Ethnicity and Crime

You may have heard a lot about crime rates among different ethnic groups and the possible reasons behind this. What does sociology say about this topic?

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Table of contents
    • We will look at:
    • The facts and statistical evidence regarding ethnicity and crime.
    • Different sociological views on the reasons behind differential rates of crime per ethnic group.

    Race, ethnicity and crime: the social construction of crime statistics

    According to sociologists Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall, race, ethnicity and crime statistics are socially constructed and obscure the real differences in crime rates.

    They argue, for example, that the imbalance in stop and search and imprisonment rates by ethnicity are explained by differential levels of policing between different ethnic groups. This results in a higher percentage of Black or Asian criminals being convicted than white criminals.

    The Oxford Dictionary definition of crime is:

    An action or omission which constitutes an offence and is punishable by law."

    Bearing this in mind, let’s take a look at the statistical evidence concerning ethnicity and statistical crime rates to explore Gilroy’s and Hall’s views.

    Ethnicity and Crime, Policeman wearing a blue shirt with handcuffs attached to his belt, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Gilroy and Hall argue that the imbalance of stop and search rates by ethnicity is due to differential levels of policing between ethnic groups.

    Statistics for ethnicity and crime

    In the following text, you can get a better insight into the relationship between ethnicity and crime through some statistics and facts

    Self-report studies

    A self-report study is a type of research method in which people are asked to confess and/or discuss their crimes.

    On the basis of self-report studies, Graham and Bowling (1995) concluded that people from certain ethnic backgrounds like Black (43%) and White (44%) had similar crime rates, whereas others like Asians had comparatively lower crime rates - Indians (30%), Pakistanis (28%), and Bangladeshis (13%).

    Sharp and Budd (2005) pointed out that the Offending, Crime and Justice survey of 2003, conducted on around 12,000 people, found that Whites and those with mixed ethnic backgrounds were more likely to acknowledge they had committed a crime, compared to 28% of Black and 21% of Asian people.

    Victim surveys

    The British Crime Survey reports that 44% of victims were able to share information about the criminal responsible for the crime against them. The victims stated that 85% of the offenders were White, 5% Black, 3% Asian, and 4% were from mixed ethnic backgrounds.

    However, the above statistics are just for the minority of ‘contact’ crimes. Very few people actually have a clear idea of the criminal in the midst of a crime, especially in cases of common criminal activities like burglary and vehicle-related crimes.

    Therefore, regarding the majority of offences, reliable information about the ethnic backgrounds of the criminal is unavailable from the victims.

    Arrest rates

    According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Black people in some areas are 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched. The EHRC also claimed that the discrepancy between different ethnic groups was “stubbornly high”.

    The combined number of arrests has decreased over the last five years, in accordance with the lowering crime rates. The arrest statistics have remained steady with 77% of arrests being of White people, 10% of Black people and 7% of Asians in 2018.

    These figures are likely because ethnic minorities are more likely to be policed simply for drug use/possession. White people receive penalty notices for being ‘drunk and disorderly’, whereas Black and Asian people receive penalty notices for cannabis possession. This is a clear disparity because while Whites are given notices for antisocial behaviour, Black and Asian people are written up for possessing drugs that the system considers to be illegal.

    Prosecution and trial

    The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decides if a crime or arrest should be prosecuted in court. It is decided on the basis of whether there is any real possibility of the prosecution succeeding, or if it is better for the public that they are put on trial.

    Ethnic minority cases are usually dropped, and White people are more likely to be found guilty than Black and Asian. Bowling and Phillips (2002) suggest that this occurs due to the lack of credible evidence, as the reported "crime" in question is often based entirely on racist stereotypes. In 2006-2007, 60% of White suspects were found guilty as opposed to 52% of Black and 44% of Asian suspects.

    When cases proceed, ethnic minorities usually prefer Crown Court trials rather than trials in Magistrate's Courts, although Crown Courts can give out severe punishments. This is because they don't trust Magistrates to be impartial.

    Sentencing and prison

    Black people (68%) are more likely to get jail sentences compared to White (55%) or Asian people (59%). Whites and Asians on the other hand mostly receive community service sentences - this could be a decision taken on the basis of the nature and seriousness of the crime committed.

    However, Hood (1992) stressed that even after taking the seriousness of an offence and previous convictions into consideration, Black men were almost five times more likely to get jail sentences of about 3 months, while Asians were jailed an average of 9 months - both longer sentences than White people got on average.

    Ethnicity and Crime, Protest sign reading no justice no peace, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Sociologists argue that there is bias against ethnic minorities at several levels of the criminal justice system.

    What is the role of cultural factors in explaining the correlation between crime and ethnicity?

    Sociologists suggest that cultural factors like differences in family structure and school subcultures may correlate with the variation in offending between ethnic groups.

    Family structures

    The following paragraphs describe two family types: single-parent and nuclear families.

    Single-parent families

    In the UK in 2007, more than half of Black children were being raised by lone parents. About 48% of Black Caribbean families and 36% of Black African households comprised single parents. This can have implications because the increased instances of single parenthood in Black Caribbean families may make boys more likely to offend due to the absence of a male role model to guide and supervise them.

    Much evidence suggests that British Caribbean single-parent families are neither isolated nor actually ‘single’ at all. In the 1980s, Geoffrey Driver’s research found that Caribbean single mothers remain well integrated within their community with their neighbours, receiving support with childcare and education.

    Other research also reveals that family ties with relatives - brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts, etc. - are strong in British Caribbean communities. Tracey Reynolds (2002) specifies that many single mothers from this group have long-term romantic relationships but don't cohabitate with their partners. However, their male partners regularly and actively participate in childcare activities.

    Nuclear families

    In comparison, Asian families more closely resemble the nuclear family structure, which could potentially explain the lower rates of crime within Asian communities.

    Marriage is still considered to be a turning point in British-Asian communities. According to a UK National Statistics report, the highest number of married couples (with or without children) are in Asian households. About 53% Indian, 54% Bangladeshi and 51% Pakistani families have a married couple, as opposed to 37% White British families.

    Having said that, there is a dark side to Asian households - the number of forced marriages, for example. A report from 2008 suggests that almost about 3000 third and fourth-generation Asian women were subjected to forced marriages in Britain. This crime inevitably is not visible in the official statistics.

    Anti-school Black masculinity

    Tony Sewell (1997) pointed out that Black Caribbean boys may feel pressurised by their peers to adapt to the norms of ‘urban’ or ‘street’ subculture.

    In this context, more status is afforded to those who engage in disobedient/unruly behaviour with teachers and hostile behaviour with fellow students rather than to high achievement or efforts to succeed, specifically at secondary school.

    Evaluating the role of cultural factors in differences in offending

    There are certain limitations regarding the role of cultural factors in differences in offending:

    • Firstly, the above theories can be criticised for explaining crimes through blanket stereotypes. There is a range of cultural differences and family structures even within Black and Asian ethnic groups, and the official statistics represent a very nuanced image.
    • Secondly, the theories negate other aspects associated with cultural factors like unemployment and poverty.
    • Thirdly, cultural explanations don’t consider the fact that fundamental differences in offending could be an outcome of a series of cases of structural and institutional racism in broader society.
    • Lastly, they do not consider that the statistical data is a social construction and exaggerate the facts of Black and Asian criminality. For example, critical criminologists claim that the over or misrepresentation of ethnic minorities is because they were more likely to be criminalised by agents of social control.

    Ethnicity and Crime, Black and white image of baby feet held by parent's hands, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Some believe that family structure is to blame for differences in crime rates.

    Ethnicity and crime theories

    What do left realist and neo-Marxist theorists say about the role of ethnicity in crime?

    Left realism, ethnicity and crime

    Lea and Young, sociologists from the sociological perspective of left realism, argue that ethnic minority groups are disadvantaged compared to other groups in society, and this is particularly true for young Black men who have higher levels of unemployment. They are more likely to be part of the working class and therefore suffer not only from lower wages but a high level of relative deprivation at the same time.

    Young men from minority backgrounds also experience marginalisation as they are often under-represented at the highest levels of society - government, political parties, trade unions, etc.

    According to Lea, it is likely for crime rates to be higher for the groups that experience high levels of deprivation and marginalisation.

    Ethnicity and relative deprivation

    Some ethnic minorities experience more deprivation than their White counterparts. The Labour Force Survey 2004-2005 suggests that 20% of White British households are poverty-stricken. This contrasts with:

    • 25% Indian,
    • 30% Black Caribbean,
    • 45% Black African,
    • 55% Pakistani, and
    • 65% Bangladeshi households.

    Social exclusion

    Deprivation influences involvement in some forms of criminal activity such as acquisitive crime - from which the offender obtains material gains. It also affects educational achievement and the image of the area that is deprived.

    Neo-Marxism, ethnicity and crime

    Neo-Marxism stresses aspects of Marxist and interactionist theory to illustrate the criminalisation of ethnic minorities by the state and media.

    A classic example of this is Stuart Hall’s 1979 study where he assessed the moral panic created by media over criminal activities, e.g. mugging in the 1970s. Hall finds that, despite the exaggerated newspaper reports on the increased rate of mugging in the UK, especially amongst young Black men, it was actually increasing at a much slower rate than in the previous decade.

    According to Hall, moral panic regarding Black criminality created a distraction and diverted the focus from the wider economic crisis. Headlines such as "Black youths out of control" were circulated instead of those depicting reality, such as "Capitalism in Crisis".

    Hall divided his analysis into several stages – beginning with how capitalism triggered crime, then the response of media, state, and the police, and finally as an outcome, the reaction of the criminalised Black youth:

    Capitalism and crime

    • A severe economic recession in the mid-1970s escalated unemployment and created civil unrest - mass strikes, for example.
    • Capitalism experienced a ‘legitimation crisis’. It was failing, and the government needed to create a distraction to distract the audience.
    • Favouring the capitalist class and the state, the recession further intensified the social and economic marginalisation of ethnic minorities. This fuelled instances of offending amongst Black youth, such as increased street robberies.

    State, police, and media reactions to crime

    • The media highlighted these street robberies without explaining the context behind them, creating a ‘moral panic’.
    • As an outcome, the government responded by deploying more police in the areas with higher crime rates.
    • Consequently, arrest rates rose and were reported by the media.

    Consequences for Black youth and wider society

    • Ultimately, public attention remained focused on Black criminality, and not on the significant problems of the capitalist system which triggered both higher rates of crime and criminalisation of young Black men and working-class groups.

    Gilroy on ethnic minorities and crime

    Gilroy defined the ‘myth of Black criminality’ and ascribed the statistical variations in documented criminality between ethnic minorities to police stereotyping and racism.

    He argued that the rates of offending among Black British ethnic groups were a consequence of the fight against domination by the White British in former colonies such as Jamaica.

    In Gilroy's opinion, when early migrants entered Britain, they experienced discrimination and antagonism from society. In retaliation, the tradition of anti-colonial struggle emerged to create cultures of resistance against dominance - White authorities and police. He claims that most crimes by Black individuals are essentially politically driven and form a part of popular resistance to White Rule.

    Ethnicity and crime - Key takeaways

    • Sociologists argue that crime statistics are socially constructed and obscure the real differences in crime rates.
    • Statistics on crime rates from self-report studies, victim surveys, arrest rates, sentencing, prosecution, trial and prison figures reveal that selective evidence often creates the impression that ethnic minorities commit more crimes.
    • Left realists argue that ethnic minority groups are disadvantaged compared to other groups in society - they experience high levels of deprivation and marginalisation, which makes them more likely to commit crimes.

    • Neo-Marxism stresses aspects of Marxist and Interactionist theory to illustrate the criminalisation of ethnic minorities by the state and media.

    • Gilroy goes argues that most crimes by Black ethnic groups are essentially politically driven and form a part of the resistance to White authority.

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Ethnicity and Crime

    What is the relationship between ethnicity and crime?

    Sociologists have different theories on the relationship between ethnicity and crime.


    • According to Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall, crime statistics are socially constructed and obscure the real differences in crime rates. 
    • Left realists argue that ethnic minority groups are disadvantaged compared to other groups in society - they experience high levels of deprivation and marginalisation, making them more likely to commit crimes.

    • Neo-Marxism stresses aspects of Marxist and interactionist theory to illustrate the criminalisation of ethnic minorities by the state and media.

    • Gilroy argues that most crimes by Black ethnic groups are essentially politically driven and form a part of the resistance to White authority.

    What are the three theories of ethnicity?

    • Lea and Young argue that ethnic minority groups are disadvantaged compared to the other groups in society, and this is particularly true for teenage Black men who have higher levels of unemployment. According to Lea, it is likely for the crime rates to be higher for the groups that experience high levels of deprivation and marginalisation.
    • Neo-Marxism stresses aspects of Marxist and interactionist theory to illustrate the criminalisation of ethnic minorities by the state and media.
    • Gilroy claimed that offending amongst the Black British ethnic groups was a consequence of the fight against the domination by Whites in former colonies. 

    What is the relationship between race, ethnicity, and crime?

    Based on self-report studies, Graham and Bowling (1995) concluded that people from certain ethnic backgrounds like Black (43%) and White (44%) had similar crime rates. In contrast, others like Asians had comparatively lower crime rates - Indians 30%, Pakistanis 28%, and Bangladeshis 13%. 

    Does race and ethnicity matter in the criminal justice system?

    In Gilroy's opinion, when early migrants entered Britain, they experienced discrimination and antagonism from society. In retaliation, the tradition of anti-colonial struggle emerged to create cultures of resistance against dominance - White authorities and police. He claims that most crimes by Black individuals are essentially politically driven and form a part of popular resistance to White Rule.

    How does ethnicity affect fear of crime?

    Ethnic minority cases are usually dropped, and White people are more likely to be found guilty than Black and Asian people. Bowling and Phillips (2002) suggest that this occurs due to the lack of credible evidence, as the reported "crime" in question is often based entirely on racist stereotypes. In 2006-2007, 60% of White suspects were found guilty as opposed to 52% of Black and 44% of Asian suspects.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    According to the reports by The British Crime Survey, what percentage of victims were able to share information about the criminal responsible for the crime against them?

    According to The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), Asian people in some areas were 29 times more probable to be stopped and searched. The commission also claimed the imbalance between different ethnic groups was “stubbornly high”. True or false?

    Black and Asian people receive a penalty notice for being ‘drunk and disorderly’, whereas White people receive a penalty notice for ‘cannabis possession’. True or false?

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