Explaining the Racial Threat Hypothesis

I have previously written about the racial threat hypothesis, which seems a potentially powerful way of explaining why attitudes toward crime and punishment vary so much from community to community and state to state. The basic idea is that a large minority population fuels demand by the majority for greater social control, including harsher punishment.

There is some empirical support for the hypothesis, but it is unclear what exactly drives the link between minority population and the demand for social control. An interesting new article, however, helps to illuminate the underlying dynamics: Justin T. Pickett et al., “Reconsidering the Relationship Between Perceived Neighborhood Racial Composition and Whites’ Perceptions of Victimization Risk: Do Racial Stereotypes Matter,” 50 Criminology 145 (2012).

The study is based on telephone surveys of 1,273 white Floridians and 743 whites from around the nation. The authors focused particularly on the connection between black population and white fear of victimization. Five notable conclusions emerge.


First, Pickett et al. found that the perceived risk of victimization is positively correlated with the perceived percentage of blacks living within one mile of a white person’s home—the greater the percentage of blacks thought to be living nearby, the greater the perception of risk. This suggests that fear of victimization may be playing an important role in fueling punitive attitudes in areas with large minority populations.

Second, the authors found that this relationship between perceived risk and perceived minority population operates independently of racial stereotypes that blacks commit more crimes than whites. Thus, the race-crime stereotype does not seem to be necessary for a white person to feel threatened by a large minority population. The authors can only speculate as to what else might cause greater perceptions of risk when it is thought that many black people live nearby, but I think they may be onto something when they refer to the literature on social capital. In racially mixed neighborhoods, there may be less association with neighbors and hence lower levels of trust. Whites may not necessarily fear that they will be victimized by their black neighbors, but they may nonetheless have a greater fear of victimization if they doubt that their neighbors will be “looking out for them” and willing to provide assistance if a need arises.

Third, the authors also found a positive correlation between perceived risk and a perception that more blacks are moving into one’s neighborhood. This suggests that racial threat effects may be a function not only of the current size of minority populations, but also of the perceived direction of change.

Fourth, race-crime stereotypes did seem to play a role in the latter correlation. In other words, whites who believe that blacks are more likely to commit crimes are also more likely to feel threatened by a growing minority population. So, there may be a real difference between having blacks as long-term neighbors and having new, unfamiliar blacks as neighbors – racial stereotypes are more likely to come into play in the latter scenario than the former. Perhaps there is even a sign of hope here that negative racial stereotypes can be overcome if one lives in proximity to members of the other race for a time.

Finally, the authors found support for the “ceiling effect,” that is, the idea that racial threat effects will be most pronounced among people who otherwise generally feel safe; those who generally feel unsafe – who are at some ceiling of perceived risk – will not have that perceived risk much exacerbated by the presence of minorities. Thus, the authors found the strongest threat effects among males and among people who have never previously been victimized. They also note an interesting potential consequence of this finding: as crime rates and fear levels have generally dropped in this country in recent years, racial threat effects may play an increasingly important role in fueling demands for social control.