Gender, Race, and Homicide: A Preliminary Analysis

Article excerpt

Introduction

Researchers have investigated female criminal activity since the early 19th century (Bowker, 1978). These writers generally attributed criminal behavior to biological differences between offenders and non-offenders. By 1875, van de Warker and others argued that criminal behavior resulted from environmental factors ("social conditions") such as poverty, though endogenous explanations of criminal tendencies persisted (Bowker, 1978). Hans von Hentig (1942) published a landmark volume counteracting a study by Mary Huff Diggs who argued that Black, immigrant, and Catholic women were constitutionally predisposed to criminal behavior. Von Hentig attributed statistical trends, instead, to demographic differences between Black and White women.

Both biological and environmental explanations for female criminal behavior can be found in the contemporary scientific literature. Daly and Wilson (1988), for example, propose ultimate (i.e., evolutionary) interpretations of homicide, arguing that decisions (conscious or otherwise) to kill are part of the perpetrator's lifetime reproductive strategy. This evolutionary perspective views homicide as a high-risk reproductive tactic with the potential to serve the offender's selfish genetic interests, in particular, the survival and reproduction of the perpetrator, her offspring, and her kin.(1)

Proximate (i.e., non-evolutionary) explanations of criminal behavior by females stress environmental factors. Steffensmeier and Allan (1998), for example, propose a "gendered theory of female offending" to advance knowledge of both female and male crime. They suggest four areas of life relevant to an analysis of homicide by females that "shape the patterns of female offending that do occur". These are: (1) gender norms; (2) moral development and relational concerns; (3) social control; and, (4) sexuality. In this paper we employ a theoretical framework that follows from Steffensmeier and Allan's model.

While there exists a large literature on female offenders, comparisons by race are not often presented. The U.S. Department of Justice (1998a) reports that Whites are "slightly" more likely to exhibit violent offenses (e.g., homicide, robbery, assault) against intimates (i.e., individuals known prior to offense) than were Blacks or Hispanics but provide no data on homicide that would permit statistical analysis of racial differences within sex.

McClain (1981) studied Black female homicide offenders. She concluded that most Black women commit homicide alone and that most lethal incidents were a function of conflicts in a heterosexual relationship, including jealousy. McClain's sample of 119 Black homicide offenders suggest that these women kill sexual partners about 56% of the time, while acquaintances and children account for approximately 33% and 11% of victims, respectively. Thus, McClain's study suggests that Black females are overwhelmingly likely to kill intimates as defined by the U.S. Department of Justice (1998a).

Ray & Smith (1991) employed data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's 1988 Uniform Crime Reports and the Bureau of Justice Special Report, "Violent State Prisoners and their Victims". These authors concluded that murder victims of both White and Black females are likely to be a male of the same race, that Black females are more likely to murder other women than are White women, that White women are more likely to kill minors than are Black women, and that Black and White women are equally likely to murder strangers. Defining "intimate" differently than in McClain's study, Ray & Smith concluded that "White females were two times as likely to have killed a relative than Black females. On the other hand, Black females were two times as likely to have killed an intimate friend/lover than were their White counterparts." (p. 150). Ray & Smith found partial support for a "subculture of violence" hypothesis for both Black and White female offenders whereby the offender's environment, especially an environment of poverty, condones the use of aggression for conflict resolution. …