Crime and the Racial Composition of Communities Research Paper

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One of the most significant social facts about crime is that it is not randomly distributed across neighborhoods within a city. Rather, crime tends to cluster in certain areas or neighborhoods. This is why most residents are able to identify the “bad section” of town. For over a century, scholars have attempted to understand the spatial patterning of crime. A common approach involves investigating the characteristics of neighborhoods with high crime rates. One frequently examined neighborhood characteristic is racial composition. Scholars ask, how is the racial and ethnic composition of a neighborhood related to its crime rate? This research paper reviews the literature that attempts to address this question, the theoretical approaches that hypothesize a relationship between the two, and some challenges and obstacles associated with studying neighborhood racial composition and crime. In the concluding section, the paper offers some important future directions researchers can take to better understand crime and the racial composition of communities.

Key Findings In The Literature

A consistent finding in the neighborhoods and crime literature is that racial composition matters. Although racial composition is a broad construct that can reflect a variety of things, with few exceptions, studies published to date focus primarily on one of two measures to capture community racial composition: racial heterogeneity and percent black.

As far back as the early 1900s, researchers investigated the effects of racial and ethnic heterogeneity within communities (Shaw and McKay (1969 [1942]; Sellin 1938). In their classic work Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas, Shaw and McKay (1969 [1942]) argued that three structural factors – ethnic heterogeneity among them – led to the disruption of local community social organization, which in turn accounted for variations in rates of crime and delinquency. Nearly 100 years later, studies that analyze racial heterogeneity and crime continue to document a strong positive relationship between criminal violence and an area’s level of racial diversity, although it is fair to say the findings reveal a more complex relationship than previously assumed.

For example, using victimization data from 57 neighborhoods to examine the relationship between neighborhood characteristics, including racial heterogeneity, and rates of violent crime and burglary, Smith and Jarjoura (1988) show that poverty and ethnic heterogeneity, among other factors, predict neighborhood victimization rates, although their influence is more conditional than direct and varies by type of crime. Similar findings are reported by Warner and Pierce (1993) using data on calls to the police in 60

Boston neighborhoods. Warner and Pierce find that although racial heterogeneity has a positive effect on burglary rates, its effects are conditional on the level of poverty. Further evidence of interaction effects between racial heterogeneity and poverty are documented in both Warner and Rountree (1997) and Kubrin (2000) who examine neighborhoods in Seattle, Washington. Warner and Rountree (1997) show that heterogeneity has a significant direct effect on assault when poverty is at its mean, but its effect is greatest in nonpoor neighborhoods and is less strong in high-poverty neighborhoods. Likewise, Kubrin (2000) finds that in neighborhoods characterized by low poverty levels, racial heterogeneity increases violent crime, whereas in high-poverty neighborhoods, heterogeneity actually decreases crime.

Far more studies have operationalized racial composition in a more limited way – as reflective of the percentage black in a community. As with racial heterogeneity, findings from this literature indicate that this measure of racial composition is associated with crime rates across communities. In their recent review of the neighborhood literature on race and crime, Peterson and Krivo (2010) conclude, “Rates of crime are higher in local areas where African Americans are more heavily concentrated and, conversely, lower where African Americans are constitute a smaller portion of the residents, whether in Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, New York, Philadelphia, or Seattle” (p. 14; see this discussion for a list of relevant studies in this area). Peterson and Krivo note that often the differentials in crime across communities of different racial composition are quite stark. For example, McNulty’s (2001) study of block groups in Atlanta reveals that murder rates were a startling six times higher in predominantly black neighborhoods than in predominantly white neighborhoods, while rape and robbery rates in African American areas were over three times those in white areas and aggravated assaults were about twice as common in the former than the latter.

As this (admittedly brief and incomplete) overview of studies on crime and the racial composition of communities reveals, race, place, and crime are inextricably linked in the United States. What accounts for this linkage and what mechanisms underlie these relationships? In the remainder of this research paper, I discuss three theoretical approaches – social disorganization, labor-market stratification, and cultural/subcultural explanations – that attempt to account for the racial composition-crime connection across neighborhoods.

Social Disorganization Theory

Social disorganization theory has emerged as the critical framework for understanding the relationship between community characteristics and crime in urban areas. According to the theory, certain neighborhood factors can lead to social disorganization, defined as the inability of a community to realize the common values of its residents and maintain effective social control (Kornhauser 1978, p. 120). Communities with ineffective social control have higher crime rates.

Social control serves two purposes: to ensure residents’ conformity to norms and to regulate deviant behavior. According to the theory, two types of social control – formal and informal – operate to achieve these ends. Formal control is exercised by institutions such as the police to maintain stability in the neighborhood. Informal social control is exercised by families, peers, and neighbors who “look out” for the community by discouraging deviant behavior. Informal social control, at the heart of the theory, is said to provide the first line of security for community members.

The dynamics of informal social control are discussed by Greenberg and her colleagues (1985) who identify three ways it may impact crime: (1) via informal surveillance, or the casual but active observation of neighborhood streets that is engaged in by residents during daily activities; (2) via movement governing rules, or the avoidance of areas in or near the neighborhood (or in the city as a whole) that are viewed as unsafe; and (3) via direct intervention, or through the questioning of strangers and neighborhood residents about suspicious activities. Direct intervention may also include chastising adults and admonishing children for behavior defined as unacceptable.

From its inception, social disorganization theory has considered a community’s racial composition as among the most salient predictors of neighborhood crime rates. In particular, arguments center on the community’s level of racial diversity among residents. The theory proposes that racially heterogeneous communities have higher crime rates in large part due to diminished informal social control. It is argued that in communities with diverse racial groups living side by side, interaction between members will be low, or at least lower than in neighborhoods with individuals from the same racial background. It is also assumed that racial heterogeneity can undermine ties between neighbors, limiting their ability to agree on a common set of values or to solve commonly experienced problems. Reasons for both arguments point to cultural differences between racial groups, language incompatibility, and the fact that individuals prefer members of their own race to members of different races. As noted earlier, studies that explicitly examine racial heterogeneity’s impact consistently find it is significantly and positively associated with neighborhood crime rates (Kubrin 2000; Smith and Jarjoura 1988; Warner and Pierce 1993; Warner and Rountree 1997).

Labor-Market Stratification Theories

A second theoretical perspective that attempts to account for the racial composition-crime connection across neighborhoods focuses on labor-market characteristics in neighborhoods with significant numbers of racial minorities. Researchers ask. What are the key labor-market characteristics associated with high rates of violence that help to explain high crime rates in minority neighborhoods?

Theorists interested in answering this question draw heavily on dual labor-market theory, whose underlying assumption is that not all jobs are created equal. The theory differentiates between primary sector jobs, or those desirable jobs with high wages, good work conditions, and job stability, among other advantageous features, and secondary sector jobs, or those less desirable jobs with low wages, poor work conditions, job instability, and other unattractive features. The stability of primary sector jobs, it is argued, fosters strong social relationships with peers in the workforce. In contrast, in secondary sector jobs, as a result of job instability, workers fail to develop strong ties to their coworkers and the workplace.

The implications of this for crime and violence are critical, according to scholars such as Crutchfield (1989) and Crutchfield and Pitchford (1997), who theorize a link between labor-market characteristics and violence. They identify two mechanisms by which labor-market characteristics may be associated with crime. The first occurs at the individual level among workers and reflects core arguments of social control theory. Secondary sector jobs, they argue, have low wages, low skill levels, and bleak promotion prospects. As such, they are less likely to produce the kinds of job commitments (commitments to conventional lines of behavior) and interpersonal ties to coworkers (attachments to conventional others) enjoyed by primary sector occupations. Moreover, secondary sector workers have more idle time and are often unconcerned with losing their jobs or losing respect among coworkers. In contrast, primary sector workers receive higher wages, have more complex jobs, and have promotion and career prospects. As such, they are likely to develop strong job commitments and ties to coworkers and are less likely to engage in behavior that will jeopardize their jobs or employment relations (Crutchfield et al. 2006, p. 203). Given the nature and characteristics of their employment, and in line with social control theory, secondary sector workers are more likely to engage in crime.

The second mechanism linking labor-market characteristics and crime operates at the neighborhood level and occurs when large numbers of marginally employed individuals live in proximity to one another. Residential segregation and other forces such as discrimination produce high concentrations of jobless and secondary sector male workers, who move in and out of the labor force, work less than full time when employed, and develop few commitments to jobs. Freed from these commitments and constraints, these individuals have time on their hands with little to do. It is argued that such workers frequently pass the time by hanging out on street corners, in pool halls, bars, and nightclubs – places that can be staging grounds for violent encounters. In some neighborhoods, then, concentrations of marginally employed secondary sector workers result in a “situation of company” in which high concentrations of young men experiencing unstable employment are conducive to violence (Crutchfield et al. 2006: 204).

At this point, race has not factored into the equation. Where does race enter in and how does this all relate to crime and the racial composition of communities? Race becomes salient because, due to discrimination, inequality, lower education levels, and less social capital, blacks are disproportionately employed in the secondary sector labor market. Crutchfield and his colleagues (2006) argue that, collectively, these factors and processes produce neighborhoods with high concentrations of African Americans, secondary sector workers, and unemployed workers and are at risk for high rates of violence. They describe this as a four-step process:

First, macro processes of dual labor markets and residential segregation give rise to neighborhoods with concentrations of marginally unemployed Black adults and youth. Second, high rates of job instability and the accompanying low levels of economic resources in such neighborhoods give rise to a “situation of company,” in which high concentrations of jobless and marginally employed Black males have time on their hands and weak institutional commitments. Third, labor instability and low levels of economic resources result in increased violent crime through the presence of these “situations of company.” Finally, collectively these processes produce the association of neighborhood racial composition with violent crime. (p. 204)

Empirical research largely supports the proposition that labor instability and violent crime rates are related (Crutchfield 1989; Crutchfield et al. 1999). In particular, researchers find that relationships between poverty and violent crime and income inequality and violent crime depend heavily on the distribution of workers in the primary and secondary occupational sectors and upon levels of unemployment (Crutchfield 1989, p. 505). What has not been empirically demonstrated, however, is whether (and to what extent) the effect of racial composition on crime across neighborhoods can be accounted for by labor-market characteristics – until very recently. In their analysis of Seattle neighborhoods, Crutchfield et al. (2006) examine the relationships among neighborhood racial and ethnic composition, labor-market indicators, and violent crime rates, examining the extent to which labor-market concentration accounts for racial differences in neighborhood rates of violence. Among the many findings, they show that the effects of racial composition are, to some extent, explained by labor-market characteristics in line with the theoretical arguments described above.

An important caveat must be noted here. Although Crutchfield et al. (2006) find that labor instability helps to account for the racial composition-crime relationship across Seattle neighborhoods, it does not completely explain why rates of violence are higher in African American (and Latino) communities than elsewhere. They argue, “Even after taking into account labor instability and social disorder, African American and Latino neighborhoods still have higher rates of violence than other neighborhoods” (p. 217). This raises an important question: What else may account for these racial differences in levels of violence? Crutchfield and his colleagues (2006) encourage researchers to consider the role of culture and cultural processes, which brings us to a final theoretical approach related to crime and the racial composition of communities.

Cultural And Subcultural Theories

Both the social disorganization and labor-market perspectives constitute structural theories that address the link between racial composition and crime rates across neighborhoods by focusing on the crime-producing characteristics of communities such as poverty and joblessness. Cultural and subcultural theories take a different approach. Scholars advocating a cultural approach tend to go in many directions but perhaps the most popular are arguments related to a “black subculture of violence.” Cultural theories of this sort range from the more liberal, oppression/ power/anomie-based theories to those that criticize black culture, attacking permissive values which have undermined personal responsibility and character. The more liberal theories, which I discuss below, identify a subculture of violence where, due to a variety of structural conditions, residents resort to violence to defend status, honor, or reputation.

Perhaps the most recognized culturally based perspective related to crime and the racial composition of communities comes from Elijah Anderson (1999). In Code of the Street, Anderson’s landmark ethnography of inner-city Philadelphia communities, he argues that as a result of worsening conditions in inner-city communities over the last several decades, black youth in disadvantaged communities have created a local social order – or street code – comprised of their own set of norms and rituals of authenticity. This street code articulates norms and characterizes social relations among residents, particularly with respect to violence. The street code helps us understand why rates of violence are so high in many impoverished African American communities.

According to Anderson (1999), among those who ascribe to the street code, respect typically forms the core of the person’s self-esteem, especially when alternative avenues of self-expression are limited. One way respect is acquired is by developing a reputation for being violent, by creating a self-image based on “juice” (p. 72). On the streets, the image one projects is paramount and must communicate the message that one is capable of violence when the situation requires it. At the top of the street code hierarchy is the “crazy,” “wild,” or “killer” social identity. In Anderson’s study, he found that youth often created altercations with the sole purpose of building “juice” and to be known as having a reputation for being quick tempered. According to this perspective then, violence is considered the single most critical resource for achieving status among those who participate in street culture.

Creating a credible violent reputation not only commands respect but also serves to deter future assaults. However, when challenges do arise or do transgressions occur, violence is viewed as an acceptable, appropriate, and even obligatory response. If a person is assaulted, for instance, it is essential in the eyes of his peers and others to seek revenge. As a result, youth who ascribe to the code often feel constrained to pay back, or seek revenge, after a transgression. Their identity, self-respect, and honor are tied up with the way they perform on the streets during and after such encounters.

Violent social control, or what Black (1983) long ago referred to as self-help, is directly related to the availability and effectiveness of authoritative parties of dispute resolution such as the police. Self-help crimes are more likely where law is less accessible, for example, in poor minority communities where residents are often at odds with the police. When called, the police may not respond, which is one reason, Anderson argues, many residents feel they must be prepared to defend themselves and their loved ones against others. Kubrin and Weitzer (2003) document this in their study of extremely disadvantaged communities in St. Louis. They found that problems confronting residents were often resolved informally – without calling the police – and that neighborhood cultural codes supported this type of problem solving, even when the “solution” was a retaliatory killing.

It is often quite difficult to empirically test the core cultural arguments laid out by theorists such as Anderson. However, work by Stewart and Simons (2006) attempts to do just that. Using two waves of data from 720 African American adolescents in 529 neighborhoods, they investigated whether neighborhood context, family type, and discrimination influenced adoption of the street code among youth. More relevant to the discussion above, they also assessed whether adoption of the street code mediated the effects of neighborhood context, family characteristics, and racial discrimination on violent delinquency. Consistent with Anderson’s arguments, they found that neighborhood disadvantage, living in a “street” family, and discrimination significantly predicted adopting street code norms. Moreover, the street code mediated about one-fifth of the effect of racial discrimination and about 4 % of the effect of family characteristics on violent delinquency. In short, the results of their study were generally consistent with Anderson’s code of the street thesis.

In understanding the linkages among race, place, and violence, and in explaining why rates of violence are higher in African American communities, perspectives such as Anderson’s emphasize the importance of local culture in the production of violence. It is important to stress, however, that neighborhood structural conditions generate this subculture; in this sense, cultural differences are themselves adaptations to broader structural inequality, which itself is an outgrowth of social, political, and economic forces such as globalization and deindustrialization, redlining and residential segregation, punitive criminal justice policy, and discrimination.

Challenges And Future Directions

Despite significant advances in research on crime and the racial composition of communities over the past several decades, much of which is linked to the three theoretical perspectives just discussed, obstacles and challenges remain. As is obvious from the review of the literature in this area, apart from those studies which measure racial heterogeneity and a handful of others that incorporate additional racial and ethnic minorities into their studies, the vast majority of research refers to the effects of percent black on crime rates, ignoring other racial categories. To some extent, this is understandable given that most large cities in the USA have had only small numbers of other minority groups such as Asians or Latinos. In such situations, then, percent black – by default – has reflected the racial heterogeneity in the area. However, in recent decades with increased mobility and migration, the population composition in communities throughout the USA is changing. Beyond black and white differences, many larger (and some smaller) cities are becoming racially diverse. Further, this change is magnified in some regions of the country such as the Southwest and West Coast, where percentages of Hispanics and Asians have increased dramatically. For these reasons, scholars increasingly underscore the need to move beyond black-white comparisons in neighborhood crime studies (see, e.g., Peterson et al. 2006; Peterson and Krivo 2010). An obvious next step, then, would be to broaden the racial focus as a means to deepen our understanding of just how race, ethnicity, and crime are related across communities.

Yet this may be difficult without first addressing a more fundamental (though often neglected) issue in neighborhood research on racial composition and crime: how “race” and “ethnicity” are defined. Although these terms are frequently used interchangeably, in fact, race and ethnicity is not the same thing. Definitions of race include populations that are believed to be distinct in some ways from other populations based on real or imagined physical differences such as skin color or facial characteristics. An individual is typically externally classified (i.e., someone else makes the classification) into a racial group rather than the individual choosing where they belong as part of their identity.

For many social scientists, though, race is more than just biology – it is a social construct or invention that changes as political, economic, and historical contexts change. That is, race is considered a socially significant category, one that is vital to understanding the organization and consequences of social relationships. In this sense, race is, among other things, a sorting mechanism for marriage, dating, and friendship and an organizing device for mobilization to maintain or challenge systems of racial stratification.

Although related to race, ethnicity refers not to physical characteristics but social traits that are shared by a human population. These social traits include things like nationality, tribe, religious faith, shared language, shared culture, and shared traditions. Unlike race, ethnicity is not usually externally assigned by other individuals. The term ethnicity focuses more upon a group’s connection to a perceived shared past and culture.

Definitions of race and ethnicity are critical because they identify classifications of offenders (and victims), and thus impact conclusions about the linkages among race, ethnicity, and crime across communities. Moreover, difficulties created by the absence of a uniform definition of race are compounded by the data collection practices of government agencies and programs. As LaFree and Russell (1993) explain by way of example, “… both the US Census Bureau and the National Crime Survey allow respondents to provide data on their racial origin. Neither organization applies uniform criteria (e.g., mother’s race) or requires external verification. Likewise, the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) do not provide law enforcement officials with standard guidelines for coding racial origin” (pp. 281–282). Also in UCR data, ethnicity is ignored all together as Hispanics are classified as white, nonwhite, or other race. Of course compounding all of this is the fact that multiracial Americans are one of the fastest growing demographic groups in the country. How are these individuals to be defined and classified?

Another important challenge for researchers who study crime and the racial composition of communities deals with teasing out race versus class effects in neighborhood crime studies. This is due, in large part, to the significant overlap between race and socioeconomic status in the United States. Because of racial inequality, neighborhoods with high concentrations of

African Americans are also the most disadvantaged, experiencing greater social isolation from mainstream society, joblessness, family disruption, and less exposure to conventional role models and fewer working- and middle-class families to serve as social buffers in the community. In fact, it is argued that racial differences in concentrated disadvantage are so strong that the “worst” urban contexts in which whites reside are considerably better than the average context of black communities (Sampson 1987, p. 354).

According to many scholars, the structural conditions in black communities are central to understanding the large observed racial differences in urban crime and likely explain why racial composition – especially as reflected in percent black – and crime are associated in neighborhood studies. The argument follows that if similar conditions prevailed in white neighborhoods, they too would exhibit high crime rates. As plausible as it may be, this thesis has gone largely untested because whites rarely live in extremely disadvantaged communities, rendering it difficult to obtain appropriate samples of black and white neighborhoods for comparison.

One exception to this is a study by Krivo and Peterson (1996), who examine racial composition and neighborhood crime in Columbus, Ohio (one of only a handful of cities that has a sufficient number of poor black and poor white neighborhoods for comparison). They compare crime levels in extremely poor and disadvantaged black and white neighborhoods with crime in their counterparts. They find that racial differences in structural disadvantage largely account for black-white differences in crime rates across communities. In other words, the fact that black communities are more likely than white communities to experience poverty, social isolation, joblessness, and a lack of conventional role models explains higher rates of crime in those communities. This finding implies that neighborhood racial composition may not matter as much as previously believed.

At the same time, however, they also find that structural disadvantage does not completely explain the racial gap in violence. Crime rates for racially distinct neighborhoods generally approach one another when structural conditions are controlled but they do not become equal – similar to what Crutchfield and his colleagues (2006) found with respect to racial composition, labor-market conditions, and rates of violence in Seattle. That notable gaps in violence remain unaccounted for by racialized community conditions suggests that a focus on differentiation in structural conditions within white, African American, and other-race neighborhoods may be limited. In this context, in subsequent work, Peterson and Krivo (2010) question the following: How much do the distinct spatial contexts in which white, African American, and other-race neighborhoods are located contribute to varying crime rates within these communities?

Using crime and census data for 9,593 neighborhoods in 91 large cities for the year 2000, Peterson and Krivo (2010) examine how inequality in nearby neighborhoods contributes to patterned racial and ethnic differentials in crime. They argue that a common feature of many African American neighborhoods, whatever their internal character, is proximity to communities with characteristics typically associated with higher crime rates, such as disadvantage and residential instability. In contrast, white areas are often surrounded by neighborhoods where crime-promoting conditions are absent and factors that discourage crime, such as external community investments, are prevalent. In line with these arguments, a key finding of their study is that white neighborhoods benefit from the dual privileges of low internal disadvantage as well as embeddedness within a context of other white and advantaged areas, whereas African American (and other minority) neighborhoods suffer a double jeopardy: they are at risk of greater violence stemming from their own internal – often highly disadvantaged – character and they bear the brunt of isolation from violence-reducing structures and processes because they are surrounded by disadvantaged areas.

Peterson and Krivo’s (2010) study begins to address the challenges associated with teasing out race versus class effects in neighborhood crime studies and offers an additional explanation for why racial composition and crime remain associated across neighborhoods, even after controlling for disadvantage, labor-market characteristics, and other related factors. Yet researchers still have a long way to go before we are able to fully understand the dynamics that underlie the race, place, and crime nexus in US communities.


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