Expert Commentary

Neighborhood racial context and perceptions of police-based discrimination

2009 study in the journal Criminology on the racial makeup of neighborhoods and trends in racial profiling.

Racial profiling and discrimination against African-American youth by police are problems that periodically grab national attention. Yet there is seldom subtle discussion of whether such discrimination is more prevalent in predominantly black or white neighborhoods, or in mixed racial settings. Moreover, data from black adolescents themselves who may face these realities are infrequently collected, analyzed and cited.

A 2009 study from Florida State University, the University of Georgia and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, “Neighborhood Racial Context and Perceptions of Police-Based Racial Discrimination of Black Youth,” analyzes survey data from more than 760 black adolescents living across 73 communities in Georgia and Iowa. The study, published in the journal Criminology, ultimately seeks to examine how “neighborhood social conditions, especially neighborhood racial context, might shape the likelihood of police-based racial discrimination among black youth.” Some 26% of those surveyed said they had experienced racial discrimination by law enforcement in the past year. The neighborhoods that the subjects lived in were on average 59% white but varied widely in composition — from just 5% to 95% white.

The study’s findings include:

  • The data show “significantly higher levels of perceived police-based racial discrimination in predominantly white neighborhoods that experience black population growth and in neighborhoods with higher levels of affluence.”
  • After controlling for a variety of variables, the likelihood of racial profiling for black youths living in affluent neighborhoods increased 21%, as compared to those living in less affluent neighborhoods.
  • The findings are “most consistent with a defended neighborhood perspective, which predicts that racial discrimination against blacks will be most prevalent where a black migration into homogeneous white neighborhoods occurs with long-standing racial dominance.… This may occur because racial stereotypes that link blacks to social problems such as crime, violence, disorder and poverty are widespread and have the potential to result in a defensive backlash by whites in an attempt to control a ‘threatening’ population.”
  • The findings are also in keeping with other research that concludes whites who perceive such community racial “threat” are “likely to align themselves with social institutions such as the criminal justice system, specifically the police, which allows them to defend their neighborhoods and protect their interests.”
  • Additionally, “higher levels of neighborhood violence increase the likelihood that adolescents will report experiencing discrimination at the hands of the police.” Indeed, “being male, having prior experiences with police discrimination, having parents who were discriminated against by police, experiencing school suspension or prior arrest, adopting of street code values and living in an urban neighborhood were all significant predictors of [reports of] racially biased policing.”

The authors warn that the numbers they analyze may reflect certain measurement errors because their underlying data are derived from self-reported accounts. But they note that their research findings generally conform to those of other scholarly studies that rely on law enforcement data.

Tags: race, crime, African-American, municipal, ethnicity and community, policing

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