Are minorities continually being unfairly arrested, tried and punished as a result of racial discrimination or do minorities just commit more crimes? In order to determine if disparity or discrimination is the cause of current over representation of minorities in the criminal justice system we have to study race, ethnicity and past discriminatory judicial practices. Are the historical discriminatory practices and past laws the cause of the systematic imbalance of power in relation to race, class and discrimination within our society that leads to more crime among minorities today?
There are many theories on why, how and even if race discrimination plays a significant role in explaining the current arrest and incarceration rates of minorities in the United States. Social strain theory, because it also involves the most restriction to important social aspects of society is the one I most agree with. In my experience restricted access to social and cultural capital is the cause for higher than expected crime rates among our citizens who lack these two important aspects of crime control.
The inability to achieve success based on societies’ definition causes stain and alternative ways of thinking to achieve that level of success, which is sometimes outside the confines of the law. The term race has traditionally referred to the biological differences of mankind. The differences that distinguish us by the color of our skin, hair texture and certain physical features determine what race we are. Some experts contend that race is just a social construct and people are classified and labeled by the culturally dominant group in that society.
This type of classification system tends to imply that one race is inferior to another (Walker et al pg 6). The term minority is used for any race that is less in numbers than the race in power. Currently in the United States the “majority” is considered to be Caucasian and the “minorities” are African Americans, Hispanics, Arab Americans, etc. There have been many historical examples of minorities being unfairly treated within the confines of our judicial system. “Race discrimination and social and economical inequality have a direct impact on crime and criminal justice” (Walker et al, pg 78).
In the southern states during the 1800’s barriers were created in the laws to separate nonwhite persons from the majority, white persons called the Black Codes. These codes created a legal line of separation stating where blacks could and could not go in public, what land they could own and how they could earn a living. The term, Color Line encompassed everything involving what water fountains and bathrooms “coloreds” could use and where they could stand or sit in public spaces.
The Jim Crow laws of the 1900 were also racist laws and actions that deprived African Americans civil rights, claiming blacks were inferior to the whites and were lower class people. “The colored sign was the most visible mark of inferiority imposed upon African Americans by the Jim Crow laws” (Davis PhD). The punishment for breaking these laws and codes were mob lynching, serving prison time on chain gangs and debilitating debt imposed by sharecropping attempts to make a living (Davis PhD). Previous laws and codes set the stage for economic inequality of minorities in the United States.
Income, wealth, unemployment are the standard measure of economic inequality. “All of these measures indicate deep and persistent inequality in society generally and with respect to race and ethnicity” (Walker et al pg, 79). In order to determine if race discrimination has the major contributor to minority over representation in the criminal justice system we must rule out the idea of disparity being the cause of overrepresentation. The concept of disparity in the criminal justice system refers to differences in say incarceration rates of a certain race but not because of systematic race discrimination.
Disparity is a way to explain the high numbers of minorities as criminal perpetrators with legitimate factors. These factors could include, minorities commit more crimes, not because police officers, judges and juries are racists. Crime arrest and convictions could be solely based on legal factors. These legal factors include the seriousness of offense, mitigating circumstances and previous criminal records. These factors opposed to extralegal factors that include race, class, gender and lifestyle (Walker et al, pg 18).
If arrest and conviction rates were based solely on legal factors with no weight given to extralegal factors, a high minority count would be considered disparity not systematic discrimination on part of the criminal justice system. To determine if only legal factors and not extralegal factors are the cause of an overrepresentation of minorities in the criminal justice system much more research needs to be conducted. If the cause of high incarceration rates is because of disparity instead of discrimination there is one theory I feel explains why there is disparity.
The Social Strain Theory explains the causes of disparity among minorities that leads to higher rates of arrests and incarceration rates. “Robert Merton’s social stain theory holds that each society has a dominant set of values and goals along with acceptable means of achieving them” (Walker et al, pg 92). If success in life is measured by your social status, involving what you own, where you live and who you know then that is your personal goals for success. The ways to achieve this success are seen as hard work, education, self-control and as individual achievements (Walker et al, pg 92).
If the American dream is not realized by a group of people because of societies inability to provide equal levels of educational and work opportunities to achieve success it results in what Merton’s calls social strain. Merton’s theory of social strain addresses the gap between what society views as success and a persons circumstances are for trying to achieve that success. (Walker et al, pg 92). Social strain helps to explain high rates of criminal activity among minorities because minorities are more likely to be denied legal opportunities to obtain the American dream by legal means.
“The high levels of economic inequality experienced by minorities, together with continuing discrimination based on race and ethnicity, mean that minorities are far less likely to be able to achieve approved social goals through conventional means” (Walker et al, pg 93). In conclusion I believe minorities do commit more crimes today, but that is because of a history of discrimination and blocked opportunities to achieve social and cultural capital. The ruling class, the majority, because of past-institutionalized and systematic discrimination has created what we have today, a disparity among minorities involved in our criminal justice system.
Therefore even though we have curbed contextual and individual acts of discrimination we have yet to address past discrimination in a meaningful way while still upholding the law. Bibliography Davis, Ronald L. F. Ph. D. California State University, Northridge. Creating Jim Crow. History of Jim Crow retrieved on June 2, 2011 from http://jimcrowhistory. org/history/creating. htm Lafree, G. & Russell, K. K. (1993). The argument for studying race and crime. Journal of Criminal Justice Education. 4, 273-289. Walker, S, Spohn, C, & DeLone, M. (2007). The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity, and Crime in America. Wadsworth Publishing Co.
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