Considering Community Context in the Explanation of Black-White Differences in Delinquency

Carter Hay, Washington State University
Edward Forston, Washington State University
Dusten Hollist, Washington State University
Lonnie M. Schaible, Washington State University

Overview and Hypotheses

A key social fact in the study of U.S. juvenile delinquency is that recent studies find significantly higher rates of delinquency among black juveniles, relative to juveniles in other racial and ethnic groups. It generally is assumed that this is explained by the disadvantaged socioeconomic status (SES) of blacks in U.S. society. Several studies, however, appear to contradict this assumption. These studies find significantly higher delinquency rates among blacks, even when controllingfor various aspects of family SES, including parents1 levels of income, occupational prestige, or education (e.g., Brownfield, Sorenson, and Thompson 2001; Cernkovich, Giordano, and Rudolph 2000; Elliott and Ageton 1980).

Although revealing, these studies do not dismiss the possibility that racial differences in SES can explain racial differences in delinquency. As others have pointed out (e.g., Jencks and Mayer 1990; Wilson 1987), a chief limitation of much prior work in sociology is the tendency to examine SES primarily as an individual- or family-level attribute. Although individual or family SES may be consequential for many outcomes, so too may community SES. This possibility reflects a growing recognition that people1s behavior may be a function not simply of who they are, but also, where they live.1 In support of that view is the growing literature on neighborhood effects'research that has revealed significant effects of community or neighborhood context on a number of individual outcomes, even after controlling for individual sociodemographic characteristics (see Boardman and Robert1s 2001 review of the literature).

Using geocoded data collected from a national sample of adolescents, we apply this logic to the study of juvenile delinquency, and to the issue of racial differences in particular. We examine two hypotheses relevant to the effects of community context on delinquency and its ability to explain racial differences in delinquency found in our data.

Our first hypothesis is that community-level SES may have effects on delinquency above and beyond the effects of family-level SES. In testing this hypothesis, we also draw upon the social disorganization perspective (Shaw and McKay 1942) to extend our analysis of community context beyond the consideration of community SES. Specifically, we consider that a number of additional sociodemographic aspects of community context'including community levels of residential mobility, racial and ethnic segregation, the degree of urbanization, the rate of family disruption'may also be relevant to the explanation of delinquency, even after controlling for family SES.

Our second hypothesis considers the issue of racial differences'the community effects revealed in the test of our first hypothesis should partially explain the racial differences in delinquency found in our data. Of particular importance is the possibility that these community effects will explain racial differences more than is possible when only family-level SES is considered.

These hypotheses are motivated in part by the emerging literature on the importance of community context for explaining the social dislocations of blacks in particular (Massey and Denton 1993; South and Baumer 2000; Wilson 1987). U.S. residential patterns are characterized by a high degree of economically-structured racial segregation. As a result, economically disadvantaged blacks are much more likely than similarly disadvantaged whites to live in high-poverty neighborhoods. As South and Baumer (2000:1382) argue, this fact needs to be accounted for in new research.

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Updated 05/20/2006