Race, Ethnicity & Law Enforcement
Race and ethnicity in American society are organized into an indisputable socially constructed power hierarchy. While scholars debate the exact structure of this hierarchy, it is generally agreed upon that the traditional structure is those of European descent are at the top of this hierarchy and that those of African descent are near to the bottom. It is true that other racial groups also occupy the hierarchy, but the primary relationship is that of the white oppressor and the black oppressed. There are many arenas in which this relationship is made clear, but that of criminality and law enforcement is the most clear and surrounded with the most controversy. This article explores the relationship between race, criminality, and law enforcement and highlights some of the issues surrounding the intersection of race and criminal behavior.
Keywords Anglo-American Culture; Crime; Cultural Capital; Ethnicity; Eurocentrism; Immigrant Enclaves; Minority; Privilege; Race; Racial Profiling; Social Construction of Race
Background: Race in America
Due to complex histories of contested interactions, issues of race and ethnicity often prove difficult to study. This is especially true in regard to the way criminality is studied in the context of race and ethnicity, but, despite complexity, the relationship between crime and racial or ethnic identity is quite useful for understanding American inequalities.
The concept of race is generally associated with the physical characteristics an individual possesses that set the individual apart from other racial groups: skin pigmentation, eye color, and facial features. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is culturally based and generally associated with regional ancestry: food, dress, or religious practices. Another concept often closely associated with racial and ethnic groups is that of a minority. While the concept of "minority" may seem without need of explanation, the sociological definition of a minority group entails any group of people that is held subservient to a dominant group of people. Thus, the sociological concept of minority is not a matter of numbers; it is a matter of power. For example, while blacks outnumbered whites in the South during the era of segregation, they remained a minority in sociological terms due to their level of relative powerlessness in comparison to whites.
The context in which the racial dynamic developed in America is complicated and has evolved over several centuries. The racial hierarchy in which whites are favored and blacks are oppressed has its basis in the efforts of slaveholders in the American southeast. Unlike other immigrant groups, Africans were transported to North America by force. Once they arrived, they were placed into subservient positions from which they could not escape, and they were forced to perform tasks that were seen as "unfit" for whites (Zinn, 2003). Slaveholders actively subverted African culture among their slaves by preventing them from speaking their own language, learning to read or write English, or from practicing their or any religion in independent ways (Zinn, 2003). After the direct and overt oppression of slavery was ended from a legal standpoint, slightly more subtle forms of domination continued with laws dictating the segregation of blacks from whites in public places. In the workplace blacks were often pitted against each other by employers who sought to break up labor unions and keep worker wages as low as possible.
During the 1960s when the Civil Rights movement was most active, civil rights leaders made great strides in achieving equal rights for people of all racial groups. While this goal may have been legislatively achieved, racial privilege remains a significant societal issue: Communities grapple with more subtle forms of racism that are built into the social structure and of which most community members are not aware. These subtle forms of racism are the residual effect of generations of discrimination against blacks perpetrated by whites (Wilson, 1978). The result is class subordination of blacks under whites (Wilson, 1978).
The class subordination identified by Wilson (1978) is subtle, and not as simple a form of discrimination to recognize as a "Whites Only" sign. In fact, one must carefully catalog demographic data before a clear picture of this subtle discrimination develops. Historically, whites have tended to live in more upscale neighborhoods, with less crime and better educational systems. They have had higher levels of education and higher rates of college attendance and graduation. There is greater access to the cultural capital of the dominant culture, which then fosters increased accrued knowledge through experience with a cultural group.
In distinct opposition to their white counterparts, life circumstances have been primarily harder with fewer opportunities available for African Americans who have historically lived in poor, urban areas with crumbling infrastructures, poor local economies, and lower levels of public services. People living in these areas often have poorer quality education (due to a lack of funding for schools) and higher dropout rates among high school students. There is reduced access to and interest in the cultural aspects of the community or city, which can translate into difficulty in finding meaningful, well paying employment (Bourgois, 2003). In turn, an inability to get a good job may cause people to turn to crime in order to survive. In this way, sociologists are able to account for higher levels of crime in poor, black, inner city areas.
Other Race Relations
For many, the term “race relations” as it pertains to the United States often brings white–black relations to mind due to the centuries-old history the two groups share. There are many other racial and cultural groups to consider, however, due in part to the nation's ideological stance on immigration, which has ensured the near constant flux of the racial dynamic of the United States.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, for example, Irish and Italian immigrants came to the east coast of the United States and were discriminated against and experienced prejudice. Also during this time period, large numbers of Asians immigrated to the West coast of the United States. This group suffered even greater persecution over many decades from whites who had been in the country for several generations prior. This increased persecution was exacerbated by the tendency of Asian communities to isolate themselves in immigrant enclaves within urban areas. Within these enclaves, immigrants would maintain their own cultures, speak the language of their country of origin, and send money to family back in their country of origin. These enclaves allowed immigrant populations to resist assimilation with the greater Anglo-American culture. While such resistance allowed for a degree of comfort for the immigrants, it caused resident whites to fear the "otherness" of these people. This fear then fed the persecutory tendencies already in place and greatly hindered the acceptance of Asians by the majority of whites for several generations.
In twenty-first century America, the majority of immigrants hail primarily from Latin America. Much controversy surrounds this group, primarily around the issues of language and illegal immigration. Many feel that this group of immigrants is unable to properly integrate with American society. The fear that newly immigrated Latin Americans may be taking American jobs is...
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