Reconsidering the Relationship Between Race and Self-Reported Crime

Bradley R.E. Wright, University of Connecticut

One of the most studied issues in recent criminology has been the relationship between race and crime, particularly comparing whites and African-Americans. Many studies have focused on the high crime rates of African-Americans, seeking to explain these rates as resulting from either more frequent criminal behavior by African-Americans, differential responses by the criminal justice system, methodological artifacts, or some combination of the above. This paper, however, takes a different approach in conceptualizing the issue of race and crime in that it explores causal mechanisms through which being African-American actually decreases criminal behavior. Specifically, I identify a handful of social-psychological variables that negatively mediate the relationship between race and crime such that they result in African-Americans committing less crime. For example, African-Americans have high levels of religious participation and strong family ties, relative to whites, both of which reduce criminal behavior. Using data from the National Youth Survey, I find empirical support for the existence of these mediating variables that decrease crime among African-Americans. I also find mediating variables that increase crime among African-Americans. Conceptually, then, these finding move us away from asking why (or if) African-Americans have higher rates of crime, and they steer us to a more general, and probably more fruitful, question of the multifaceted causal relationship between race and crime.

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Updated 05/20/2006