Social Drivers of Racial Inequalities in Crime and Justice
Knoxville (TN) is not often in the national news, but, like many American cities, it experienced a surge in homicides in 2020. In early 2021, the tragedy of gun violence escalated further in ways that stunned residents and leaders alike, drawing national attention. The New York Times reported that in one Knoxville high school, five students were fatally shot over the course of two months. One of these students was killed by the police and the other four were killed by their peers. The streets surrounding that high school are characterized by the entrenched poverty that pervades the wider neighborhood, according to residents (Rojas, 2020).
The violent incidents in Knoxville happened days before the shooting deaths of other young people across the country, including Ma’Khia Bryant, 16, who was wielding a knife when she was killed by a police officer in Columbus (OH; K. Williams et al., 2021), and a seven-year-old girl who was fatally shot sitting in her father’s car in a drive-through lane at a McDonald’s restaurant in Chicago (IL; Kenney et al., 2021). All these victims were young and Black. In this regard, Knoxville is neither an outlier nor unusual. Rather, it is typical of American cities large and small, reflecting racial inequalities in crime, victimization, policing, and incarceration that are documented elsewhere in this report and elaborated further in this chapter.
Sadly, the concentration of violence in African American and other non-White urban communities is not new. While rates of violence declined dramatically over the last quarter century (Baumer et al., 2018; Zimring, 2006), homicide remains the leading cause of death among young Black men (CDC, 2019) in the United States. In 2020, homicides spiked from
30 to 50 percent in many of our major cities, threatening the gains in life expectancy among Black Americans that have been made through reductions in violence (Sharkey and Friedson, 2019). In fact, there is evidence that racial disparities in violent victimization have increased after years of steady decline, explained by the rise of violence in U.S. cities in the late 2010s and in 2020 (Sharkey and Marsteller, 2022).
Many homicides also go unsolved, increasingly so in recent years and disproportionately so in poor Black and Latino communities (Brunson and Wade, 2019; Petersen, 2017; Roberts and Lyons, 2011), a direct indication that minority communities are underserved by the criminal justice system. Furthermore, police killings are the sixth leading cause of death among Black men under age 44 (Edwards et al., 2019), often tied to the same disadvantaged settings that experience heightened interpersonal violence (Siegel et al., 2021). While far fewer young Black men lose their lives to police shootings than from other causes, the social consequences of these deaths on families and already disadvantaged communities should not be understated.1
In Knoxville, as is the case elsewhere, the explicit racism that created racial segregation and the concentration of disadvantage alongside the structural racism that has maintained these conditions have long been connected to each other and to racial inequalities in community violence and lethal criminal justice contacts. Police killings are now highly visible because of cell phone videos and police body cameras; but disproportionate police shootings of non-White Americans are not new, nor is interpersonal violent victimization in non-White communities. Many more individuals are killed in acts of community violence than by the police, at a rate of about 20:1, but any life lost is a tragedy and the victims of both types of violence are disproportionately drawn from the same types of disadvantaged communities (Ross, 2015). In other words, there is an enduring and compounded burden of violence.
Accordingly, this chapter highlights the historical and contemporary social pathways through which structural racism leads to both crime and criminal justice involvement, with a focus on the role of violence as a key ingredient of racial inequality and its persistence over time. Through this social-pathway view, it is possible to see how racial inequalities in violence
1 According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from the National Vital Statistics System, 23,210 young Black men (age 44 or younger) died in 2020 (see https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db456.htm#section_2). The top three leading causes of death were suicide and homicide with a firearm (10,981), drug poisoning (5,313), and vehicle accidents (3,694). By comparison, according to the Washington Post’s police shooting data collection effort (see https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/policeshootings-database/?itid=sf_Investigations_sn_police-shootings-database_1), 190 of these deaths were police killings.
and lethal criminal justice contacts are tied to historical and social processes of racial exclusion that manifest today in multiple forms, such as durable patterns of public and private underinvestment and toxic exposures in poor Black neighborhoods. Such a view implies that remedies must include tackling the social drivers of crime and criminal justice inequalities. In an important and under-appreciated sense, non-criminal justice factors drive criminal justice outcomes.
At the turn of the 19th century, W.E.B. Du Bois (1899) noted the link between concentrated urban disadvantage and differences in crime by racial groups in his classic The Philadelphia Negro. Later, in the mid-20th century, the sociologists Shaw and McKay (1942) highlighted three key facts about this relationship that have proven prescient: (1) overall rates of delinquency were higher for Black boys than for White boys in Chicago; (2) rates of delinquency among both Black and White boys varied by neighborhood; and yet (3) it was impossible to determine empirically if delinquency among Black boys was more prevalent than among White people living in comparable neighborhoods. “Even if it were possible to parallel the low economic status and the inadequacy of institutions in the White community,” Shaw and McKay wrote elsewhere, “it would not be possible to reproduce the effects of segregation and the barriers to upward mobility” (1949, p. 614). Among other factors, these scholars cited the structural predicates of racial segregation that included racially discriminatory laws and housing policies, which in turn spurred the social isolation and physical deterioration of African American neighborhoods (Hirsch, 1983).
In the 1960s, the Kerner Commission issued a report whose findings were not materially different in substance, concluding that the Black and White communities of urban America were worlds apart because of racial segregation, severe economic disadvantage, and police violence (National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, 2016). By tracing crime to racial inequalities and structural racism, this body of work set the stage for explanations that eschewed pathologizing Black, Latino, and Native American communities as inherently or culturally disposed to violence. Rather, political economy and structural ecology constitute a self-amplifying feedback loop that produces exceptional disadvantage in African American neighborhoods along multiple dimensions (e.g., housing, education, physical environment). For example, neighborhoods that had been subjected to redlining in the first half of the 20th century were typically the same neighborhoods that, over the course of later decades, would have the greatest concentrations of both poverty and vulnerability to violence (Mehranbod et al., 2022; Jacoby et al., 2018). As South and colleagues (2021) note, a
consequence of this cycle of concentrated racial disadvantage is the lack of neighborhood investment, which in turn is a factor in deteriorated housing stock, blighted vacant lots, and a lack of green space—environmental conditions that disproportionately occur in Black urban neighborhoods and that are associated with stress, fear, poor mental health, and violence (see also Branas et al., 2018).
In proposing a theory of race, crime, and urban inequality, Sampson and Wilson (1995; see also Sampson et al., 2018) pushed the logic of historical and contemporary observations like these to pose two questions on crime and violence in America. To what extent do Black and White rates of crime vary by type of ecological area? In American cities during the late 20th and early 21st century, is it possible to find in White communities the structural circumstances under which many Black people live?
The first question signals that Black communities are heterogeneous, as are White, Latino, and other communities. In earlier eras, White ethnic groups (native as well as foreign born) were highly involved in crime and criminal justice contacts. While stereotypes developed tagging some groups as prone to criminality (e.g., Italians and organized crime), this did not result in a popular attribution to whole White communities of inherent criminality. Most immigrant communities were seen as White and deserving of second chances, so they were not ascribed criminality (Muhammad 2011). To imagine Black people (or Black neighborhoods) as carrying a distinct or homogeneous “criminogenic” character is a distinct form of racial stereotyping.
In fact, there is substantial variation in the crime rates of both Black and White people—and this variation systematically corresponds to variation in community and other social contexts. According to this perspective, race is not a direct cause of violence. Instead, race is a marker for the accumulation of social and material adversities that both follow from and constitute racial status in America (Sampson, 2012, p. 248).
On the second question, more than 80 years after Shaw and McKay’s assessment and 50 years after the Kerner Commission, Black and White people still do not share similar socioeconomic environments. As Chapter 5 notes, the societal remedies proposed by the Kerner Commission more than 50 years ago were a road not taken. To the contrary, as we document more in the next section, racial differences in concentrated urban poverty remain large, so much so that the most deprived urban contexts in which White people resided are considerably better off than the average context of Black communities (Sharkey, 2013; Peterson and Krivo, 2010). (See Chapter 7 for a discussion of the Moving to Opportunity experiment, which illustrates the durability of the structure and history of housing markets.) What most research on racial segregation emphasizes is not that living among White people is a necessary condition for reducing crime or improving well-being;
rather, it is the social inequalities that confer concentrated advantages and disadvantages through racialized social practices that are seen as primary (Massey and Denton, 1993).
In short, historical continuities in racial inequality, reinforced by racist policies, helped solidify and reproduce these divergent social worlds. Associated social inequalities manifested in individual actions, institutional practices, and public policies—both historical and contemporary—combined to concentrate urban Black poverty and its myriad social dislocations (Rothstein, 2017; Sugrue, 1996; Sampson and Wilson, 1995, p. 43; Wilson, 1987; Hirsch, 1983).2 By this account, racial residential segregation is a lynchpin of racial inequality in America (Massey, 2016), a key structural factor linking the past to the present. Consistent with the focus of most research on racial inequality and crime, and for reasons of data availability, we focus primarily on Black/White differences.
CONTEMPORARY RACIAL INEQUALITIES
As with racial disparities in violent crime and criminal justice contact, racial disparities in residential and other social contexts continue to plague the United States. Large American cities remain highly segregated by race despite the nation’s growing diversity, suggesting that people of the same race still tend to live in neighborhoods where they form the majority (Massey et al., 2009). Modest declines in residential segregation among smaller cities stem largely from the growth of multiethnic neighborhoods rather than integration between White and Black people (Elbers, 2021; Friedman, 2008). Rising income inequality coupled with dynamic forces that sustain residential segregation, like racial discrimination in the housing market (Rothstein, 2017; Pager and Shepherd, 2008) and racially structured residential preferences, perceptions, and knowledge (Krysan and Crowder, 2017), create a feedback loop of concentrated racial disadvantage. Faber (2020), for example, finds that in the mid- to late-20th century, the actions of federal housing institutions directly contributed to both Black ghettoization and
2 This perspective is consistent with an explanatory role for how slavery and Jim Crow laws formed and perpetuated concentrated racial disadvantage. For example, while African Americans are uniquely exposed to concentrated disadvantage for unique historical and contemporary reasons owing to structural racism (Unnever, 2018), and while there is some disagreement across studies, there is considerable evidence that the pathway from structural disadvantage to crime operates similarly across racial groups (Sampson et al., 2018; Sampson and Wilson, 1995). What differs the most is differential exposure to disadvantage by race. As a matter of theory, any group that faces high levels of disadvantage would exhibit elevated levels of crime: this logic has been called the racial invariance thesis. From this perspective, what drives crime (and other human behaviors) remains rooted in fundamental historical and structural conditions that are differentially experienced by racial groups (see also Light and Thomas, 2019).
White flight to the suburbs, in turn contributing to the persistent racial segregation and racialization of poverty that continues to this day. Not only do individually poor Black people (i.e., those in low-income households) have higher neighborhood poverty than any other subgroup, but “even blacks who are not individually poor have higher mean neighborhood poverty rates than Latinos and whites who are individually poor” (Perkins and Sampson, 2015, p. 44). Black people also face much greater odds than White people of experiencing compounded (i.e., simultaneous individual and neighborhood level) poverty, even controlling for individual differences in rarely measured factors such as self-control, aggression, anxiety, depression, and cognitive ability (Perkins and Sampson, 2015), and they are much more likely to experience such deprivations over multiple generations (Sharkey, 2008).
These findings underscore the fact that race-based contextual disadvantage—regardless of individual characteristics—continues to characterize the U.S. demographic landscape, despite demographic shifts in spatial inequality (Bartik and Mast, 2021). In support of this general pattern and based on a nationwide longitudinal study of over 20 million children, Chetty and colleagues (2020) find that very few Black children grow up in environments that foster upward economic mobility across generations. They report that “less than 5 percent of black children currently grow up in a Census tract with a poverty rate below 10 percent and more than half of black fathers present” (p. 718). In contrast, 63 percent of White children grow up in areas with analogous conditions. Although sample sizes are small and causal estimates are always difficult to prove (and have been challenged), Chetty and colleagues (2020) argue that exposure to “good neighborhoods” influences upward mobility for both Black and White boys.
Chetty and colleagues (2020) also find that American Indian people are extremely disadvantaged, with low rates of intergenerational mobility. Two recent reviews lay the groundwork for a better understanding of American Indian and Indigenous people. Ulmer and Bradley (2019) argue that American Indians often face a unique criminal justice system that has often been ignored by criminologists. They provide a framework to begin to understand the consequences of tribal, state, and federal agencies’ actions for Indigenous communities. Cunneen and Tauri (2019) argue that negative interactions between Indigenous people and criminal justice systems are fueled by the settler-colonial state and that they will remain this way until Indigenous peoples are empowered. Again, the key problem is the differential exposure by race to such (dis)advantaged environments, as was starkly portrayed in the last chapter.
Racial inequalities are thus multidimensional, compounded, intergenerational, and enduring over the life course. They also evolve in ways that make singular or point-in-time policy interventions challenging. African
Americans in particular are disproportionately exposed to what we might call durable “criminogenic conditions.” The differential distribution of concentrated disadvantage is a key example of a criminogenic condition that follows a racialized gradient. As we review below, an important body of work examines the influence of this key factor on violence and criminal justice contact. We caution that tremendous differences in disadvantage by race make it difficult to compare Black and White neighborhoods, which leaves analyses incomplete and, in some cases, makes predictions outside the bounds of everyday experiences. In addition, given that disadvantage is a hypothesized cause of crime and criminal justice contact, scholars have assessed how well it explains relative racial gaps in important outcomes, such as homicide victimization or police killings. This strategy helps to identify which social drivers explain the most variation in racial gaps in crime and criminal justice. Both research approaches to understanding the racial patterning of violence and criminal justice contact have been tried. We briefly assess each approach in turn.
CONCENTRATED DISADVANTAGE AND VIOLENCE
Most evidence supports the observation that structural disadvantage at the social level is an important predictor of violence and well-being in general. We give greater weight in our assessment to research on racial disparities and inequalities conducted in the last two decades or that postdate recent reviews. We also highlight violence, in all its forms, both because violence is measured better than other types of crimes and because the toll it takes on society is greatest. Also, while all felonies put individuals at risk of coming into contact with the criminal justice system, violence increases that risk substantially. Homicide is of specific interest not only because of its severity in the loss of human lives but also because it is widely accepted as a reliable indicator of violent crime.3
The disadvantage-crime link emerges intact from “virtually all prior research” (Krivo et al., 2009). This linkage is geographically robust as well; empirical work conducted in a wide range of cities points to a strong and positive relationship between disadvantage and violent crime. The cities studied include Atlanta (GA; McNulty, 2001); Baton Rouge (LA; Shihadeh
3 Although our focus is on violence and homicide, the evidence of racial differences is mixed for property crimes, with some finding more modest Black/White differences (Hindelang et al., 1981) and other studies reporting few if any significant racial differences (Crutchfield and Pitchford, 1997). Differences are often measured using arrest statistics (LaFree, 1995), which are likely better measures of police activity than behavior for these types of crimes. While there are often no significant racial differences in drug crime involvement for drug use and possession, or even for drug sales, differences emerge in how Black and Latino drug offenders are treated by the system (Beckett et al., 2005; Tonry, 1995).
and Shrum, 2004); Chicago (IL; Morenoff et al., 2001); Cincinnati (OH; Wooldredge and Thistlethwaite, 2003); Cleveland (OH), Seattle (WA), Washington (DC; Crutchfield et al., 1999); Columbus (OH; Krivo and Peterson, 1996); Miami (FL); San Diego (CA); El Paso (TX; Lee et al., 2001); St. Louis (MO; Kubrin and Wadsworth, 2003); and Washington (DC; Johnson and Kane, 2018). The relationship between concentrated disadvantage and violent crime also extends to work utilizing the National Neighborhood Crime Study, which covers neighborhoods across 87 cities (8,931 neighborhoods) in the year 2000 and 71 cities in 2010 (8,557 neighborhoods; Krivo et al., 2021; Peterson and Krivo, 2010). Scholarship tracing racial inequalities in violence to disadvantage covers a range of aggregate units: census tracts and block groups, cities and the surrounding metropolitan areas, resident-defined neighborhoods, and simultaneous combinations of the above.
Neighborhoods do not exist in social or physical isolation, however. Due to pronounced spatial segregation in the United States, a neighborhood is often surrounded by other neighborhoods that are socioeconomically similar. These extra-local but proximate spatial processes matter because the socioeconomic conditions of nearby neighborhoods are important predictors of violence in a given neighborhood. For example, Mears and Bhati (2006) show that resource deprivation in one community promotes more violence in communities that are socially proximate. Moreover, research shows that Black neighborhoods, and to a lesser extent Latino and other non-White neighborhoods, often share borders with both higher-disadvantage and higher-crime areas (Peterson and Krivo, 2010; Morenoff et al., 2001; Pattillo, 1998). Johnson and Kane (2018) also draw upon spatial data to argue that highly disadvantaged communities that are positioned at the center of a contiguous ghetto have significantly higher violent crime rates than other very underprivileged areas. In this sense, neighborhoods are not islands, as traditional models implicitly assume. Racial inequalities in spatial exposure to crime should help explain ethno-racial inequality in crime and crime change.
A qualitatively different form of neighborhood inequality is forged when residents visit other neighborhoods throughout a city in their everyday routines, including neighborhoods that are not spatially proximal. Levy and colleagues (2020) integrate the literature on urban mobility and neighborhood networks with research on neighborhood effects to develop the concept of “triple neighborhood disadvantage”—the notion that for any given neighborhood, its vitality is a function not only of its residential (or nearby) socioeconomic conditions but also of the conditions in the neighborhoods its residents visit and are visited by. Most research considers a neighborhood to be socioeconomically disadvantaged if it scores highly on just one measured trait—commonly “disadvantage” is indexed by measures like poverty,
unemployment, or public assistance receipt. A neighborhood that scores highly on such a residential socioeconomic disadvantage measure as well as on the two metrics of mobility-based disadvantage (in-degree visitation from other poor areas and out-degree visitation to other poor areas) is considered triply disadvantaged. Analyzing nearly 32,000 neighborhoods and 9,700 homicides in 37 of the largest U.S. cities, Levy and colleagues (2020) show that neighborhoods’ triple disadvantage independently predicts homicides, accounting for traditional neighborhood correlates of violence, spatial proximity to disadvantage, prior homicides, and city fixed effects. Not only does triple disadvantage improve explanatory power over traditional measures, but it also explains a sizable portion of the association between residential neighborhood disadvantage and homicides.
Directly relevant to our concerns with racial inequalities, the distribution of triple disadvantage is highly uneven, most often experienced by Black and Latino neighborhoods compared to White neighborhoods. Conversely, White communities enjoy triple advantage while Black and Latino communities rarely do. In fact, almost no White neighborhoods are triply disadvantaged, and essentially no Black or Hispanic neighborhoods are triply advantaged.
Moreover, if we use a simple and traditional indicator of neighborhood poverty—neighborhoods in which at least 30 percent of households are in poverty—Black neighborhoods are at much higher risk for being in poverty than White neighborhoods across the 50 largest American cites—almost 11 times greater. But Black neighborhoods are over 35 times more likely than White neighborhoods to have triple disadvantage: to be poor, to have residents who visit other poor neighborhoods, and to be visited by those from other poor neighborhoods (Sampson, 2019, p. 19). Hence, when we account for urban mobility flows, Black neighborhoods are substantially more exposed to compounded poverty and disadvantage than White neighborhoods. Hispanic neighborhoods fare a bit better than Black neighborhoods, followed by mixed neighborhoods, but the patterns are similar. These racial differences reveal a previously overlooked dimension of racial inequality that plausibly explains racial disparities in the experience of crime and violence. These patterns also bring into sharp relief the divergent social worlds occupied by White and non-White communities.
Krivo and colleagues (2009) examine another kind of inequality beyond individual neighborhoods, finding that city-level racial segregation accounts for some of the unexplained racial gap across neighborhoods. The authors posit that city segregation contributes to neighborhood violent crime by making it difficult for separate and unequal groups to address shared problems and indirectly by creating structural disadvantage and isolation in predominantly minority areas (Krivo et al., 2009, p. 1792). Vélez and colleagues (2015) adopt a similar approach, finding (1) that there is
variation by city in the relationship between a neighborhood’s percentage of Black residents and the prevalence of violence there; and (2) that this “average positive relationship often is attenuated, and reduced to statistical insignificance, in cities with favorable political contexts” (p. 93). These favorable contexts, Vélez and colleagues argue, yield benefits that are both substantive and symbolic, providing a footing for neighborhood-based organization against violence.
Concentrated Disadvantage and Gun Violence: A Closer Look at Trends
The relationship between high rates of neighborhood poverty and high rates of crime is reflected in rates of serious violence—particularly gun violence among young people. As was shown in Chapter 2, homicide risk is not distributed equally in the United States, and Black Americans are exposed to the greatest risk. In 2010, Black people comprised 55 percent of all U.S. homicide victims despite making up just 13 percent of the U.S. population. While guns are used in more than two-thirds of U.S. homicides, between 1999 and 2009, 81 percent of homicides among men ages 15–34 (N = 85,643) involved the use of guns; among Black men this figure rises to 91 percent (Hennekens et al., 2013). Although nationwide crime declines since the early 1990s appear to have reduced the Black/White disparity in exposure to overall violent crime until around 2014 (Friedson and Sharkey, 2015), Black people still experience approximately 11 times the gun homicide rate as their White counterparts (calculated from CDC-WISQARS tables 2010).4Box 3-1 outlines different types of and recent trends around gun violence.
For young men ages 15–34, the rate of gun homicide mortality for Black people is roughly 23 times that of White people: 67 per 100,000 compared to 2.9 per 100,000 (calculated from CDC-WISQARS tables 2019). Such inequality in homicide victimization not only affects the life chances of Black people but meaningfully alters the expectation of the longevity of life at the population level. While the Black/White disparity in life expectancy has shrunk to its lowest level ever recorded, homicide still explains more than 18 percent (more than one full year) of the life expectancy gap between White and Black men (Harper et al., 2012).5 Over the last three decades, homicide has accounted for 15.6 to 18.8 percent of the overall disparity in
4 For all homicides (not just gun) the current Black/White disparity in homicide at the population level is approximately 8:1.
5 The current Black/White life expectancy disparity is 5.44 years among men and 3.71 years among women. Homicide’s role in explaining this gap among women is much more modest than for men, representing between 3.4 percent and 5.8 percent over the past three decades.
life expectancy between Black and White men (Harper et al., 2012, 2007).6 Virtually any way they are analyzed, these data demonstrate that the risk of violent death among Black and White people, at the population level, is practically incommensurable.
From 2014 to 2020, gun violence steadily increased, with the increase in shootings being disproportionately concentrated in poor and predominantly Black neighborhoods (Sharkey and Marsteller, 2022). Analysis of data on fatal shootings at the census tract level in the 100 largest cities, excluding accidents and suicides, shows that the rate of gun violence increased by 87 percent in predominantly Black neighborhoods compared to a 64 percent increase in White neighborhoods. The recent increase in gun violence follows a similar pattern for poverty. Gun violence increased 91 percent in high-poverty neighborhoods from 2014 to 2020, compared to 58 percent in non-poor neighborhoods (Sharkey and Marsteller, 2022, pp. 375–376). A keen understanding of gun violence trends, both spatially
6 It is worth noting that in these analyses, homicide’s contribution to explaining the homicide gap among Black and White men was the same in 2008 as in 1993 (18.8%). In 1993 this percentage equated to 1.59 years; in 2008, it equated to 1.03 years.
and demographically, is important for understanding and addressing the social mechanisms of crime and victimization.
COMPOUNDED ADVERSITIES AND SOCIAL MECHANISMS
Just as neighborhoods do not exist in isolation, concentrated poverty does not operate in isolation either—it is closely connected to many of the correlates commonly emphasized in studies of crime and violence involvement, especially as they interact over the life course. While people leave neighborhoods, the effects of neighborhoods do not necessarily leave them. For example, unstable family structures, dropping out of high school, and labor market detachment are both causes of poverty and consequences of living in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Disrupted family life, poor academic achievement, bad school experiences, and problematic labor market participation have all been linked to higher levels of criminal involvement, including in crimes of violence, and to contacts with the criminal justice system.
Concentrated disadvantage and racial segregation also expose residents to physically toxic inequalities, such as in lead exposure and airborne pollution, that have been linked to crime and criminal justice contact (Manduca and Sampson, 2021; Muller et al., 2018). In this way, structural racism gets into the brains and bodies of disadvantaged children (Sampson and Winter, 2018; Winter and Sampson, 2017), reinforcing disadvantages over the life course (Massey, 2004).
On employment, ever since Wilson’s (1987) seminal work, The Truly Disadvantaged, researchers have moved beyond the simple examination of unemployment as defined by people out of work and currently searching for positions. Wilson (1987) found that Black neighborhoods characterized by high levels of joblessness had substantially elevated violent crime rates, and those places also had high delinquency rates as well. Controlling for income inequality, poverty, race, and several other social indicators, census tracts with more marginalized workers, namely those in secondary-sector jobs (low wage, unstable, and with few if any benefits), and with more unemployed have higher homicide rates and higher rates of other forms of violence (Crutchfield, 2014; Crutchfield et al., 1999). Krivo and Peterson (2004) found that racial residential segregation concentrated the negative influence of marginal employment’s effects on neighborhood crime rates.
Furthermore, young adult males who are marginally employed are more likely to engage in criminal behavior, both violent crime and property crime (Crutchfield and Pitchford, 1997), even after controlling for income and education. It is notable that this association tends to appear where individuals live in places with higher levels of unemployment, precisely the kinds of places where Black people live because of segregation. Low-end employment also explains modest racial differences in the violent crime
involvement of individuals (Crutchfield, 2014) and helps to explain higher violent crime rates in neighborhoods populated by more people of color (Crutchfield et al., 2006). Similar patterns are reported elsewhere (Apel and Horney, 2017; Uggen, 2000). Researchers have found that children whose parents are out of work or who do “low-end jobs” and those living in communities with more adults who are marginally employed are more likely to engage in delinquency than other children (Crutchfield and Wadsworth, 2013; Bellair et al., 2003; Bellair and Roscigno, 2000; Wadsworth, 2000). The operating mechanism for these observations appears to be indirect; children in such situations do not do as well in school, and that outcome in turn is related to heightened likelihood of delinquency.
Other social mechanisms that have been hypothesized to translate macro disadvantage and racial inequalities into violence are legal cynicism and estrangement from the criminal justice system (Bell, 2020b; Sampson, 2012; Kirk and Papachristos, 2011; Sampson and Bartusch, 1998), competition for local political power, municipal resources, and representation (Vargas, 2016), community-based institutions such as churches and recreation centers, and weakened social controls (Sampson et al., 1997). Much of the national conversation today about community alternatives to criminal legal institutions in fact finds its intellectual origins in sociological research on communities and crime. It is especially derived from the social disorganization tradition (Kornhauser, 1978), revised in more recent work on the role of informal social controls and neighborhood cohesion, or what has been conceptualized as collective efficacy in reducing violence (Sampson et al., 1997).
A large body of research in the United States has examined collective efficacy and crime rates, especially rates of violence, indicating that while causality is difficult to pin down, the associations are typically negative and significant (for reviews, see Lanfear et al., 2020; Pratt and Cullen, 2005).7 There is also evidence that the efforts of community-based organizations to mobilize around community safety and social supports for youth played an important role in the drop in crime (Sharkey et al., 2017), an example of organizational-based collective efficacy. The presence of and participation in religious organizations also have the potential to blunt the deleterious consequences of disadvantage on violence in general and particularly on Black and Latino levels of violence (Harris and Ulmer, 2017; Ulmer and Harris, 2013). For example, a recent paper by Harris and Ulmer (2017) finds that counties with a relatively large share of adherence to Black
7 There is more variability in findings from other countries that use different community-level units of analysis, such as in Australia (Wickes and Hipp, 2018; Mazerolle et al., 2010), the Netherlands (Steenbeek and Hipp, 2011), and Latin-American countries (Villarreal and Silva, 2006). Longitudinal associations are also sometimes different than cross-sectional ones.
Protestantism, the dominant Black religion, have less violence, and this protective relationship is enhanced in counties that are disadvantaged. Another mechanism by which collective efficacy and organizational mobilization can reduce crime is through the built environment, such as the remediation of toxic wastes, vacant homes, and abandoned lots (Branas et al., 2018; Kondo et al., 2018). See Chapter 7 for a discussion on reducing harmful environmental exposures to influence crime and justice contact.
Politicians, the general public, and some academics have long held that higher rates of violence in Black communities are a consequence of subcultures (Curtis, 1975; Banfield, 1970; Woolfgang and Ferracuti, 1967), another potential mechanism. Such arguments have largely given way as a result of the evidence we have provided here, but they persist in some corners (see Crutchfield, 2015, for a review). What has emerged are new cultural contributions to our understanding of violence, which define cultural adaptations as emerging from structural disadvantage. Anderson (2000), for example, argues that a “code of the street” develops in disadvantaged Black communities, resulting from long-term isolation of residents from important institutions, especially the labor market, when combined with the same communities being ignored by city government and denied effective policing. Certainly, teenagers everywhere develop attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that are contrary to those of conventional adults, but Anderson argues that this is different, deeper, and not simply juvenile rebellion in severely, inter-generationally disadvantaged Black communities (Matsueda et al., 2006).
In addition to Anderson’s ethnographic evidence from Philadelphia neighborhoods, Duck (2015) finds that the same kind of ongoing marginalization in a Black community led to patterns of drug dealing, and neighbors’ reaction to it, in a small city suffering from deindustrialization. Stewart and Simons (2010) similarly find that Black people who adhere to this kind of street code are more likely to engage in violent delinquency; this vulnerability is magnified in neighborhoods where many residents uphold a street code. Miller’s (2008) and Jones’s (2010) studies document the devastating effects of criminal involvement, especially the victimization of Black girls and young women, from these patterns of long-term marginalization, isolation, and poverty. They find that young women’s behavior, identities, beliefs, and expectations are affected by the disadvantage and victimization that are central to their daily lives. Finally, Sampson and Wilson (1995) refer to cognitive landscapes and shared expectations about violence in highly disadvantaged communities, but in their view this sort of adaptation has been a result of cumulative and compounded racial disadvantages and the existential realties of everyday life in communities underserved by the criminal justice system (see also Kirk and Papachristos, 2011; Sampson and Bartusch, 1998).
MODELING RACIAL GAPS IN CRIME
As we have seen, research on urban inequality points scholars to the wide disparity in community conditions as one of the sources of racial inequality in serious crime, and it suggests that these disparities are plausible mechanisms for explaining the association. Accounting empirically for these stark ecological differences has been the dominant strategy to explain racial differences in crime. Work on communities and crime generally finds support for this approach, especially spotlighting concentrated disadvantage as an important source of racial gaps in serious crime at the cross-section and over time (Krivo et al., 2020, 2018; Peterson and Krivo, 2010; Stults et al., 2010).
For example, many studies find that simply adjusting for degrees of disadvantage explains most, and sometimes all, of the racial gaps in property crime at the neighborhood level (Peterson and Krivo, 2010; Shihadeh and Shrum, 2004; McNulty and Holloway, 2000). Krivo and colleagues (2020), studying neighborhoods in 71 cities in 2010, find that adjusting for disadvantage accounts for a large portion of the Black/White gap in violence and property crime (see also Lyons et al., 2022). In the same study, adjusting for ecological variation in disadvantage accounts for much of the Latino/White gap in violence and the entire Latino/White gap in property crime. In a study of neighborhoods across 19 cities, Hipp (2007) explains away much of the race effects for violence. Researchers also find that proximity to disadvantage or advantage (sometimes measured as the percentage White) helps explain differences in crime between White and Black or Latino neighborhoods (Peterson and Krivo, 2010, 2009). Feldmeyer and colleagues (2013) report that structural disadvantage helps explain the influence of percent-Black and percent-Latino on violence arrest rates but note that the strength of this correlation depends on the size of the census place. In smaller places, disadvantage explains more of the influence of racial composition on violence.
Scholarship also links racial residential segregation to the explanation of racial differences in crime. Vélez and colleagues (2003) find that racial segregation lies at the heart of Black/White inequality in homicide offending at the city level. Light and Ulmer (2016) point to structural disadvantage and segregation as strongly (but not perfectly) predictive of both the cross-sectional racial disparities in homicide rates and the changes in those disparities over time at the metropolitan level (for a review, see LaFree et al., 2010). Light and Thomas (2019) examine large metropolitan areas and argue that racial residential segregation is related to higher Black homicide victimization rates but lower risk for White people. They conclude that segregation plays an important role in creating and maintaining the racial gap in victimization.
Bank investments in housing that are conventional or prime in nature are considered lucrative and have the potential to inhibit or at least curtail
a spiral of neighborhood decline and shore up a neighborhood’s ability to fight crime. High cost or sub-prime lending, however, has the potential to destabilize a community, and evidence mounts on the racialized nature of its distribution. Specifically, the distribution of subprime loans, which can include predatory loans, was greater in segregated areas and was allocated disproportionately by banks to disadvantaged minority communities (Rugh et al., 2015; Hyra et al., 2013; Rugh and Massey, 2010). We focus the review here on the body of work that assesses the implications of ecological differences in prime lending by race for understanding racial differences in neighborhood crime. In Chicago, Vélez (2009) finds that controlling for race-based differences in home mortgage lending (measured in both dollars and number of loans) accounts for a significant share of the gap in homicide between Black or Latino communities with White communities. Studies using the first and second waves of the National Neighborhood Crime Study (NNCS) find that home mortgage lending explains important shares of the gap in violent and property crime between Black and White neighborhoods and between Latino and White neighborhoods as well. Applying this more concretely based on findings from the second wave of the NNCS, equalizing home mortgage dollars would reduce the gaps in violent crime levels between White and Black or Latino communities by approximately 30 percent (Krivo et al., 2021).
A large literature in economics explores the causes of longstanding and significant racial differences in rates of homeownership and mortgage borrowing. Five-year estimates centered on the 2015 American Community Survey yield the following homeownership rates by race and ethnicity: non-Latino Black people, 45 percent; Latino people, 46 percent; and non-Latino White people, 74 percent. Compared to the rates implied by 2000 census data, these rates are slightly lower for Black people, slightly higher for White people, and about the same for Latino people.
While there is some evidence that lenders discriminate against minorities, in particular against Black applicants for home mortgages, well over 90 percent of those seeking mortgages are able to obtain one regardless of race. Racial differences in rates of applying for mortgages are large and are a key driver of racial differences in rates of homeownership. Charles and Hurst (2002) conclude that the Black/White gap in applications is driven primarily by “income, family structure, and in the ability and willingness of parents to provide down-payment assistance.” These Black/White differences are rooted in historical discrimination. Slavery, Jim Crow restrictions on education and employment opportunities, and racist housing policies (e.g., red lining) have all contributed.
The most recent study utilizing the NNCS finds that home mortgage lending has emerged as a key factor in helping explain racial differences in neighborhood crime using two time periods of data, likely because of how
the Great Recession deepened a reluctance to extend mortgage credit to Black and Latino communities (Faber, 2018; Woodstock Institute, 2010). New work also explains how evictions, foreclosures, and vacancies may help account for ethno-racial differences in neighborhood crime and crime change. Work by Kirk (2022, 2020) in Boston, for example, finds an association between inequality in eviction rates and home-mortgage denials and the concentration of crime in disadvantaged communities. Given the vast legacies of racial discrimination in lending and current inequalities, addressing these long-standing inequalities has the potential to reduce racial inequalities in crime and criminal justice.
Immigration is another social process that has been hypothesized to have an influence on crime, in this case a protective influence (Ousey and Kubrin, 2018; MacDonald and Sampson, 2012; Sampson, 2012). Although the literature on crime rates is vast, only some research has assessed whether immigration explains racial gaps in crime. Immigration patterns vary notably across neighborhood ethno-racial profiles, with Latino and multiethnic areas having much more immigration than Black areas.8 Research finds that accounting for varying levels of immigration helps to explain some of the differences in crime, particularly between Latino and White communities (Peterson and Krivo, 2010) but also between Black and Latino communities (Vélez, 2006). The ability of immigration to explain racial gaps may depend upon city-level experiences with immigration (Ramey, 2013).
Exploring gaps in Black/White and Latino/White homicide rates over time, Light and Ulmer (2016) find that differences in levels of immigration help explain these evolving gaps. Moreover, changes in immigration help to explain decreasing gaps between Black and White homicide rates. Light and Ulmer (2016) speculate that an increase in foreign-born residents in metropolitan areas may be associated with strengthened informal social control, reducing interracial homicide gaps. Their observations indicate that not only is immigration a protective factor against violence, a claim consistent with a large body of work, but that the broader communities into which immigrants move also benefit from less homicide and lower racial
8 A small body of work explores whether the protective influence on violence extends to all racial/ethnic groups and their neighborhoods. For instance, Martinez and colleagues (2016) find that changes in immigration levels bring about reductions in homicide levels from 1970 to 2010 in San Diego neighborhoods. But when homicide is racially disaggregated, immigration loses some of its protective influence for Black homicide levels across neighborhoods (though it remains negative and significant). To make sense of this finding, Martinez and colleagues (2016) suggest, “A likely explanation for this result is the fact that newcomers from abroad are not settling into traditionally Black neighborhoods in numbers that would have a meaningful impact on levels of homicide.” Xie and Baumer (2018) find that immigration concentration protects against victimization risk for Latino, Black, and White people, but this protection is particularly enhanced for Latino people given that they are most likely to live in close proximity to the foreign born.
homicide disparities. Ironically, politically charged arguments that lead to greater immigration enforcement attenuate the positive effect of having more immigrants in communities (Kirk et al., 2012).
A smaller body of research demonstrates how analyzing individuals and neighborhoods simultaneously allows for a fuller understanding of individual-level racial disparities in crime. Such multi-level approaches allow for an accounting of how vulnerabilities to crime are brought about by the risk and protective factors at the individual level alongside contextual adversities, such as the structural disadvantages individuals face because of their immediate surroundings. As an example, using the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative school-based sample, Bellair and McNulty (2005) document that concentrated disadvantage explains the entire gap between Black and White reports of engaging in serious violence. Notably, they find that indicators of verbal ability and academic achievement are not as potent as community-level disadvantage in explaining race differences in violent behavior (see also McNulty and Bellair, 2003). Sampson and colleagues (2005) analyzed individual, family, and neighborhood factors to assess competing hypotheses regarding racial/ethnic gaps in perpetrating violence among 2,974 individuals ages eight to 25 living in 180 Chicago neighborhoods. The odds of perpetrating violence were 85 percent higher for Black people than for White people, whereas Latino-perpetrated violence was 10 percent lower. Yet the majority of the Black/White gap (over 60%) and the entire Latino/White gap were explained primarily by the marital status of parents, immigrant generation, and dimensions of neighborhood context, including socioeconomic status, concentrated immigration, and legal cynicism.
Appreciating the multifaceted nature of the forces explaining racial gaps in offending, newer work tries to advance an integrated model of the race difference in violence. Specifically, this work sees individual-level risk factors like verbal ability or school attainment as “best conceived as originating from the segregation of Blacks in disadvantaged contexts” (McNulty et al., 2013, p. 140). For example, McNulty and colleagues (2013) find that part of the reason residence in disadvantaged contexts is related to violence is that it is related to low verbal ability and poor school attainment. Lauritsen and colleagues (2018) find that the national Black/White gap in serious violent victimization drops considerably (from 71% to 22% greater) but is not entirely eliminated once controls for poverty, urban residence, age, and employment are introduced.9 In this sense, risk factors for
9 The authors write, “Nearly all of the factors that are significantly related to between group differences in risk are also associated with heterogeneity in risk within race and ethnic groups. Black and White males who are younger, living in poverty and urban areas, and not employed are most likely to become victims of serious violence” (p. 84).
offending that are more pronounced for Black people than White people are better thought of as differential exposure to neighborhood disadvantage, which, as noted above, has a long history rooted in social policies.
Though the study of racial inequality in crime and justice has accumulated more than a century of academic attention, key questions remain that should guide work in the future. To achieve this, a diverse set of methodologies and theories must be engaged. First, as discussed in this chapter, there is a rich theoretical tradition for understanding racial differences in crime. Particularly needed is scholarly attention on how racialized inequalities in socioeconomic conditions play out to produce differences in crime. Mechanisms such as collective efficacy, legal cynicism, and the code of the street suggest particularly fruitful lines of study. Second, given the durability of heightened crime and of exposure to toxic neighborhood environments in Black and Latino communities, especially in their linkage with violence, research should also investigate the toll these factors play in neighborhood viability and general well-being. What are the long-term consequences of such heightened levels of violence?
Third, a key methodological issue that needs further study is how to better account for the fact that Black and White populations do not reside in comparably disadvantaged places. This presents deep methodological challenges that researchers should try to address. Fourth, the weight of past literature has focused on comparisons of Black and White communities. Scholars today are more frequently comparing experiences in Latino and Asian communities, reflecting the increasing diversity of America (Alba, 2020). These efforts should be continued and expanded. Like Black communities, Asian Americans are disproportionately concentrated in urban and suburban settings. In areas with substantial Asian populations, researchers should avail themselves of that opportunity to examine to what extent the processes described in this chapter are similar or different.
Fifth and finally, as stated earlier, Black, Latino, and Native American communities are heterogeneous. Even in some disadvantaged places examples of resiliency can be found, for instance the “decent families” described by Anderson (2000) in areas of profound disadvantage in North Philadelphia or the many vibrant economic districts that exist within otherwise disadvantaged, segregated spaces within some cities. How pockets of resiliency emerge and thrive in these communities in ways that undercut vulnerability to crime is an important question, worthy of more research attention. At the same time, we need to focus research on the various ways that White privilege, for example in exposure to advantaged residential environments, is maintained over time (Candipan and Sampson, 2021).
Concerning Indigenous people, there are two pressing issues. First, while urban American Indian populations may be growing, they remain relatively small, which creates a problem for much quantitative research along the lines of what has been done. Ethnographic research can fill some of the resulting gap, but new quantitative data efforts are needed in areas with large American Indian populations such as Albuquerque (NM), Phoenix (AZ), and Oklahoma City (OK). Second, much of the country’s Indigenous population resides in nonurban places, which raises important questions about how criminogenic forces and processes work in rural areas. These are important research questions that should be addressed more fully than they have been.
Existing social and economic disadvantage experienced by Black, Latino, and Native American communities can also be addressed by focusing more directly on educational and labor market inequalities. Increasing class and educational stratification is the underappreciated story of contemporary differential punishment (Muller and Roehrkasse, 2020).
This chapter has sought to illustrate the key social drivers of racial inequalities in violent crime and homicide, which are key sources of racial justice differences. Structural racism rooted in historical patterns of residential segregation set the stage for the vast inequalities we see today in socioeconomic conditions and crime. Extant work highlights racially inscribed inequalities, especially disadvantage, in explaining dramatic differences in crime across racialized areas. These same disadvantaged contexts also contribute to lethal criminal justice contacts, further compounding inequality. This chapter cautions that racial inequality in both serious crime and criminal justice contact is driven by broader systems that perpetuate racial inequality more generally. Thus, to study one without the other misses the larger picture. Racial inequalities in the American criminal justice system begin before individuals enter that system. In fact, they begin before persons of color have any differential experience with police,10 as soon as early childhood.
CONCLUSION 3-1: Race-based contextual disadvantage—regardless of individual and family characteristics—continues to characterize the U.S. demographic landscape wherein neighborhood and social conditions for Black and White households remain highly divergent. The most deprived urban contexts in which White people reside are considerably better off than the average context of Black communities.
10 Social drivers of criminal justice, such as policing, are covered in Chapter 4 of the report.
CONCLUSION 3-2: Racial disparities in serious violence—both victimization and offending—are also spatially patterned, with high rates of violent crime concentrated in Black, Latino, and Native American communities that face longstanding and ongoing racial exclusion leading to enduring patterns of segregation and concentrated poverty.
CONCLUSION 3-3: Racially inscribed inequalities, especially disadvantage, explain most of the dramatic differences in crime across racialized areas. These same disadvantaged contexts also contribute to racial disparities in criminal justice contacts, further compounding inequality. However, the fact that Black and White populations do not reside in comparably disadvantaged places presents deep methodological challenges to the study of racial inequality and crime.
CONCLUSION 3-4: Elimination of racial inequalities in the criminal justice system must include addressing longstanding inequalities and cumulative, racially based disadvantages over the life course. Policies that focus solely on inequalities within the criminal justice system, failing to consider larger, societal systemic inequalities, will have limited chances of success.
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