In this chapter, I firstly begin with a detailed presentation of the Black male stereotypes, then I bring into discussion the perceptions about Blacks and crime in the United States. The war on drugs of the 1980s represented a real subject of interest and I tried to present and discuss briefly about it because it was a powerful contributor to the typification of criminals as Black.
Black Male Stereotypes
To begin with, the society we live in, every ethnic group has a certain stereotype that is placed on, even if we admit it or not. Some of these stereotypes are positive, but most of them are negative. During ages, most of us hold a series of stereotypic views about certain races, genders, or classes. These stereotypes are not an error of perception, but a form of social control and people often resent them or live up to them.
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For instance, when talking about stereotypes that society places upon somebody, the most ones who have their back to the wall are the black men. They have always been seen as criminals or in the worst case as inferior species. Even today black men are depicted as uneducated, marijuana smoking men, that do nothing all day long but to commit crimes. But, what we refuse to admit is the fact that the Whites are more violent and commit ten times more crimes than a Black man.
There are a few scholars I selected, that refer strictly to this matter. The first one is Katherin Russel-Brown, that refers to the stereotype as the ‘criminalblackman’, because crime and young Black men have become synonymous in American culture. In her book, The Color of Crime: Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment and Other Macroaggressions (1998), she writes that black men have always been portrayed as physical threats. They are blamed for all that is not good.
According to her, the ‘criminalblackman’ is a myth and says that the stereotype enables the use of ‘racial hoaxes’, which she defines as:
‘when someone fabricates a crime and blames it on another person because of his race OR when an actual crime has been committed and the perpetrator falsely blames someone because of his race’. (Russel, 1998:69)
This quote describes best the society we live in, the reality that distorts people’s image. Here, the blames are not put only on black men, but on other ethnic groups too. Those who are in minority will always be treated like this, as scapegoats.
Secondly, Linda G. Tucker came with another argument concerning Black men. In Lockstep and Dance: Images of Black Men in Popular Culture (2007) she argues that the criminal black men’s representation in popular culture help to perpetuate the image. In her writings, she states that one of the most significant methods of criminalizing black males is the use of crime as a metaphor for race.
In the context of athletics and sports, black men are considered to be suitable for this kind of career. They have win medals in all sports, in contrast with Whites that claim racial superiority in Basketball and American Football. What White people are afraid to admit is that the most exciting sports the ones played by black people.
It is believed that sports somehow marginalizes black men from society. Sports take advantage of the fact that some blacks dream to be on television, to show the world that they were born to be athletes. In order to fulfill their goal, they trade their academic future in exchange for the chance to shine in sports. But the reality is that few black men would go on to play professional sports. And even so, they have very short careers which do not last such longer.
This system is based on persuasion, peer pressure and leads in the end to self distruction. Sport Institutions are designated to encourage black men not to take advantage of the opportunity of education, in exchange for athletic pursuits. One can play professional sports and still be an intelligent and capable member of the community in which he lives.
The author of Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, that also lead me throughout my study for this chapter is Kelly Welch. She is an assistant professor of sociology at Villanova University, where she teaches in the criminal Justice Program. Her research interests include race and crime, sociology of punishment, social justice, crime victims, and public policy.
The scientific publication I mentioned before, refers to the stereotyping of blacks as criminals. This image is so pervasive throughout society that ‘criminal predator’ is used as a euphemism for ‘young Black male’. In American society, a prevalent representation of crime is that it is overwhelmingly committed by young Black men.
Welch suggests that ‘the familiarity many Americans have with the image of a young Black male as a violent and menacing street thug is fueled and perpetuated by typifications everywhere’.(2007:276)
In fact, perceptions about the criminals’ identity cannot be easily changed because it seems that when it comes to talk about crime, inevitably we talk about race too. As I mentioned before, Whites have long viewed criminal behavior as an inherent characteristic of Blacks and this can be traced back to the enslavement of Africans in the United States.
The association of crime with Blackness may have existed for some time and can be traced in the 1970s and early 1980s. In that period of time, the image of the young Black man suffered a semnificative transformation, from a rapist into that of a criminal predator.
Though Blacks have often been portrayed as physically threatening, the current Black stereotyping of criminals represents an unusual phenomenon. The evolving criminal image of Blacks appears to be a more threatening image than had been considered in the past. The general criminal tendency, now is taken for granted as a ‘biological flaw’ of African Americans.
2.2.1 Blacks and Crime: Perceptions and Statistics
For more than a century, this relationship between race and crime in the United States, has served as a topic of public controversy. Crime is on the top of the list of public concerns and the media often portray it in such manner that can affect our attitudes towards the minority groups from our society.
Cesare Lombroso, founder of the Italian school of criminology, argued that criminal behavior was the product of biological factors, including race. He developed a theory according to which, some people were more ‘civilized’ and others more ‘savage’. Black people were grouped obviously in the latter category, along with yellow and mixed group minorities.
Lombroso believed that crime was first of all a manifestation of innate qualities and humans can be grouped as prone to crime only by analyzing their physical characteristics.
For instance, slave holders from United States, began to associate African Americans with crime due to the fact that their physical features seem ‘savage’.
As historians have noted, the South part of U.S. has had a higher rate of violence in contrast with other parts. The rise of drug crimes and violence in the inner cities in 1970s and early 1980s, made people to associate black men with ‘criminal predators’.
This biological perspective was criticized by the early 20th century scholars, including Frances Kellor, Johan Thorsten Sellin and William Du Bois, who argued that other circumstances, such as social and economic conditions, were the central factors which led to criminal behavior, regardless of race.
Du Bois traced the causes of the disproportional representation of Blacks in the criminal justice system back to the emancipation of Black slaves in general and the convict leasing program in particular. He wrote:
‘There are no reliable statistics to which one can safely appeal to measure exactly the growth of crime among the emancipated slaves. About seventy per cent of all prisoners in the South are black; this, however, is in part explained by the fact that accused Negroes are still easily convicted and get long sentences, while whites still continue to escape the penalty of many crimes even among themselves. And yet allowing for all this, there can be no reasonable doubt but that there has arisen in the South since the [civil] war a class of black criminals, loafers, and ne’er-do-wells who are a menace to their fellows, both black and white’. (1901:147)
Moving on to crime statistics in the recent years, although African-Americans did not surpass the actual number of Whites in nationwide arrests, their presence in these statistics has been greater than their representation in the general public.
For example, according to the survey made by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2004, Blacks composed approximately 13% of the U.S. population. But in 2002 they accounted for 38% of arrests for violent crimes and nearly 30% of arrests for property crimes. Juvenile arrest statistics indicate that during the same year, Black youth accounted for approximately 43% of arrests for violent crimes and 27% of arrests for property crimes.
In 2008 there were approximately 14,180 victims and 16,277 perpetrators of murder and non-negligent homicide reported by law enforcement agencies to the FBI. The following table presents the racial demographics of murder in the United States for 2008:
African Americans, constituting approximately 12% of the general population, were significantly overrepresented in the total arrests made. African Americans were also significantly overrepresented in victimization, representing 47.8% of all murder victims.
Murder in White American and African American populations were overwhelmingly intraracial, with 83% of all White victims and 90% of all Black victims having been murdered by individuals of the same race.
Secondly, for non-lethal violent crime, law enforcement agencies made arrests for rape, robbery and aggravated assault. The following table presents the racial demographics of these non-lethal violent crimes in the United States for 2008:
(U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Services Division. 2008)
As it is showed in the table, white Americans were arrested more times than Black people in 2008, making up 58.3% of all arrests. White Americans, constituted approximately 79% of the total population, while though, African Americans constituted approximately 12% of the population, and made up 39.4% of all arrests for non-lethal violent crimes in the same year.
Thirdly, regarding white-collar crime, there have been arrests by enforcement agencies for forgery and counterfeiting, fraud and embezzlement. The following table presents the racial demographics of these white-collar crimes in the United States for 2008:
(U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Criminal Justice Information Services Division. 2008. Retrieved 07 October 2009)
White Americans were arrested again more times Blacks for these white-collar crimes in 2008, making up 67.4% of all arrests. African Americans were significantly overrepresented in forgery/counterfeiting, fraud and embezzlement, making up nearly 30.9% of all arrests.
After consulting these tables of arrests made only in 2008, the Black men’s image should improve because, these surveys represent the reality we are living in and not those negative narratives and images that media transmits about minorities. This is why they have such a significant influence on the belief of the society.
2.2.2 War on Drugs
On Juky 14th , 1969, President Richard Nixon identifies drug abuse as a national threat. After presenting the juvenile drug-related arrests and the street crime that was happening during 1960s and 1967s, he called for a national anti-drug policy at both the federal and state level. Then, he popularized the term ‘War on Drugs’ when first used it in 1971.
The policies that his administration implemented as part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 were a continuation of drug prohibition policies in the U.S. which traced back to the year 1914. The first U.S. law which restricted the distribution and use of certain drugs was the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914.
The well-known war on drugs was a powerful contributor to the typification of criminals as Black. Crack was generally recognized as an inexpensive drug that was predominantly used by minorities.
Americans were already familiar with cocaine before the war on drugs, however. Prior to ‘crack epidemic’, powder cocaine was prevalent in White communities, with little acknowledgement from law enforcement. Black people began to use powder cocaine when this drug was affordable on the market. This contributed to the promotion of punitive policies that have hit the Black population. As Michael Tonry, among others, has noted in Malign Neglect: Race, Crime and Punishment in America:
‘Urban black Americans have borne the brunt of the War on Drugs. They have been arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned at increasing rates since the early 1980s, and grossly out of proportion to their numbers in the general population or among drug users. By every standard, the war has been harder on blacks than on whites’. (1995:105)
According to crime surveys, racial and ethnic groups consume illegal drugs at approximately similar rates. Specifically, Whites account for almost 75% of the nation’s illegal drug users, while Blacks for about 13%. But 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 .
The sale and use of crack cocaine used by racial minorities, brought them a series of criminal penalties, which are heavier than those associated with other illegal drugs, used by Whites such as powder cocaine. This has resulted in a highly disproportionate number of Blacks who have been criminalized because of their drug use. The war on drugs may have been a war on Blacks or a war on Black drug use (Tonry, 1995).
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The relationship between race and crime rised various theories in the past hundred years. These theories have ranged from Lambroso’s belief that certain group posses inherent criminal tendencies, to the one that is more widely accepted namely that of certain racial groups that are exposed to poverty and this fact lead them to commit crimes more often. Poverty sometimes is thought to be the most prominent cause of crime.
Donald Yacovone presented his interesting idea in The Transformation of the Black Temperance Movement, 1827-1854: An Interpretation, stated as follows:
‘The shift away from modern temperance and to total abstinence in 1836 marked the beginning of black independence from white reform, although whites began to adopt teetotalism during the same period. Acceptance of total abstinence coincided with the adoption of political action as a reform measure and generally of greater militancy among blacks. By rejecting all alcohol, blacks not only sought to establish their personal integrity but they saw themselves as promoting the interests of the larger black community by offering practical and symbolic resistance to the forces of racism and slavery.’
This statement shows that the people of black antebellum society were genuinely interested in making a change. They believed that by initiating a temperance movement, they would gain the respect of the whites and therefore reduce acts of discrimination. The black temperance movements were established to diminish discrimination against blacks, but instead had more of an effect on the intemperance of members of the community who were of all ethnic backgrounds.
There were voluntary associations involved in determining the causes of crime, preventing crime, or reforming citizens who had committed crimes. And they played a huge role in helping the residents of the black community feel safe. Many of these voluntary associations contributed to aiding the suffering black population of Boston. These associations extended their aid to the black population and many allowed membership to black citizens. These groups all aided the process of liberating blacks and helping them to integrate into society.
This chapter was meant to bring into discussion the association of crime with Blackness. The reputation of Blacks has been characterized by beliefs about predispositions toward criminality that can be traced back to the enslavement of Africans in the United States. I have shown that the current recognizability of the image of a young Black criminal has been the result of various representations of crime. Contributions to this relationship that many identify between African Americans and criminality include actual involvement in crime, especially crack cocaine violations and violent offenses. Blacks do account for a disproportionate amount of crime arrests and are disproportionately convicted and incarcerated. But public estimates of Black criminality surpass the reality.
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