Beto Lecture Explores New Theory of African American Offending

Drs. Shaun L. Gabbidon (l) and James D. Unnever co-authored A Theory on African-American Offending: Race, Racism, and Crime
Drs. Shaun L. Gabbidon (l) and James D. Unnever co-authored "A Theory on African-American Offending: Race, Racism, and Crime."

African American men, which represents about 6 percent of the American population, account for about 60 percent of the robbery arrests in the United States. Why?

Two leading scholars, Drs. James D. Unnever of the Department of Criminology at the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee, and Shaun L. Gabbidon of Penn State Harrisburg, set out to answer that question and published A Theory on African-American Offending: Race, Racism, and Crime. The researchers presented their ground-breaking theory that the glaring disparities in offending patterns are related to the unique history of African Americans and their present racial subordination at the Beto Chair Lecture Series at the College of Criminal Justice.

“There are excellent books on race and crime, but they talk about the system, not why people wind up in the system,” said Dr. Gabbidon.

The new theory expands on the work of the famous social scientist, W.E.B. Du Bois, who found that to understand African American offending, it was important to grasp what it means to be black living in a racially-divided society.

“This is a ground breaking book and this probably will be a definitive theory book for years to come,” Dr. Will Oliver of the College of Criminal Justice said.

While many theories exist on why African Americans are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system, Unnever and Gabbidon take an in-depth look at the African American’s unique world view that has led to the phenomenon. In a wide variety of public opinion polls, African Americans and whites vary widely on many issues, including the death penalty, police practices, courts, sentencing, educational opportunities, as well as discrimination in jobs, housing, dining and shopping.

“There are real differences in how people perceive the criminal justice system,” said Dr. Gabbidon. “It is based on history coupled with everyday experiences.”

Since the time of slavery and Jim Crow laws, the criminal justice system in America “has created a reservoir of bad will” because of past and present racist practices, said Unnever. Therefore, African Americans are less likely to believe in the legitimacy of laws and respond with feelings of injustice, which fuel anger and defiance.

“They perceive the criminal justice system as a racist institution,” said Unnever. “I compare it to someone who is abused being asked to bond with their abuser.”

While the vast majority of African Americans do not participate in crime, there is a common understanding among Blacks that race matters and that they will encounter racism and discrimination in their lives. The degree to which individuals experience racism and discrimination can be documented similar to child abuse, including the age of onset; the frequency, length and severity of the incidents; and the identification of those who perpetrated the injustice.

African American men also are burdened with the stereotype of being angry, hostile and hopeless. It contributes to offending because of their inability to bond with social institutions, such as schools and police.

“Blacks underperform when they believe the stereotypes against them,” said Unnever. “They respond with doubt and anxiety. They become emotionally withdrawn.”

In addition to racial stereotypes, the degree to which African Americans are racially socialized also has an impact on future offending. Racial socialization includes verbal and non-verbal attitudes and beliefs and how African American parents teach their children how to cope in a society where they are not valued. The neighborhood where African Americans reside also impacts their offending. In “ghettos,” where residents are overwhelmingly minorities, many individuals do not develop a trust of whites. And, there is an increased probability that individuals in the community will experience racial injustices. Because they are excluded from the broader society, many youth seek expensive items to wear as status symbols.

So why are offending patterns higher among African American men than women?

The stereotypes of African American men are not the same for women of color. Also, in the African American family, daughters are more positively racially socialized than sons and they more frequently attend church, a positive racial socialization experience. In addition, African American women tend to use a different coping strategy when confronted with a racial injustice. That is, they are more likely to seek support or confront others, while African American men avoid issues because they don’t want to perpetuate the stereotype of being angry and violent. Ethnicity also plays a role in African American offending. Foreign born blacks do not share the same world view as those born in the United States and are more successful and less likely to offend.

The African American community also suffers from colorism, in which people with lighter skin are more valued in society. Darker-skinned males are more likely to be stereotyped and less likely to get a job.

“Race and racism matters,” Unnever said.

Unnever and Gabbidon encouraged criminal justice graduate students to explore the new theory with empirical research in order to come up with policies to address this issue in American society.

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