Review Essay: The Reassertion of Race, Space, and Punishment's Place in Urban Sociology and Critical Criminology

By Reifer, Thomas E. | Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, March-April 2013 | Go to article overview

Review Essay: The Reassertion of Race, Space, and Punishment's Place in Urban Sociology and Critical Criminology


Reifer, Thomas E., Environment and Planning D: Society and Space


In Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect and The Collapse of American Criminal Justice Robert J Sampson and William Stuntz, respectively, highlight the intersection and reassertion--to draw upon and extend the work of Edward Soja (2011)--of race, space, and punishment's place in urban sociology, critical criminology, and postmodern geography (Massey, 2012; Sampson, 2012; Ludwig et al, 2012; Sharkey, 2013). The structural circumstances of deprivation and criminalization facing African-Americans that they both highlight, and the related racialized perceptions of criminality that are counterparts, appear to be some of the salient features that recently led to the murder of a young black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in the US state of Florida.

Florida is one of many US states with new Stand Your Ground laws which have proliferated across the country, along with a noticeable uptick in so-called 'justified homicides'. In this instance the inequalities of race and space highlighted by these two authors tragically came together as a neighborhood watch patrolman shot and killed Trayvon and shaped the lack of an initial official response, until massive protests broke out across the US against the failure of authorities to charge the assailant with a crime (Sampson, 2012; Sampson and Raudenbush, 2004). This review essay presents these two landmark books, offering an appreciation and critique of their interrelated arguments and setting them in the context of a wider literature on the evolution of spatial, social class, and racial relations right up to our contemporary present.

Sampson's book is arguably one of the greatest works of urban sociology, critical criminology, and what Soja (2011) calls "postmodern geography" in a generation, radically altering these entire fields. Highlighted here in particular is the "neighborhood effect", referring to the relationship between race, class, space, and punishment's place in the US, which with only 5% of the world's population, has 25% of its prisoners. This carceral boom is the latest, and perhaps one of the most troubling, forms of American exceptionalism, with a widening divide since the 1970s between the US and other advanced capitalist states (albeit one that has been narrowing as of late).

Sampson, to a greater extent than ever before, and with a wealth of data, maps urban inequalities at the structural neighborhood and social ecological level. More specifically he relates the "explosion in crime rates" in the major urban cities of the US starting in 1965 to White flight and urban decline and decay. The concentrated increase in crime in major urban cities, Sampson (2012, page 143) argues, comes with White flight and related resource deprivation. This decreases the neighborhood's sense of collective efficacy or social agency, thus increasing crime, racially biased perceptions of criminality among low-income communities of color, and punishment via incarceration, in what some have called a 'spiral of decay'.

Sampson shows that the actual term 'mass incarceration' is misleading. What exists instead is spatially concentrated hyperincarceration of poor Blacks with little formal education, as Loic Waquant (2010) and others have shown. While underscoring the clear link between neighborhood disadvantage and crime, Sampson goes further, showing in a study of Cook County in Chicago that low-income neighborhoods of color, with concentrated disadvantage, have incarceration rates three times higher than neighborhoods with comparable levels of crime but without concentrated disadvantage (see also National Public Radio, 2012; PBS, 2012; Sampson and Loeffler, 2010). These arguments and powerful data represent an enormous contribution to the literature of urban sociology, critical criminology, and political geography. Yet, despite the impressive achievement this represents in a host of fields, there are some significant empirical and theoretical gaps and problems. …

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