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Race and Crime

Conflict Theory

By simply researching what biological, psychological, or societal factors cause some groups or individuals to commit crime in a given society (the disproportionality hypothesis) implies that there is consensus among different groups about how society should operate, what laws should be enforced, and how justice should be carried out. The disparity hypothesis rejects this consensus approach in explaining why some races are disproportionately represented in official crime statistics and the criminal justice system.

The disparity hypothesis is based on a conflict theory perspective. The conflict perspective views the law as a tool used by dominant groups, those that have the social, political, and economic power, to maintain their privileged position over subordinate groups. Dominant groups include the white race, the wealthy, and the politically connected. Subordinate groups include minority races, the poor, and the politically neglected. These subordinate groups pose a threat, and the dominant groups use the legal code to keep the subordinate groups from usurping their power. Behaviors often adopted by members of the subordinate groups are often criminalized in American society, while behaviors adopted by the dominant groups go unpunished. An excellent example is the disparity between federal sentencing guidelines for crimes involving powder cocaine and crack cocaine. Crack cocaine is the cocaine product of choice for poor and minority communities because it is less expensive than powder cocaine. Crack cocaine is made of powder cocaine and several benign substances, but it is less pure and therefore contains less pure cocaine than its powder counterpart. However, sentences for possession of crack cocaine are one hundred times as severe as sentences for possession of powder cocaine. For example, a person convicted of possessing five hundred grams of powder cocaine receives the same mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years as someone possessing five grams of crack cocaine. More than 90 percent of persons sentenced in federal courts for crack cocaine violations are African American (Walker et al.). This law, imposed by dominant groups, results in the arrest, conviction, and imprisonments of thousands of African Americans every year, and it is a clear illustration of how the law is used to control and suppress certain races.

Conflict theory rejects the consensus approach and contends that different groups do not necessarily share the same values, agree on what behaviors should be criminalized, and believe in the same penalty structure. Dominant groups determine what values should be favored, which laws should be enforced, and what penalties should be imposed, while the subordinate groups, often made up of minorities and the poor, are targeted, arrested, and punished unfairly. Conflict theory best explains and supports the disparity hypothesis, which is quite different than the disproportionality hypothesis. However, both perspectives are used in the disciplines of sociology and criminology to explain the disproportionate representation of certain races in official crime statistics and the criminal justice system.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawRace and Crime - Data Sources And Meaning, The Nature And Direction Of The Race And Crime Relationship, Bio-psychological Theory - Conclusion