Fighting Heard Black Criminologists Seek Proper Context to Explain Racism’s Influence on Black Crime.
By Paul Ruffins
“In my profession I’m considered a radical simply because I refuse to accept the idea that Black people are inherently criminal,” says Dr. Ramona Brockett, assistant professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University. “Many mainstream criminologists simply accept the academic theories of people like Marvin Wolfgang (famed criminologist) who … directly stated that Black men are, by their very nature, atavistic and violent.”
At some point in their careers, many African American scholars report fairly high levels of stress and feelings of alienation from their specific departments or the academy as a whole. But Black criminologists seem to be faced with an unmatched level of intellectual assault.
In the 1980s, Black psychologists had to battle theories that Black people were genetically programmed to have lower intelligence. More recently, scholars in English and literature have endured debates over whether there are any Black writers important enough to be included in survey courses, especially if it means dropping something written by the established pantheon of dead White men. But, however painful it may be for Black scholars to be confronted with versions of social Darwinist theories of Black inferiority, by and large, the academic arguments over these topics are just that, abstract intellectual debates carried out within classrooms, faculty lounges and scholarly journals.
“But crime is not an abstract question,” says Dr. Darnell F. Hawkins, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who teaches in the African American studies, sociology and criminal justice departments. “Crime is something you, your students and colleagues may worry about every day. In recent years, being Black has become almost synonymous with being criminal, and criminal justice policy is something that can literally follow you home as you drive back from campus at night.
“I believe that many Black criminologists feel a tremendous strain at having to deal with the dilemma of simultaneously confronting the devastating effects that Black criminals are having on their communities and the ongoing racism of the criminal justice system. Some of us also feel marginalized because we can’t make our voices heard,” Hawkins says.
In recent years, however, several White scholars such as political scientist James Q. Wilson, former Reagan drug czar William J. Bennett, and University of Pennsylvania’s John J. DiIulio Jr. have attracted attention, becoming well known for their theories and pronouncements on how to address crime in Black communities.
Wilson’s “broken windows” theory, which argues that tolerating small crimes and social disorder gives rise to more serious crimes, provided the intellectual underpinnings for New York City’s zero-tolerance policies instituted by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. DiIulio’s prediction of a coming generation of irredeemable “juvenile superpredators” was a major impetus to the boom in prison construction.
But long before contemporary scholars began weighing in on Black crime, African American scholars such as Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, Dr. E. Franklin Frazier and journalist Ida B. Wells began producing a rich heritage of thought on the question of Blacks and crime.
Fighting to be Heard
“I feel that we are constantly being bombarded by the theories of Wilson and DiIulio, who argue that the real cause of crime is not poverty or racism, or discrimination, but what’s wrong with Black people,” says Brockett. “And their solution is always the same — put more people in jail.”
Their ideas are having a “real impact,” Brockett adds. “Their theories that Black people are fundamentally inclined to be criminals, or that any Black person could potentially be a criminal helps explain why the Black doctor driving his car on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard still has to worry about getting stopped by the police.”
But these ideas aren’t just having an impact in the streets; they’re also having an impact in intellectual circles. Bennett and DiIulio have directly accused Black policy-makers and scholars of betraying their own neighbors by being more concerned with a liberal agenda of exposing the alleged racism in the criminal justice system than confronting the damage that Black criminals are inflicting on their own communities.
“I have heard that accusation,” says Dr. Katheryn K. Russell, associate professor of criminology at the University of Maryland College Park. “And part of that perception is a result of how many of us see our role. After all, there are many other professionals from police chiefs, to federal prosecutors, to prison guards who have the specific responsibility of protecting the community from criminals. Many of us feel that our responsibility is to watch the watchers.”
Russell adds that some Black criminologists also study Black criminals and victims. The biggest problem, she says, is so many people are concerned with criminal justice questions that it’s nearly impossible for Black criminologists’ voices to stand out from among the Black politicians and political activists.
“There are just so few of us, so we haven’t developed a critical mass of tenured Black criminologists who focus on race,” Russell says. “A few years ago, a survey identified less than 50 Black people in the whole country who considered themselves professional criminologists, and some of those weren’t even academics but police officers or administrators. Addressing race is never an easy manner, particularly when you lack the social support that makes it easier for you to step out of the box.” Russell also agrees with Brockett’s estimate that there are currently less than half a dozen Black women in the entire nation who have a J.D.-Ph.D., which is considered the ultimate credential in the criminal justice field.
In addition to there being relatively few Black criminologists, they also have not had much institutional support. The American Society of Criminology did not establish a division on People of Color and Crime until November 1995.
A Century of Black Crime Theory
Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois analyzed the dynamics of Black crime in The Philadelphia Negro (1899) and The Negro and Crime (1904). In his various writings about Black crime, Du Bois discussed among other things, the economic effect of emancipation, the lingering impact of slavery, the convict-lease system, the inability of Black people to receive justice in the criminal justice system, and the brutal fate facing both innocent and guilty Black suspects accused of crimes. Remarkably, he struggled with the same three basic questions that intrigue many Black criminologists today: How does racism cause crime? What are the facts about African Americans and crime? And how does the racism and corruption of the criminal justice system contribute to increased crime and violence in the Black community?
Starting with Du Bois, most Black scholars and many members of the Black community believe the main reason a disproportionate number of Black men and women commit crimes is a result of their oppression. However, exactly how racism translates into increased crime is not clear. Some factors, such as residential segregation, may have actually cut both ways. In some cases it may have increased crime by forcing newcomers into dangerous ghettos in Northern cities. But it also may have helped decrease crime in some other communities by keeping poorer people in contact with successful middle and upper-class Black role models who acted as stabilizing influences in their neighborhoods.
As early as 1899, Du Bois had identified a Black criminal class in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward and observed that racism exacerbates Black crime not only by causing economic deprivation but also by brewing a psychologically toxic combination of anger and alienation.
Du Bois wrote in The Philadelphia Negro:
“The connection of crime and prejudice is neither simple or direct. The (Negro) boy who is refused promotion in his job as a porter does not go out and snatch someone’s pocketbook. Conversely the loafers … and the thugs in the county prison are not usually graduates of high schools who have been refused work. The connections are more subtle and dangerous; it is the atmosphere of rebellion and discontent that unrewarded merit and reasonable but unsatisfied ambition make. The social environment of excuse, listless despair, careless indulgence and lack of inspiration to work, that is the growing force that turns Black boys and girls into gamblers, prostitutes and rascals.”
Sociologist Dr. E. Franklin Frazier in the 1930s and 1940s was greatly influenced by the growing body of psychological and sociological research into the causes of juvenile delinquency. He also made significant contributions to the understanding of racism’s impact on crime.
Like Du Bois, Frazier was partly reacting to earlier theories made by Whites holding that disproportionate levels of Black crime was a result of their being a primitive and childlike race of people. Frazier’s response was to study Black communities in New York, Chicago, Washington and Nashville, and conclude that crime in Black adults was rooted in juvenile delinquency and that there were structural and ecological factors that explained why young Black people were getting into so much trouble.
“The incidence of juvenile delinquency is closely tied up with the organization of the community,” he wrote in 1939. “In the slum areas of Negro communities, because of the numerous broken homes and the employment of the mother, the children lack parental control which is sometimes able to offset the influence of the vicious environment.”
Frazier’s theory that higher rates of criminality and other problems in Black communities are related to the Black family structure being damaged, destroyed and “matrilineal” as a result of slavery has become extremely influential and controversial. Many historians and political scientists have questioned whether slavery was as destructive of family relations as six decades of 20th-century welfare policies. However, the link between broken families and delinquency has been well established. Perhaps more importantly, Frazier laid the groundwork for other theorists to explore the extremely powerful idea that one of the ways oppression has affected African Americans has been to cause psychological traumas that damage their intimate, personal and family relationships with each other.
Frantz Fanon, a Black psychiatrist, studied the intrapsychic traumas suffered by Africans during the postcolonial period following World War II. He explored the ways colonized people came to internalize the Europeans’ ideas of White superiority therefore devaluing their own color and culture. Fanon believed that when combined with continued economic and technical dependency on Europeans, this internalized inferiority and self-hate often caused colonized people to participate in a variety of self-destructive behaviors including engaging in substance abuse and misdirecting their anger into interpersonal violence against each other rather than organized political struggle against their oppressor. In the 1960s and ’70s, Fanon’s work was extremely influential among African American radicals such as the Black Panthers. In addition, his theories have been used to explain “Black on Black crime” and why Black police officers can treat Black suspects as brutally as White officers. His work continues to influence contemporary African American criminologists such as Dr. Becky Tatum, assistant professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University, who has developed a postcolonial theory of Black criminal behavior, which is directly based on the work of Fanon.
For more than 100 years, African American scholars have added more layers to the complex explanation of exactly how racism and prejudice contribute to crime.
“Virtually no one believes in a straight-line correlation between crime and poverty anymore,” observes Hawkins of the University of Illinois. “After all, a lot of middle-class and rich people also commit crimes, and many ‘poor’ African Americans live better than a lot of other people in the world.
“Today our challenge is to generate a more complicated model that incorporates ideas of how the relative deprivation, racism and psychological anger that minorities experience interacts with all the stresses, cultural and family factors that also drive White people to crime,” Hawkins says.
If how racism causes crime is the primary question Black criminologists have struggled with for more than a century, then the second question could be “how does racism lead to criminalization?” This theory says the criminal justice system has less to do with controlling crime or ensuring justice than acting as America’s primary means of social and economic control, and that falsely labeling Black people as criminals is an easy way of justifying brutality against them. In the 1890s, Du Bois condemned the South’s convict labor system because it led to innocent Black men being imprisoned on trivial charges in order to feed the need for cheap agricultural labor. In the 1990s, many Black activists charged that the boom in private construction of prisons and the exportation of inmates from one state to another had less to do with reducing crime than providing jobs in White rural areas suffering from high unemployment.
One of the early researchers who studied this question was the crusading journalist Ida B. Wells, who could likely be considered the first Black female criminologist for her investigations into lynchings. Wells observed that when the lynchings of Black men, which usually took place in the rural South, were reported in big city newspapers, the reason given often was that the victim was accused of some sexual interaction involving a White woman. However, when Wells actually traveled to the location to investigate these incidents, she discovered most lynchings didn’t involve any accusation of rape, and the victims were often successful Black people who demanded fair treatment or the payment of debts. This is an early example of the media promoting a stereotype of the violent Black criminal.
The Social Construction
In recent years, the social construction of crime has been a very active topic among Black criminologists, who after being influenced by deconstructionist literary theory and the emerging fields of ethnic studies, have begun to argue that American society has fundamentally defined crime in terms of the behavior of people considered non-White at the time. These stereotypes range from the drunken Irishman and the Italian mobster before World War II to the South American drug dealers and the Black “gangsta” rapper in the late 1980s and 1990s. Coramae Richey Mann and Marjorie Zatz have explored these ideas in Images of Color, Images of Crime. Russell of the University of Maryland published a similarly titled work called The Color of Crime, which examined the role of racial stereotypes in criminal hoaxes. One such example is Charles Stuart, who in 1989 murdered his pregnant wife and blamed the crime on a nonexistent Black carjacker, which set off a witch hunt by the Boston police. Another example was the racial tensions in New York City sparked by Tawana Brawley, a young Black woman who in 1987 alleged she was abducted and raped by a group of White law enforcement officers. Although a grand jury declared Brawley’s story a hoax in 1988, as recently as 1997, Brawley insisted she was attacked.
Russell agrees that discussing ideas such as the social construction of the criminal as Black or non-White becomes complicated when society is confronted with real criminals who are Black, particularly when many young Black people have embraced “gangsta” rap music, which actively promotes the criminal as the authentic Black man. “I know the no-belt, no-laces look started in prisons,” Russell says. “But no scholar can try to address every question at once, and I’m not a musicologist.”
One of the criminologists who has tried to address crime from many different angles including law, academia and public policy is Dr. Stephanie Bush-Baskette, a former New Jersey state legislator who now works as a senior researcher at the National Center on Crime and Delinquency.
“I see myself as trying to be a bridge between academia and public policy,” she says. “And I’m not alone in this. Look at Lee Brown. He’s a Black criminologist who has a Ph.D., worked as the police chief of New York City and then got elected mayor of Houston. I think the only way we can have a real impact is by simultaneously confronting the fact that the criminal justice system is racist, that a lot of the important research on African Americans and crime is either one-sided, or incomplete. And yet, it is also true there are far too many Black folks doing terrible things to the people around them.”
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