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Criminal Justice Scholar Dispels Racial Stereotypes

Each semester, Dr. Shaun Gabbidon teaches a course on race and crime at Penn State Harrisburg, where he is a Distinguished Professor of Criminal Justice.

His objective: change perceptions.

“I ask who commits the most crime and inevitably they say Blacks commit the most crime,” he says. “Then I spend a whole semester getting them to understand the reality. We get into crack cocaine laws, powder cocaine laws, the prison industrial complex and everything from law creation to policing to what happens in court systems.”

Gabbidon, 42, is widely regarded as one of the nation’s top scholars on race and crime. In nearly 15 years in the academy, he has amassed a vast body of work on the subject. He is the author, co-author or editor of more than a dozen books and has written scores of articles for scholarly journals. He has received numerous honors. Last year, the Western Society of Criminology presented

Gabbidon with the 2009 W.E.B. DuBois Award for his “outstanding contribution to the field of racial and ethnic issues in criminology.”

“Shaun is one of a kind,” says Dr. Helen Taylor Greene, professor and chair of the Department of the Administration of Justice at Texas Southern University and one of Gabbidon’s mentors. “He is unequaled in the scholarship of race and crime. He is one of its leading lights and one of the leading scholars in race and crime. He is very committed to mentoring students and very committed to serving the professional associations. He is just the consummate scholar.”

Gabbidon’s scholarship in criminology focuses primarily on three areas: racial profiling of consumers, the social-historical perspective of race and crime and African-American criminological thought, a field in which he tries to introduce some of the great criminology scholars of color to the uninitiated. He is one of a few scholars who studies the issue of racial profiling in retail establishments. He recently served as a witness in a civil case against a retailer.

His personal interest in racial retailing profiling preceded his scholarly interest. In 1989, Gabbidon’s fiancée went to a retail store to buy an item for their wedding. An alarm went off as she walked out of the store, and she was detained and searched although she had a receipt.

“We talked about it and decided that it was profiling and sued the store,” he says, adding that they received a small settlement. “A lot of people say they have been profiled but don’t do anything about it. That becomes a problem because no one knows anything about it.”

Gabbidon says retailers hurt themselves when they target minority groups as shoplifters.

“By profiling Blacks they miss out on who is likely to steal from them … typically a White person,” he says, adding that the same principle of profiling applies to other crimes.  “The reason why Blacks in cars are racially profiled is because it is believed they will disproportionately have drugs on them. If you operate on a stereotype, you are going to catch more Blacks because you are watching them more.”

Gabbidon has some advice for retailers.

“All (racial and ethnic) groups shoplift,” he says. “You need to monitor demographically (whom) you are arresting and who’s being the target of your arrests.”

He has some advice for shoppers as well.

“People being profiled need to file complaints, and retailers need to respond to those complaints,” he says, adding that filing a complaint creates a record that could help someone else who decides to sue. “If we don’t do it, nothing changes. The reason things changed in racial profiling in automobiles is because someone sued. The state police (were) forced to open its books.” 

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