Fighting to Be Heard: Black Criminologists Seek Proper Context to Explain Racism's Influence on Black Crime

Article excerpt

"In my profession I'm considered a radical simply because I refuse to accept the idea that Black people are inherently criminal," says Dr. Ramona Brockett, assistant professor of political science at Northern Kentucky University. "Many mainstream criminologists simply accept the academic theories of people like Marvin Wolfgang (famed criminologist) who ... directly stated that Black men are, by their very nature, atavistic and violent."

At some point in theft careers, many African American scholars report fairly high levels of stress and feelings of alienation from their specific departments or the academy as a whole. But Black criminologists seem to be faced with an unmatched level of intellectual assault.

In the 1980s, Black psychologists had to battle theories that Black people were genetically programmed to have lower intelligence. More recently, scholars in English and literature have endured debates over whether there are any Black writers important enough to be included in survey courses, especially if it means dropping something written by the established pantheon of dead White men. But, however painful it may be for Black scholars to be confronted with versions of social Darwinist theories of Black inferiority, by and large, the academic arguments over these topics are just that, abstract intellectual debates carried out within classrooms, faculty lounges and scholarly journals.

"But crime is not an abstract question," says Dr. Darnell F. Hawkins, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who teaches in the African American studies, sociology and criminal justice departments. "Crime is something you, your students and colleagues may worry about every day. In recent years, being Black has become almost synonymous with being criminal, and criminal justice policy is something that can literally follow you home as you drive back from campus at night.

"I believe that many Black criminologists feel a tremendous strain at having to deal with the dilemma of simultaneously confronting the devastating effects that Black criminals are having on their communities and the ongoing racism of the criminal justice system. Some of us also feel marginalized because we can't make our voices heard," Hawkins says.

In recent years, however, several White scholars such as political scientist James Q. Wilson, former Reagan drug czar William J. Bennett, and University of Pennsylvania's John J. DiIulio Jr. have attracted attention, becoming well known for their theories and pronouncements on how to address crime in Black communities.

Wilson's "broken windows" theory, which argues that tolerating small crimes and social disorder gives rise to more serious crimes, provided the intellectual underpinnings for New York City's zero-tolerance policies instituted by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. DiIulio's prediction of a coming generation of irredeemable "juvenile superpredators" was a major impetus to the boom in prison construction.

But long before contemporary scholars began weighing in on Black crime, African American scholars such as Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, Dr. E. Franklin Frazier and journalist Ida B. Wells began producing a rich heritage of thought on the question of Blacks and crime.

FIGHTING TO BE HEARD

"I feel that we are constantly being bombarded by the theories of Wilson and DiIulio, who argue that the real cause of crime is not poverty or racism, or discrimination, but what's wrong with Black people," says Brockett. "And their solution is always the same -- put more people in jail."

Their ideas are having a "real impact," Brockett adds. "Their theories that Black people are fundamentally inclined to be criminals, or that any Black person could potentially be a criminal helps explain why the Black doctor driving his car on vacation in Martha's Vineyard still has to worry about getting stopped by the police."

But these ideas aren't just having an impact in the streets; they're also having an impact in intellectual circles. …