The racial typification of crime has become a phenomenon that some
argue is a form of modern racism (McConahay, 1986; Sears, 1988; Sniderman
& Harvey, 1998). Modern racism includes feelings of anxiety, hostility, and
negativity toward minority groups (such as African Americans in the United
States) instead of a direct expression of racial superiority. Modern racism
is transformed through selective misleading and misinforming information
that fuels support for punitive measures regarding crime controls against
members of minority groups (Beckett & Sasson, 2004; Garland, 2001). Thus,
race and fear of crime are a fundamental part of the racial typification process. The overrepresentation of Arabs in the Israeli criminal justice system raises
the question of whether Arabs actually commit more crime than Jews or
whether there is inherent bias against them.
Despite changes since the 1960s in the composition of police departments, relationships between the police and minority communities remain
contentious (Brunson, 2007; Brunson and Miller, 2006; Weitzer, Tuch, and
Skogan, 2008). Perhaps the most antagonistic of all police–citizen encounters, short of the use of force, is the decision by the police to conduct a
search of a citizen. Searches represent among the most intrusive actions
the police can take and might color perceptions of the legitimacy of law
enforcement. The racial diversification of police departments, in addition
to promoting equal opportunity and justice, is intended to address public
concerns regarding racial profiling in law enforcement practices. Black’s
theory of law suggests, however, that racial disparities in law enforcement
are likely to persist regardless of agency diversification, in the absence of
fundamental change in the social status of African Americans relative to
Whites in the United States.
When it comes to empirical research on appearance and punishment, by far the most commonly examined physical characteristic is the race of the defendant (e.g., Kennedy, 1997; Mitchell, 2005; Ulmer, 2012). Sociological research, in particular, has been focused on examining racial perceptions and stereotypes, finding that Blacks are often considered to be more threatening, violent, and crime prone (King and Wheelock, 2007; Peffley and Hurwitz, 1998). Indeed, the results of survey research conducted during the high‐crime period of the early 1990s found that more than half of Whites perceived Blacks to be aggressive or violent (Sniderman and Piazza, 1993), and the outcomes of more recent work has shown that race and skin tone are significantly associated with perceived criminality (Maddox and Gray, 2002) as well as with how people react to criminal events (Dixon and Maddox, 2005). The tendency to associate race with crime likely explains why residents of neighborhoods with larger Black populations perceive more crime, even when controlling for the actual crime rate (Quillian and Pager, 2001).
The findings from extant scholarship on racial stereotypes are largely consistent with those from empirical research on racial disparities in punishment. Although not all the researchers in these studies have reported evidence of inequality (Spohn, 2000), most have found meaningful differences in the probability of imprisonment across racial and ethnic groups (Baumer, 2013; Mitchell, 2005). Moreover, the findings from recent studies demonstrate additional influences that are associated with granular distinctions in skin tone and appearance (Burch, 2015; King and Johnson, 2016; Viglione, Hannon, and DeFina, 2011). For instance, King and Johnson (2016) showed that darker skinned Blacks, and Whites with more Afrocentric features, are both sentenced more harshly, and Eberhardt et al. (2006) found that males with more stereotypical Black appearances are more likely to receive the death penalty.
It is likely that the foremost contributor to the formation of the public’s association
between Blacks and criminality is the sheer number of Blacks represented in crime
statistics and the criminal justice system. We would expect that if Blacks were
disproportionately involved in criminal activity and consequently overrepresented as
convicted criminals by the criminal justice system, they would be perceived as being
more involved in crime and criminal justice measures than are others. Of course, we
know that Whites compose the greatest percentage of criminals and convicts (U.S.
Department of Justice, 2003, 2004). Although most crime is actually committed by
Whites, the common perception is that the majority of it is perpetrated by Blacks
Other nationwide research has shown that the public perceives that
Blacks are involved in a greater percentage of violent crime than official statistics indicate they actually are (Chiricos, Welch, & Gertz, 2004; Welch, Chiricos, & Gertz, 2002).
believed that a relationship exists
between race and criminality,
National crime surveys indicate that most racial and ethnic groups consume illegal
drugs at approximately similar rates (Katz, 2000). Specifically, Whites account for
almost 75% of the nation’s illegal drug users, and Blacks account for about 13%, which
is consistent with their representations in the greater U.S. population. Blacks, however,
account for about 75% of the nation’s drug prisoners, which reveals the extreme
disparity manifest in the national crackdown on the drug problem (Katz, 2000). The
sale and use of crack cocaine, which is typically used by racial minorities, carried with
it heavier criminal penalties than those associated with other illegal drugs such as powder
cocaine, which has been used more often by Whites. This has resulted in a highly
disproportionate number of Blacks who have been criminalized because of their drug
The suggestion has been made that the war on drugs may have been more appropriately referenced as a war on Blacks or a war on Black drug use (Tonry, 1995).
Because of the overrepresentation of African Americans who are processed through
the criminal justice system directly resulting from the war on drugs, they have been
depicted as the primary source of this country’s drug problem. The consequence is
that many may have come to associate Blacks with drug use and drug use with
Blacks. The consumption of illicit drugs, therefore, may be a very specific racially
typified phenomenon. In addition to being illegal themselves, drugs are frequently
related to other types of crime, such as robbery and assault. This fact reinforces the
association of Blacks with crime and crime with Blacks.
The reality that the criminal justice system encounters and processes a number of
minority offenders that far surpasses their representation in the general population
may corroborate the common notion that being Black equates to criminality. One
possible source of the racial stereotyping of criminals may be the prolific presence
of Blacks in the American court system. Studies on race and sentencing have shown
that young Black males are sentenced more severely than are members of other racial
or ethnic groups (Crawford, Chiricos, & Kleck, 1998; Mauer, 1999; Miller, 1996;
Steffensmeier, Ulmer, & Kramer, 1998). Research on the treatment of defendants in
court proceedings shows that prosecutors sometimes take advantage of and perpetuate
racial stereotypes by characterizing Blacks as particularly prone to violent criminality,
which results in higher conviction rates (Higginbotham, 2002). It is reasonable to
expect that prosecutors will persist with this kind of practice if it produces more
successful outcomes for them. When the public sees such a large portion of those
convicted and sentenced by criminal courts are Black, the message conveyed is that
Blackness and criminality are inextricably related.
Blacks are almost 7 times more likely to be incarcerated than are
Whites, which means that the odds that a Black man will do time at some point in his
life are 1 in 3, and for Whites it is 1 in 25 (Katz, 2000). Encountering some sort of
criminal punishment from the justice system has become something of an expectation
for many young, urban Black men (Bridges, Crutchfield, & Simpson, 1987; Hagan
Albonetti, 1982; Miller, 1992). The threat of being incarcerated has become an almost
expected part of life for Blacks because, statistically, many minority males will be punished by the criminal justice system at some point during their lives (Austin
Aside from the actual involvement of Blacks in crime and the criminal justice system,
other potential contributors to the profiling of criminals as young Black males may be
various media sources. The media provide readily accessible depictions of criminality,
which may help to shape perceptions about crime and subsequent justice practices.
Research aimed at examining the racial content of televised newscasts in Chicago found
that they commonly portray accused Black criminals in scowling mug shots or in video
clips being led in handcuffs by White police officers (Entman, 1990). In fact, it is well
established that there is a disproportionate amount of the media coverage devoted to
violent crimes for which Black males are more likely than others to be arrested (Chiricos
& Eschholz, 2002; Surrette, 1992; Young, 1985). Thus, “the image of violent criminals
as young black males is routinely reinforced” (Young, 1985, p. 475).
In recognition of this, one study argues that Blacks are “demonized” by the faces
chosen to depict criminality in crime news stories (Gerbner, 2003). The presumption
of this connection has been corroborated by Anderson (1995), who observed
The traditional, old form of racism consisted in the explicit and overt belief that White people have some kind of innate, biological superiority. But this has now been replaced by a much more subtle form of racial prejudice: Modern racism. Instead of attributing their negative attitude toward Black people to innate racial differences, White people will tend to attribute them now to some cultural and behavioural characteristic of the Black minority. For instance they would attribute Black Americans’ lower socio-economic status to a lack of work ethic in the Black community, thereby ignoring that many opportunities in society are still structured by White privilege and Black people tend to have unequal access to such opportunities due to historical and present discrimination. Another example is that the prejudice of the White American public translates into some stereotypes they believe hold true for Black people and in particular for Black men: The belief that Blackness is associated with proneness to violence, being more criminal and threatening than what is actually the criminal statistical evidence. View Black men as more threatening than their White counterparts.
There is a racialisation of crime: Although Black Americans represent only about 13% of all drug users and 23% of violent criminal offenders (Morgan, 2017), they are overrepresented within the criminal justice system: representing some overall 33% of all prisoners and a 6x higher incaceration rate than Whites (Carson, 2018). So, this then creates a misleading image and reinforces the belief that they are more inclined to criminality. And even more so, the media contributes to this belief by the way they portray Black men as dangerous as compared to their White counterparts.
The racialisation of crime has led to more support for agressive policing. White people who view Blacks as more criminal are also more supportive of aggressive policing. And this is in line with subtle, modern racism, because it is now possible for White people to support aggressive criminal justice methods, while at the same time stating they are not racist, because they can appeal to media that present the high criminality and threat coming from Black people to justify the need for those measures and they tacitly understand that Blacks will primarily be the target of these measures.
Racial minorities are overrepresented as criminals compared to their White counterparts in the media. And when Black people are depicted as victims, they are often dehumanised, demonised and criminalised. This media coverage bears negative consequences as it reinforces negative stereotypical perceptions: serves to justify why one should Blame Black victims for their own death and why Black victims are to be perceived as less socially respectable persons. The application of negative Black stereotypic information to a victim is extremly detrimental and colored even views of white victims.
The role of media portrayals: In a study with predominantly White participants, they read about an altercation that results in a shooting and death. Race of shooter and Victim were randomly manipulated (White/ Black). Participants also read a short desciription about the victim that was either giving negatively tainted, balck male stereotypic information or black male counterstereotypic information about the victim. Participants mostly White Americans.
When negative sBlack stereotypic information is provided about a victim, regardless of its race (White or Black), participants judge the victim as being more at fault and more to blame for the shooting incident, while the shooter is viewed as less at fault and less to blame. Participants also exhibited less sympathy for the victim and understanding for the victim’s behaviour (but more so for the shooter). Participants are more likely to endorse the shooter’s behaviour when the shooter is White and the victim is Black. (Whites more often seen as true victims than Blacks).
The role of criminal history: there’s a stigma associated to having a criminal record. In a study White respondents say that police violence against individuals with a criminal history is more justified – even when anything that might have happened in the past is completely unrelated to the present case where the police reacts violently against those individuals. This is problematic since the media often contributes to blaming a Black victim by alluding to any past criminal transgression in order to present that person as inherently bad and criminal.
The role of the level of racial prejudice: White people who are racially prejudiced also see police violence justified. But it is important to differentiate here: Not all White Americans are racially prejudiced and in favour of police violence. Essentially White respondents with a higher level of racial prejudice believe that Black citizens are more acceptable targets of police violence. Others do not view police violence in racial terms and do not see it differently or more justified when targeted at a Black person than violence against a White person.
Another study confirms that race is a key predictor of police violence against adult males. Participants who approved of police violence against males attribute disparities in employment, income and housing between Blacks and Whites to the lack of motivation and ability to learn (2x more) of Black people rather than to racial discrimination and lack of education caused by poverty. While Black respondents locate reasons for socio-economic differences more in discrimination. This means that when making attributions about socio-eco differences Americans differ along racial lines/ Americans make different attributions depending on their own racial identity.
The role of racial and political identity in making attributions about blame in police violence against Blacks