Racial Disparities: A Result of Symbolic Threat or Interracial Competition?

That blacks are over-represented at all levels of the American criminal-justice system is well-known and beyond dispute.  Much less clear is what causes these racial disparities.  Although some of the disparities may result from elevated rates and seriousness of crime-commission by blacks, such behavioral differences probably cannot fully account for disparities in arrests, incarceration, and the like.  (See my article here for further discussion.)

What else might account for disparities?  This is the subject of an interesting new article by Shaun Thomas, Stacy Moak, and Jeffrey Walker, “The Contingent Effect of Race in Juvenile Court Decisions: The Role of Racial and Symbolic Threat,” forthcoming in Race and Justice.  

More specifically, Thomas et al. test two competing theories to account for what they call “disproportionate minority contact.”  


“Racial threat,” the first of the two theories, posits that competition between blacks and whites over resources and power drives the criminal-justice system’s disproportionate focus on blacks:

The encroachment of minorities into the social space of the majority group may be perceived as a direct threat to White economic, political, and social hegemony.  This perceived threat to their ascendant position in society motivates Whites to protect the status quo through the mobilization of resources, concerted discrimination, residential segregation, and the deployment of formal control mechanisms against minorities.  (4)

“Symbolic threat,” by contrast, turns less on white fear of economic or political competition from blacks, and more on the perceived cultural “otherness” of blacks, which is seen as a symbolic challenge to white, middle-class moral values:

Black youth are viewed as undisciplined, aggressive, sexually promiscuous, belonging to dysfunctional families, residing in communities that are incapable of instilling social norms, and prone to delinquency and drug offenses.  Such stereotypes bring about emotions of envy, jealousy, and fear within the majority group and public officials either because they identify or fail to identify with the youthful behaviors.  (6)

Thomas et al. tested these theories by examining more than 60,000 juvenile cases decided in one state over nine years.  In particular, they focused on pretrial detention decisions: whether the juvenile charged with an offense was viewed as so risky as to require detention pending trial.

At the outset, controlling for a number of variables, the researchers found that statewide “Black youth are 1.17 times more likely as similarly situated White youth to be detained.”  (19)  They then tried to determine what county-level socioeconomic variables were associated with county-to-county differences in these patterns of racial disparity.

Contrary to the expectations of racial threat theory, the researchers did not find that racial disparities were exacerbated as the size of a county’s black population increased.  (16)  One would expect that interracial competition would be more intense  and threatening to the majority group with a larger-sized minority population, but such effects were not apparent in juvenile detention data.  In fact, the data were in precisely the opposite direction: “Increases in the size of the Black population have a negative . . . effect on the probability that Black youth will be detained.”  (20).  Thomas et al. suggest that this pattern may reflect the effects of “benign neglect”:

The benign neglect hypothesis predicts an alternative process by which increases in Black composition are expected to be inversely associated with the formal social control of minorities.  As the minority population size increases, the racial composition of crimes committed by Black offenders also changes such that intraracial crimes become more prevalent.  Because Black-on-Black crime may be viewed as less threatening to the majority group, Black offenders are likely to receive less severe sanctions.  (20)

I note that the findings here seem inconsistent with other research at the state level that indicates a larger black population is correlated with higher corrections spending and imprisonment.  (See my post here.)

In any event, the racial threat theory was not entirely without support in the data studied by Thomas et al.: they found a positive relationship between black detention and the level of interracial economic competition in a county, which they measured by comparing white and black unemployment rates.  “The probability of detention for both groups converges in communities with low levels of economic competition; however, Black youth in communities with high levels of economic competition were 1.5 times more likely to be detained than similarly situated White juveniles.”  (17)

In contrast to the data’s equivocal support for the racial threat theory, Thomas et al. found much stronger support for symbolic threat effects.  Here’s how they operationalized symbolic threat:

We sought measures that tap the likelihood that Whites perceive Blacks to be a threat to middle class norms, values, and standards.  The extant literature has linked such perceptions to intergroup socioeconomic inequality.  As such, we capture levels of symbolic threat with a standardized index comprising ratios of Black to White poverty, female-headed households with children, and the failure of those 25 years and older to graduate high school.  (12-13)

Using this measure, the researchers found that

racial disparities in detention are exacerbated in counties in which the ratio of Black to White socioeconomic disadvantage is greater.  Black youth in counties with more pronounced interracial socioeconomic inequality are more likely to be detained that similarly situated White youth or Black juveniles in communities in which minorities are relatively more affluent.  (16-17)

The suggestion here is an intriguing one: Strong socioeconomic disparities between the races lead to perceptions by whites (which may or may not be true) that blacks have cultural values that are markedly different from, and threatening to, the cultural values of whites.  This symbolic threat posed by blacks — especially those blacks accused of committing crimes, who seem to be acting consistently with the stereotypical, negative expectations — provokes punitive responses by criminal-justice officials, as in the decision to detain a defendant pending trial.

Of course, the study by Thomas et al. is limited in numerous ways, e.g., by focusing on just one state and one type of criminal-justice decision.  It would be interesting to know if there are similar correlations between state-level racial disparities in imprisonment and racial disparities in socioeconomic advantage.