Interracial Inequality and Lethal Violence: Revisiting Blau and Blau's Hypothesis

Danielle Payne, The Ohio State University
Ruth D. Peterson, The Ohio State University
Laurie Krivo, The Ohio State University

Since the publication of Judith and Peter Blau's (1982) seminal work on social inequality and violent crime, researchers have sought to better understand the influence of dimensions of inequality on rates of violence in the United States. Although a variety of themes have permeated this inquiry, two interrelated issues have been the focus of much recent research. Scholars have devoted considerable attention to examining whether, as Blau and Blau argued, inequality is more influential for racial minorities than for whites; and in so doing, they have explored the degree to which intragroup versus intergroup inequality is more salient in accounting for race-specific violence. According to the Blaus, in a democratic society, ascriptively-based inequality is especially consequential for violent crime because such inequality reinforces ethnic and class differences and engenders pervasive conflict, which find expression in diffuse aggression, including criminal violence. Thus, places and times with higher levels of social inequality should exhibit higher rates of violent crime, especially among minority populations. Blau and Blau's own research demonstrated a positive link between inequality and violent crime, and showed that interracial inequality is more influential than intraracial inequality on such rates for metropolitan areas of the United States (U.S.). Noting that their findings were based on data for metropolitan areas as a whole rather than rates for minority versus non-minority populations, researchers responded to the Blaus' study by examining race-specific models of violent crime (Harer and Steffensmeier 1992; Krivo and Peterson 2000; LaFree, Drass, and O'Day 1992; Messner and Golden 1992; Peterson and Krivo 1993; Sampson 1985, 1987; Shihadeh and Ousey 1998; Shihadeh and Steffensmeier 1994). Two interesting patterns emerged from these race-specific analyses. First, they often revealed that measures of inequality and other structural factors have stronger effects for white than black rates of lethal violence (Krivo and Peterson 2000; Messner and Golden 1992; Sampson 1987; Shihadeh and Ousey 1998). Second, and directly relevant to the Blaus' ascriptive inequality thesis, intraracial inequality was often found to be more important than interracial inequality for understanding violence. In particular, research often showed that interracial inequality is unrelated to black criminal violence (Harer and Steffensmeier 1992; Peterson and Krivo 1993; Shihadeh and Steffensmeier 1994). While such findings raise questions about the Blau and Blau perspective, it is premature to conclude that their thesis is without merit. Rather, the results of previous studies signal that researchers should give attention to the role of inequality in different types of racially disaggregated violent crime. Blau and Blau emphasize that ascriptively-based inequality leads to diffuse aggression, which is likely to result in more expressive than instrumental forms of violence. If so, then there may be a relationship between intergroup inequality and minority violence, but this relationship would be revealed only when expressive forms of violence are considered. That is, analyses that consider overall rates of minority violence may mask the inequality-violent crime link. In this paper, we address this possibility by examining the differential role of interracial inequality on race-specific homicides that have been further disaggregated into instrumental (felony) versus expressive (non-felony) killings.

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Updated 05/20/2006