if they are reported to be disproportionately involved in certain types of crime. Second, in many countries the categories used in the U.S. (such as "black" versus "white") are seen as crude, over-inclusive, and hence socially invalid. For example, in Canada, "black" citizens have originated from many different countries over the last century, including the U.S., the West Indies, India, and Africa. By combining them into a single category, important cultural and socioeconomic differences among "blacks" are masked. In the U.S., data on an arrestee's race do not allow for distinctions based on country of origin or recency of arrival. Thus, traditional comparisons of "black" versus "white" violence are likely to become more difficult to interpret as new "white" immigrants continue to arrive from places as diverse as Russia or middle-eastern countries and new "black" immigrants continue to arrive from the Caribbean, India, or Africa.

The reservations expressed in other countries about the definitions of racial categories as well as the use of such data are highly relevant for students of violence. Prompted by concerns that the existing categories did not capture many Americans' sense of identity, the Census Bureau recently changed the definition of "race" following years of deliberation and community discussion. The new definition modifies the description of some of the racial categories and now allows persons to select one or more categories when they self-identify their race. The current categories are: "white," "black or African American," "American Indian and Alaska Native," "Asian," "Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander," "some other race," and "two or more races." All federal agencies were required to use these new racial categories by January 1, 2003. However, since police records on crime are voluntarily submitted by state and local agencies, each jurisdiction ultimately retains the authority to collect such data as it sees fit.

The measurement of "ethnicity" also follows Census guidelines and it is treated as a characteristic separate from race. In the U.S., ethnicity data primarily tell us whether a person is "Hispanic" or "non-Hispanic," and the term is used to describe persons of Spanish-speaking origin who may identify themselves as any of the racial groups. There is great diversity in how Hispanics define themselves racially, and there are perhaps even greater cultural differences between, say, Puerto Ricans and Cubans, as there are between racial groups. Not sharing a common culture, the myriad groups classified as Hispanic often fail to meet the criteria we typically think of as constituting an ethnic group. For these and other reasons, the construct of "Hispanic" has been criticized as a political definition that has little meaning. In light of such political disagreements, the government changed the "Hispanic" designation to "Hispanic or Latino," and the "black" designation to "black or African American" for the 2000 Census.

It is also true that public agreement as to whether someone is, for example, Hispanic or Latino or some other ethnic heritage is likely to be lower now than in the past. The Census Bureau defines ethnicity as the heritage of the person or the person's parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States. Social disagreements are most likely to occur as the number of generations since arrival increases and as inter-ethnic and inter-racial marriage increases. However much one might want to simplify the study of race and ethnic differences in violence, the fact that the U.S. is an ever-changing assortment of numerous ethnic groups means that we are unlikely ever to have adequate data to answer important questions about cultural and structural variations across groups. It also means that we will always need to use great caution in the interpretation of any findings.

To be sure, the fact that there appears to be growing awareness that race and ethnicity are socio-political terms subject to changes across time and differences across countries does not undermine the need to study race or ethnicity in the United States. In my view, only after a very long period of demonstrating that race and ethnicity are irrelevant to life's outcome should we cease to collect such data. As noted in the first section of Hawkins's book, there is significant racial, and somewhat less ethnic (that is, Hispanic versus non-Hispanic), disproportionality in homicide victimization and offending. Analyses aimed at describing racial and ethnic differences in violence have the potential to create or reinforce stereotypes, but they also have the potential to eliminate stereotypes by showing whether, in fact, such differences do exist, and by providing insight into the causes of known group variations.

The issue of creating, reinforcing, or eliminating stereotypes runs throughout Part 3 of the book. In the chapter by David Farrington, Rolf Loeber, and Magda Stouthamer-Loeber, violence among youth in Pittsburgh is the focus. Here the authors find that family, neighborhood, school, and individual factors are related to the use of violence among adolescents, but that differences between black and white youth are not fully eliminated by these factors. In the other empirical chapter, Joan McCord and Margaret Ensminger follow black children in Chicago and they too find that school and individual factors are associated with later use of violence. They also find that exposure to discrimination (measured with several self-report questions) is associated with increased use of violence, particularly among the males.

The remaining chapters in Part 3 address how residual differences between blacks and whites in violence might best be explained, and what kinds of factors one must consider in this process. Marino Bruce and Vincent Roscigno focus on the development of theories that consider broader structural factors such as race and ethnic competition for educational and occupational resources, elite disinvestment processes, discrimination, segregation, and inequality. Their argument is that these conditions vary across race and ethnic groups and, as a result, influence individuals' ties to conventional institutions and cultural beliefs, which in turn are related to the use of violence. Working from a somewhat similar framework, but with greater depiction of cultural attitudes, William Oliver also discusses how social structure and beliefs about masculinity roles are expected to be associated with violence. Robert Jagers, Jacqueline Mattis, and Katrina Walker propose that violence reduction will require greater attention to the psychology of moral development among African Americans, and they encourage the creation and evaluation of programs designed to teach traditional African beliefs about communalism and ways of coping in a racially oppressive environment. The chapter by Frankie Bailey discusses traditional southern white violence and its connection to the "culture of honor," and proposes that there are sufficient similarities between the structural and cultural conditions of that violence and violence among inner-city black youth to warrant further comparative investigation.

To varying degrees, the theoretical chapters suggest that the cultural beliefs of contemporary American blacks, or black males, or young black males (and so forth) in certain environments, are sufficiently different from the mainstream as to be a problem in and of themselves. A powerful critique of these assertions is presented by Jeanette Covington in the chapter entitled "The Violent Black Male: Conceptions of Race in Criminological Theories." Reminiscent of the classic work of Ruth Kornhauser, (4) Covington argues against the assumption that "the relationship between involvement in crime and violence and the macro-level historical and structural forces, uniquely affecting the lives of African Americans, are mediated by collective psychological states" [268]. The foundation for Covington's assertion is that violence is a relatively rare event among all groups, including blacks in America, and that knowing whether an individual is black or white is a poor predictor of whether they will commit homicide or some other violent act. Her concern over the search for collective beliefs or psychological states is driven by the unintended consequences of such research. "In fact, a racial comparison requires that conditions be identified that liken all blacks to each other while distinguishing them from whites.... Yet, in identifying race-specific risk factors ... that distinguish blacks from whites, these theorists construct crude categories that liken a handful of black killers to millions of black nonkillers. The unnecessary diffusion of violent predispositions to many nonviolent blacks seems to be an unfortunate consequence of such racial comparisons" [original italics, 276].

Where are assumptions about collective psychological states likely to lead? According to Covington, they are likely to reinforce efforts designed to find "an elusive fixed, race-specific (or ghetto-specific) predisposition to violence" [278], to policies that permit greater surveillance and increased use of criminal justice authority to control young black males, and to the persistence of fears and stereotypes. It is unlikely that the authors in this volume who argue that cultural factors should be taken into consideration wish to promote such outcomes. Nonetheless, they must be challenged by Covington's assertion that searching for collective psychological states is unnecessary for understanding observed differences in violence rates. The relative contribution of structural and cultural sources of crime and violence have been debated for many decades in criminology, but we do not yet know whether attitudes and beliefs that appear among those involved in violence have causal influences over and above what might be due to structural factors. As discussed by Kornhauser and others, such attitudinal expressions may reflect an individual's attempt to justify the actions they have taken rather than compel the action in the first place.

Moreover, although not explicitly discussed by Covington, an emphasis on cultural factors and their association with violence often results in assumptions and beliefs about race and ethnic differences in other forms of criminal behavior. In my own work, I have found that black and Latino youth have higher rates of violent offending (that is, homicide and robbery) than white or Asian-American youth. But for the vast majority of youth crime (that is, assault, burglary, theft of property, vandalism, drug and alcohol violations) there were few differences. (5) And despite media preoccupation with the topic, most people are unaware of the relative occurrence of homicide and violence compared to other forms of crime. To illustrate the difference, in the year 2000 there were more than 1.5 million arrests of youth. Approximately 65,000 of these youth arrests were for violent crimes, and about 800 were for homicide. Since arrests for violence are much more likely than arrests for other forms of crime, the relative occurrence of homicide and violence compared to other forms of crime is even larger. All too often, assumptions about whether a particular group is responsible for the "crime problem" or holds "violence-prone" cultural beliefs broaden into assumptions about being "crime-prone" in general. Such labeling can have devastating effects on race and ethnic groups as they attempt to find jobs, secure reasonable cost housing, and so forth, particularly during times of increasing inequality and scarcity of resources.

Whether empirical or theoretical in nature, each of the chapters in this volume shares the conclusion that there are conditions under which race and ethnic differences in violence vary. Group differences in violence vary across neighborhoods, cities, nations, and historical periods. We are only beginning to understand the conditions under which violence is more or less likely to occur, and when group differences are likely to be large or small. Research that considers variations in the nature of individuals' lives, including community and family characteristics, broader socioeconomic conditions, and perceived injustices in the law and criminal justice will provide a fuller understanding of the factors that account for observed racial and ethnic differences in violence. With this knowledge it may be possible to create a context in which all persons are less likely to resort to violence.


(1) See, e.g., Clifford R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay, Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas: A Study of Rates of Delinquency in Relation to Differential Characteristics of Local Communities in American Cities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942).

(2) Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003. [Bracketed page references in text refer to this volume.]

(3) Michael Tonry, Ethnicity, Crime, and Immigration: Comparative and Cross-National Perspectives (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 6-8.

(4) Ruth Komhauser, The Social Sources of Delinquency (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

(5) Janet L. Lauritsen, "Race and Ethnic Differences in Juvenile Offending," in Our Children, Their Children: Confronting American Criminal Justice, Race and Ethnic Differences, ed. D. Hawkins and K. Kempf-Leonard (University of Chicago Press, expected 2004).

Janet L. Lauritsen is Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Missouri-St. Louis.
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Title Annotation:Violent Crime: Assessing Race and Ethnic Differences
Author:Lauritsen, Janet L.
Publication:Criminal Justice Ethics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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