The Stereotype of Criminal Blackness

Rhetorics of “law and order” have returned with a vengeance in the 2016 US Presidential Debate. Sowing the Seed is going to repost pieces from its Summer 2016 Reading Race and Criminality series in an attempt to deepen the discussion. Matthew Kuraska investigates the history and effects of criminalizing blackness in American society. His research draws upon multimedia engagement with scholarship in critical criminology. He works under the advisement of Dr. Rita Shah, a critical criminologist at Elizabethtown College.

Racial inequality is a well-known problem across the United States, but people rarely know how or why these numerous socio-economic gaps were created and allowed to persist between humans with simple differences in physical characteristics. In fact, the racial disparities that we observe today find their origin from the inception of a country that set forth that all men are created equal. But recent research suggests that many citizens may inherently believe otherwise. Scholars have posed the idea that the American criminal justice system institutes a form of a stigmatized caste system with ex-criminals forced into permanent lives as second-class citizens as discussed in The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.[1] With this in mind, it is crucial to understand how these issues came to be in their current form, or risk perpetuating the common misconception that it is minorities’ own fault for adverse conditions.

The label of criminality has been placed upon the African-American population for a large portion of our nation’s history. White Americans have historically depicted blacks with an innate inclination toward crime through forms of media, which simultaneously motivated the upper class and government leaders to refuse them the resources necessary to overcome the obstacles that were deliberately placed before them. These stereotypes have become so deeply rooted in society and coexist with numerous socio-economic gaps that have created a perpetual cycle supporting a national trend of arbitrarily criminalizing a particular race.

Amidst the inception of sociology in America, various respected scholars produced documents that supported the assimilation of White immigrants as opposed to African-Americans following the slave trade era. In 1884, Nathaniel Shaler, a Harvard scholar, published a public document claiming that black people were undoubtedly more dangerous than any other threat that civilization had ever experienced. He goes on to state, “It was their presence here that was evil, and for this none of the men of our century are responsible.”[2] Instead of recognizing the adverse conditions they were in, Shaler focused the public’s attention on how they could be negatively impacting the majority in power. In fact, a lot of the crime that academics were reporting on in Black communities during this time was due to criminals of all races moving their illegal activities there to further blend in and avoid causing attention.[3] This, in turn, forced black people to take the blame after the public already widely accepted the label connecting race and crime.

We have made some progress eliminating instances of prejudice in society and many citizens seem to be aware of the fact that racism is unacceptable. However, the previous age of racism has been replaced by a new form. Although referred to by numerous labels such as modern, implicit, symbolic, or colorblind racism, they all point to the idea that society makes decisions based on subconscious biases without openly displaying the attitude—or even being aware of it.[4] This implicit mindset has motivated policies over time that have accumulated to negatively impact African-Americans rather than Whites. For instance, sentencing enhancement laws, like committing a crime near a public property, have increased punishments largely for Black offenders who commonly live in city environments.[5] Flaws within the system are largely due to the policies dictating it. The principle of discretion having a place in our legal system puts an additional obstacle in front of minority populations. In every step of the process, from deciding what crimes we determine to be immoral and to what extent the prosecution, judges and jury agree for their punishment all depend on each individual’s ability to exercise discretion which leaves room for decisions to be motivated by implicit racism. This creates real-life situations where black suspects have been punished more severely than their White counterparts even for identical crimes. Overall, for every white man in prison, there are 6.5 black men.[6] This can be attributed to the fact that we choose to punish so-called “blue-collar crimes” more commonly and harshly than white-collar crime which arguably results in equal or more severe damage to its victims.

An important distinction to remember is that the disadvantageous situations that minorities are likely to grow up in can be the source of these blue collar crimes in attempts to survive in a world that has offered them very few of the opportunities that the upper-class white majority enjoys. A particular study examined why black children are 18 times more likely to receive enhanced punishments by being sentenced as adults compared to white children, and the researchers found that young minorities are viewed as older and less innocent than white children of the same age.[7] The implication of this is that for the exact same crime, a black teenager is viewed as more culpable and should have known better, while a white teenager is likely to escape blame due to it being just a childhood mistake.

For perspective on the effects this can have, another study found that being sentenced as an adult means juveniles are “twice as likely to be assaulted by a correctional officer, five times as likely to be sexually assaulted, and eight times as likely to commit suicide.[8] An example of this implicit racism appeared recently in an article describing how the “school-to-prison pipeline” also starts off African American youths down a more difficult path of avoiding incarceration. Students in the same school district set off fire alarms, and the White ninth-grader received a one-day suspension while the Black kindergartner was suspended for five days.[9] Discretionary punishments like these result in students involuntarily missing school, falling behind in their classes—correlating to a significant reduction in their chance of meeting their expected graduation date.[10] Society’s overall view of minorities can contribute to a criminal justice system like this that currently incarcerates more Black inmates than slaves in 1850.


In no way do these facts and reports assume that everyone living in the White upper class majority are racist or approve of racial inequality. In fact, it is the opposite; these policies and mindsets have evolved over time and we just need to pay attention to the subconscious biases that may actually be limiting our country from fully making progress to fight these socio-economic disparities and take away the stereotype of criminal blackness as just a racial matter.

For further information on the idea of implicit bias and how it may affect you, measure your own racial associations at Project Implicit.

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 8.58.06 AM.png
Project Implicit is a non-profit organization and international collaboration between research who are interested in implicit social  cognition – thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal of the organization is to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a “virtual laboratory” for collecting data on the internet.

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. (New York: The New Press, 2010).

[2] Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 15.

[3] Ibid., 226.

[4] Traci Schlesinger, “The Failure of Race Neutral Policies: How Mandatory Terms and Sentencing Enhancements Contribute to Mass Racialized Incarceration,” Crime & Delinquency 57.1 (2008): 57.

[5] Ibid., 59.

[6] James Forman Jr. “Racial Critiques of Mass Incarceration: Beyond the New Jim Crow.” Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository (2012), 102.

[7] Phillip Atiba Goff, Matthew Christian Jackson, Brooke Allison Lewis Di Leone, Carmen Marie Culotta, and Natalie Ann Ditomasso. “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 106.4 (2014): 526-45. Web.

[8] Eileen Poe-Yamagata and Michael A. Jones, “And Justice for Some: Differential Treatment of Minority Youth in the Justice System,” with updates from Christopher Hartney and Fabiana Silva. (Washington DC: Building Blocks for Youth [2000] 2007).

[9] Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, “School Suspensions: Does Racial Bias Feed the School-to-prison Pipeline?” The Christian Science Monitor, Mar. 21, 2013. USA/Education/2013/0331/School-suspensions-Does-racial-bias-feed-the-school-to-prison-pipeline

[10] Tony Fabelo, Michael D. Thomspon, Martha Plotkin, Dottie Carmichael, Miner P. marchbanks III, Eric A. Booth, “Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study on How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement.” CSG Justice Center. 2011.

picture Matt Kuraska.jpgMatthew Kuraska ’16 is graduating senior at Elizabethtown College. He will be receiving an English-Professional Writing major with minors in Computer Science and Sociology. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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