Chapter 3:
Theoretical Perspectives
on Race and Crime
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
What is theory?
 A theory is an explanation.
Theory is a set of interconnected statements or propositions
that explain how two or more events or factors are related to
one another.
Theories are categorized as macrotheories, microtheories or
bridging theories.
 Macrotheories focus on the social structure and are
generally not concerned with individual behavior
 Microtheories look to explain crime by looking at groups, but
in small numbers, or at the individual level.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Biology, Race, and Crime
The linking of biology and crime is rooted in Europe.
Phrenology, the study of the external shape of the head, was
the first linkage of biology and crime.
Italian criminologist and also referred to as the father of
criminology, Cesare Lombroso felt race/ethnicity and crime were
Earnest A. Hooton’s two books Crime and the Man (1939) and
The American Criminals (1939) also acknowledged race/ethnic
differences in crime.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Biology, Race, and Crime, cont.
Crime and Human Nature (1985)
Wilson and Herrnstein pointed to constitutional factors that
may contribute to the overrepresentation of Blacks in
Wilson and Herrnstein suggested that Black males tend to
be more mesomorphic (muscular) than White males.
Higher scores on the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic
Personality Inventory) than Whites, shows they are “less
Another constitutional factor mentioned is low IQ.
In 1980s conservatives latched onto the work of Wilson and
Critics argue that conservative thinkers have more interest in
explaining crimes associated with racial minorities instead of
those committed by middle- and upper-class whites. Why?
Intelligence, Race, and Crime
Due to the development and acceptance of intelligent tests a link
between intelligence and crime was formed.
Early literature suggested that criminals were of low intelligence.
Henry H. Goddard one of the early IQ and crime theorists.
Perspective was discredited and received little attention until
In the 1970s, Travis Hirschi and Michael J. Hindelang conducted
a review of the literature on intelligence and crime.
 They concluded that race, crime, and intelligence were
Intelligence, Race, and Crime, cont.
In 1994, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published The
The book was based on intellectual determinism (everything is
linked to IQ).
Bell Curve.
Herrnstein and Murray suggested that low IQ contributed to the
 crime,
 poverty,
 illegitimacy,
 unemployment, and
 welfare dependency.
Intelligence, Race, and Crime, cont.
Herrnstein and Murray argued that low IQ results in school
failure, which tends to lead to crime.
They argued that low IQ leads to people being drawn to danger
and having “an insensitivity to pain or social ostracism, and a
host of derangements of various sorts”.
The authors suggested that those with low IQs would have a
hard time following ethical principles.
Herrnstein and Murray noted that Blacks tended to have lower
IQ's and were more likely to engage in criminality.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Intelligence, Race, and Crime, cont.
Limitations of the IQ and crime thesis:
 There still remain questions as to what IQ tests really
 Moreover, there have always been questions of cultural and
class biases with IQ tests.
 What explains the fact that persons with high IQs commit
white-collar and political crime?
 Finally, there is also some uncertainty about whether
differences in IQ are genetic or related to one’s
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
r/K Selection Theory
r/K selection theory was created by Harvard biologist E. O.
Wilson to explain population growth and decline in plants and
The theory has been adapted to humans by J. Philippe Rushton
professor of psychology at Western Ontario University.
It is a gene-based evolutionary theory that links many of the
differences between the races, including crime patterns, to
migrations out of Africa.
Rushton believes that the migration patterns out of Africa
explain the current positions of Blacks, Whites, and Asians.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
r/K Selection Theory, cont.
At the heart of the r/K theory are reproduction, climate,
and intelligence.
Rushton’s theory relates to race and crime in that:
aggression, impulsive behavior, low self-control, low
intelligence, and lack of rule following are all associated
with criminals and, who fall under the r-strategy, namely,
Black people.
What explains White aggression across the globe?
Ruston provides little emphasis on sociological factors.
Very few “pure” races left.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Wright’s Biosocial Thesis
Biology and behavior has begun to become a more accepted
area of study within criminology.
 Biological and social factors influence criminal behavior.
Two reasons for race and problem behavior:
 Brain based functions in frontal, prefrontal, and orbital
frontal cortex; abilities here are highly heritable and
provide humans with their unique ability to plan, organize
their lives and control their emotions (self-control and IQ
 Collective social behavior (CSB), neighborhoods with high
CSB will tend to have lower crimes rates, while in many
black neighborhoods (ghettos and inner cities) there is next
to no CSB which results in higher crime rates.
Wright’s Biosocial Thesis, cont.
If his thesis was correct, shouldn’t all Black communities see
this high crime rate and not just “many.”
Although new area of study some findings have surfaced
partially supporting biosocial assertions regarding the
intersection of race, gender, behavior, and alleles.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Sociological Disorganization
W.E.B. Du Bois’s Philadelphia Negro study produced first
urban ethnography.
Du Bois’s thesis was that “Crime is a phenomenon of
organized social life, and is the open rebellion of an individual
against his social environment.”
University of Chicago School of Sociology later started
studying inner-city Chicago.
Social disorganization (Shaw and McKay) and concentric zone
perspective (Park and Burgess) dominated their approach.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Sociological Disorganization, cont.
Social disorganization refers to areas characterized by the
following conditions:
a. fluctuating populations,
b. significant numbers of families on welfare,
families renting,
d. several ethnic groups in one area,
e. high truancy rates,
high infant mortality rates,
g. high levels of unemployment,
h. large numbers of condemned buildings, and
a higher percentage of foreign-born and Negro heads of
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Sociological Disorganization, cont.
Racial invariance thesis of Sampson and Wilson (1995) draws
heavily on two of Wilson’s concepts from The Truly
Disadvantaged (1987). The first,
Concentration effects, speaks to the fact that Whites and Blacks live in
considerably different areas.
Social buffers (role models) show neighborhood kids that there are
successful people who go to work, day in and day out.
“Social isolation” or “the lack of contact or of sustained
interaction with individuals and institutions that represent
mainstream society” occurs when social buffers leave
communities in large numbers.
By not being exposed to mainstream individuals and
institutions, socially isolated people tend to develop their own
norms within these isolated areas.
Sociological Disorganization, cont.
Social disorganization has been applied to Native Americans.
Research has shown that both social disorganization and
poverty contribute to high levels of lethal violence in
reservation communities.
Female-headed households and ethnic heterogeneity are
positively related to American Indian homicides.
Other aspects of social disorganization (level of poverty and
residential mobility) were not found to be important variables.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Sociological Disorganization, cont.
First, it impacts on the socioeconomic nature of the
community. Second, since mass incarceration results in
people leaving for prison then being released from prisons, it
increases the mobility in certain communities. Finally, mass
incarceration increases the heterogeneity of communities.
Collective efficacy is defined as “social cohesion among
neighbors combined with their willingness to intervene on the
behalf of the common good.”
In the communities where residents do not retreat behind
their locked doors and actively look out for one another, there
is a diminished likelihood that they will have many of the ills
found in similar urban areas.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Sociological Disorganization, cont.
Both social disorganization and collective efficacy generally
speak to high-crime urban areas.
There have been several persistent criticisms of the theory.
 The ecological fallacy.
 The theory also does not explain how certain groups, such
as Asians and Jewish communities, maintained low levels of
crime and delinquency even though they lived in areas that
might be categorized as socially disorganized.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Culture Conflict Theory
Originally formulated by criminologist Thorsten Sellin in the
late 1930s.
Culture conflict theory is heavily based on the work on
Chicago School graduates Louis Wirth and Edwin Sutherland
(who was to have collaborated with Sellin).
Over a period of time, certain behavior becomes accepted
within a culture (conduct norms).
Powerful in society can control the definitions of conduct
norms and what behaviors become crimes.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Culture Conflict Theory, cont.
Three ways conflicts between various cultural codes arise:
a. when the codes clash on the border of contiguous cultural
b. when, as may be the case with legal norms, the law of
one cultural group is extended to cover the territory of
another, or
when members of one cultural group migrate to another.
The first type of culture conflict is called primary conflict or
when foreign cultural practices clash with American cultural
Secondary conflicts are conflicts of norms which grow out of
the evolution of cultures.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Strain/Anomie Theory
Robert K. Merton’s stain/anomie theory is one of the most
cited criminological theories.
Emile Durkheim used the term anomie to refer to a state of
normlessness or lack of social regulation society.
Based on the premise of all societies have:
 Culturally defined goal: “American Dream” (material
 Acceptable means of achieving it (education/work).
Most people conform to goal and institutional means.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Strain/Anomie Theory, cont.
Others had their own “modes of adaptation”.
 Innovators
 Ritualism
 Retreatism
 Rebellion
Merton noted the glass ceiling Blacks faced in America.
Limitations of theory:
 Anomie theories have a middle-class bias.
 Does not explain white-collar and government crimes.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
General Strain Theory
Robert Agnew wanted to specify Merton’s Anomie/Strain
theory by approaching it in a micro aspect.
He wanted to add the removal or loss of positive stimuli.
 Loss of a boyfriend/girlfriend, death of a family member,
moving to a new school district, divorce, etc.
Also the presentation of negative stimuli.
 Child abuse, neglect, criminal victimization, negative
relations with peers or parents, etc.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
General Strain Theory, cont.
Jang and Johnson found support for Agnew’s GST looking into
African Americans and how the ones who were extremely
religious committed less crime due to stronger support
Kaufman also found support for GST “a GST explanation of
racial differences in offending…implies that African-Americans
experience disproportionate strain in the social environment
and/or have fewer resources for coping with strain in
conventional ways.”
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Subcultural Theory
Walter Miller’s (1958) theory stated lower-class residents adhered
to the following “focal concerns”.
 Trouble: risk taking
 Toughness: fearless “handle themselves”
 Smartness: street smarts
 Excitement: pursuit of thrill seeking
 Fate: lives controlled by things they have no control over
 Autonomy: resent others having control over them
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Subcultural Theory, cont.
Cloward and Ohlin (1960) suggested that when there are
limited opportunities, youth join gangs with one of three
 criminal gangs: aim is to make money through a variety of
illegitimate avenues
 “conflict” gang: engage in violent activities, doing whatever
is necessary to maintain their status in the streets
 “retreatist” gangs: “double-failures” no success in either
legitimate or illegitimate opportunities (turn to drug use)
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Subculture of Violence Theory
The theory argues that within certain groups subcultures form
that encourage or normalize violence.
Members of the subculture are not violent all the time.
Subculture is found in all age segments of society (emphasis on
inner-city and minorities).
 It is found most in those in the late-adolescence to middleage categories.
 Those vested in subculture have no feelings of guilt toward
their actions.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Subculture of Violence Theory, cont.
These are five major weaknesses of the theory:
1. There is an extreme emphasis on mentalistic value
orientations of individuals.
2. The theory is questioned by some empirical findings.
3. The theory underemphasize a variety of structural,
situational, and institutional variables which affect
interpersonal violence.
4. Subcultural theory under emphasizes the effects of the
law on patterns of criminal homicide.
5. There are other plausible economic, political, and social
disadvantages of American Blacks that may produce high
rates of homicide.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Subculture of Violence Theory, cont.
Hawkins’s (1983) alternative theory provided three propositions
that were meant to address the holes in the subculture of
violence theory.
 Proposition 1 states, “American Criminal Law: Black life is
cheap but White life is valuable”.
 Proposition 2: “Past and present racial and social class
differences in the administration of justice affect Black
criminal violence”.
 Proposition 3: “economic deprivation creates a climate of
powerlessness in which individual acts of violence are likely
to take place”.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
The Code of the Streets
“The Code of the Streets.” Theory formulated by Elijah
Anderson, an urban ethnographer, published both a highly
acclaimed article and book on topic.
Theory focused on interpersonal violence in an impoverished
Philadelphia neighborhood.
At the heart of the code is the issue of respect—
 loosely defined as being treated ‘right,’ or granted deference
one deserves.
Being able to defend oneself is also an important part of the
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
The Code of the Streets, cont.
Theory talks about “Decent” and “Street” families.
 Decent families tend to accept mainstream values.
Street families loosely supervise their children.
Strict and teach their children to respect authority and act in a moral
Not seriously tied to the code.
Often unable to cope with them.
These families believe in the code.
Judge themselves and others according to its values.
Criticisms of theory
 J. Miller (2001) believes that--prison, not the streets, is the
more powerful contributor to the development of the code of
the streets.
 Wacquant (2002) expresses concern about:
The loose and over expansive definition of the “code of the streets”.
There is considerable confusion as to the origins and vectors of the code
of the streets.
Conflict Theory
Conflict theories focus on struggles between individuals and/or
groups in terms of power differentials.
Applying conflict theory to race and crime, one would look for
discrimination in the following:
 Enforcement of laws
 Distribution of punishment
W.E.B. Du Bois (1901) early conflict theorist (race and crime).
Wrote about how states strategically enacted various laws
(referred to as the “Black codes”) to control Black labor.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Conflict Theory, cont.
Felt that crime among Blacks was a symptom of the problem
(White racism):
 “The Negro is not naturally criminal; he is usually patient
and law-abiding. If slavery, the convict-lease system, the
traffic in criminal labor, the lack of juvenile reformatories,
together with the unfortunate discrimination and prejudice
in other walks of life, have led to that sort of social protest
and revolt we call crime, then we must look for remedy in
the sane reform of these wrong social conditions, and not
in intimidation, savagery, or legalized slavery of men.” -W.E.B. Du Bois (1901)
The development of conflict theory over the last 40 years is
often credited to the writings of:
 William Chambliss (1964, 1969)
 Austin Turk (1969)
 Richard Quinney (1970)
Conflict Theory, cont.
Much of these writings were class-based analyses that
suggested the following were significant contributors to crime:
 capitalism
 class structure
 manipulation of laws
Changing the structure of society was the answer to
eliminating or reducing crime.
According to Hawkins (1987) other considerations usually
lacking in conflict theory:
 victim characteristics
 region
 accounting for race-appropriate behaviors
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
The Colonial Model
Colonialism traditionally refers to:
 the establishment of domination over a geographically external
political unit, most of them inhabited by people of a different race
and culture, where this domination is political and economic, and
the colony exists subordinated and dependent on the mother
Colonization also includes:
 Caste system based in racism
 Cultural imposition
 Cultural disintegration
 Cultural recreation
 Colonized being governed by representatives of the dominant power
The Colonial Model, cont.
All articulations of the theory note the important role of agents
of the criminal justice system (police or military).
The colonial model has applicability for racial groups who have
been subjected to colonization.
 Native Americans
 African Americans
 Mexican Americans
Limitations of theory:
 Two people can be exposed to the same oppression yet
respond differently.
 The model is difficult to test.
 The model does not adequately address class issues.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Integrated and Nontraditional on Race
and Crime
Structural-Cultural Theory
William Oliver (1984) explored Black males and their “tough
guy image” or, as he called it, the “Black compulsive
masculinity alternative.”
Oliver believes that Black males exhibit masculine behavior that
places an overemphasis on:
 Toughness
 Sexual conquest
 Manipulation
 Thrill-seeking
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Integrated and Nontraditional on Race
and Crime, cont.
Oliver has argued that Black males act this way because of two
 First, to mitigate low self-esteem and negative feelings tied
to being unable to “enact the traditional masculine role.”
 Second, those males who adapt the masculine approach
pass it on to other males.
Limitations of theory:
 Role of self-esteem has been questioned.
 Whites and other groups also adopt some of these same
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Abortion, Race, and Crime
John Donohue and Steven Levitt (2001) proposed that abortion had a
role to play in crime dip of 1990s.
More than 50% of the crime drop in the 1990s could be attributed to
the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.
They point to three important factors that support their thesis:
First, decline in crime coincided with the landmark decision and
the period when those who would have been born would have
reached their peak years of criminal activity.
Second, they suggested that the states that legalized abortion 3
years before the Roe v. Wade decision experienced earlier crime
drops than the remaining states.
Finally, they pointed to the fact that states that have the highest
abortion rates have also had the largest declines in crime.
Abortion, Race, and Crime, cont.
At the core of the theory are two premises:
 First, that abortion reduces the pool of individuals who
would later engage in crime.
 Second, the theory relates to race and crime in that
abortion is not random.
Those likely to have abortions include:
 Unwed women
 Teenagers
 Blacks
Limitations of theory:
 Not supported by replications in U.S. and Britain.
 Overstatement of role of abortion.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Critical Race Theory
Critical race theory (CRT) emanated from the critical legal studies
movement during the 1970s.
Closely aligns with radical criminology and represents another
perspective that has proven useful for contextualizing race and
The perspective has two goals:
 The first is to understand how the law is used to maintain
White supremacy and continue to oppress people of color.
 Second, countering or stopping the use of the law to maintain
White supremacy.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Critical Race Theory, cont.
Critical race theorists have expressed concern about:
 Laws (e.g., three strikes you’re out) and practices (e.g.,
racial profiling, wrongful convictions) that directly impact
on racial and ethnic minorities.
Critical race theorists are also concerned about White
 This translates into an increased focus on “crimes in the
streets,” as opposed to “crimes in the suites.”
 This focus criminalize the actions of other races and poor
Whites, while minimizing or looking past the crimes of
Whites in power.
Race and Crime, 3e © SAGE Publications 2012
Numerous theories have been applied to the question of race and
African Americans (and increasingly Latinos) remain the focal
attention of theories related to race and crime.
Which one best contextualizes race and crime?
 Biology
 Sociology
 Subcultural
 Social Control
 Colonial
 Conflict
 Traditional and nontraditional

Chapter 3: Theoretical Perspective on Race and Crime