Underground Codes: Race, Crime, and Related Fires

Underground Codes: Race, Crime, and Related Fires

Underground Codes: Race, Crime, and Related Fires

Underground Codes: Race, Crime, and Related Fires


Winner of a 2005 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award (Honorable Mention

Americans fear crime, are rattled by race and avoid honest discussions of both. Anxiety, denial, miscommunication, and ignorance abound. Imaginary connections between minorities and crime become real, self-fulfilling prophecies and authentic links to race, class, gender and crime go unexplored. Katheryn Russell-Brown, author of the highly acclaimed The Color of Crime, makes her way through this intellectual minefield, determined to shed light on the most persistent and perplexing domestic policy issues.

The author tackles a range of race and crime issues. From outdated research methods that perpetuate stereotypes about African Americans, women, and crime to the over hyped discourse about gangsta rap and law breaking, Russell-Brown challenges the conventional wisdom of criminology. Underground Codes delves into understudied topics such as victimization rates for Native Americans-among the highest of any racial group-and how racial profiling affects the day-to-day lives of people of color.

Innovative, well-researched and meticulously documented, Underground Codes makes a case for greater public involvement in the debate over law enforcement-and our own language-that must be heard if we are to begin to have a productive national conversation about crime and race.


In the children’s game of “telephone,” a group of children sit in a circle and one child begins by whispering a statement or phrase into the ear of the child sitting next to her. This child then repeats the message, passing it along to the next child. This continues until the statement or phrase makes its way back around the circle. When the last person receives the message, he announces what he has heard. Typically, the statement or phrase varies so greatly from the initial one that it evokes humor and surprise. In some ways, this process—the game of telephone—is analogous to the state of affairs regarding data, perceptions, and information about race and crime.

Both the public discussion and the empirical research indicate that there are many issues involving crime and race that are overlooked, misunderstood, and falsely linked. The title of this book, Underground Codes, highlights this fact. As well, the title alludes to Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad which led hundreds of slaves to freedom. Thus, a modest objective of this book is to promote a kind of “freedom” in the form of new thinking about the actual and perceived nexus between crime and race.

Since I wrote The Color of Crime, the national spotlight on race and crime has dimmed. The introspection demanded by larger-than-life criminal cases, such as those involving Rodney King and O. J. Simpson, is no longer a national objective. In the past few years, spectacular, racially tinged criminal cases, which pushed discomforting and vexing questions to the fore, have been replaced by larger national issues. As the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs would predict, issues of national and personal security—physical and financial—took precedence over sociological inquiries. Specifically, the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, the collapse of several major business corporations . . .

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