Barak Review Essay: Three Lenses on Race, Crime, and Justice

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"Affirmative action cannot be race-based. It must be class-based. Poverty in this country is colorblind" 


Henry Louis Gates Jr.


After the War on Crime: Race, Democracy, and a New Reconstruction, edited by Mary Louise Frampton, Ian Haney Lopez, and Jonathan Simon. New York: New York University Press. 2008. 238 pp.

Race. Crime, and Justice: Contexts and Complexities, special editors: Lauren J. Krivo and Ruth D. Peterson. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, volume 623: May 2009. 244 pp.

Racial Divide: Racial and Ethnic Bias in the Criminal Justice System, edited by Michael J. Lynch, E. Britt Patterson, and Kristina K. Childs. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press. 2008. 301 pp.

The recent publication of three collections of original work on race/ethnicity, crime, and criminal justice allow criminologists and others the opportunity to assess the degree to which the study of race, crime, justice, and social control has evolved since the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. Each of the anthologies under review is certainly well worth reading alone, but the overlapping analyses as well as the slightly different orientations to the subject matter, makes the reading of all three together a much fuller experience. At the same time, each of these collections on the “theory and practice” of race/ethnicity, crime, and justice in the United States are subject to a similar kind of critique.

The sheer number of essays involved here, prohibits this reviewer by and large from doing any more than identifying them by title and author for the purpose of giving the reader some sense of the eclectic and sumptuous offerings found inside of these three volumes. Instead of addressing more than forty contributions, this review essay is divided without formal separation into two substantive unequal parts. The first and larger part highlights the arguments and strengths of each of these books. It also implicitly, if not explicitly, recognizes the advances made over the traditional study of race, crime, and justice. The second and smaller part draws attention to the weaknesses or limitations of these three “cutting-edge” contemporary approaches. It also reflects upon the almost unanswered call—articulated at least as far back as the 1996 publication of Race, Gender, and Class in Criminology, edited by Marty Schwartz and Dragan Milovanovic— to develop more comprehensive and dynamic approaches to the study of law, crime/crime control, the administration of justice, and social order. The beckoned approaches were, in other words, to strive to analyze and to integrate the intersecting variables of class, race, and gender as these interacted in the manufacture of both crime and justice throughout society.     

After the War on Crime is perhaps the most ambitious of the works reviewed in this essay. Of the three, it certainly is the more provocative text and as suggested by its subtitle—Race, Democracy, and a New Reconstruction—a more broadly based social and historical construction of crime and crime control. Framing the problem for the reader in their introduction, the editors contend (as Simon had earlier argued in Governing Through Crime1) that the war on crime remade our society:

            it reshaped our cities; transformed our social imagination

            about the nature of ourselves, our neighbors, and strangers;

            shifted the distribution of population between urban and

            rural areas; and ultimately changed the way motor vehicles,

            housing developments, shopping and office complexes look

            and operate. Perhaps most important, the war on crime

            transformed the social meaning of race in ways that make

            it more difficult than ever to resolve America’s constitutive

            flaw, its legacy of slavery and racial domination and the

            structural deformation of democracy that these legacies


After a substantive introductory essay and overview of the anthology by Simon, Haney Lopez, and Frampton and before the Afterword: Strategies of Resistance by Van Jones, the book is divided into three parts:  I) Crime, War, and Governance, II) A War-Torn Country: Race. Community, and Politics, and III) A New Reconstruction. Part I consists of four essays: The Place of the Prison in the New Government of Poverty by Loic Wacquant; America Doesn’t Stop at the Rio Grande: Democracy and the War on Crime by Angelina Snodgrass Godoy; From the New Deal to the Crime Deal by Jonathan Simon; and The Great Penal Experiment: Lessons for Social Justice by Todd Clear.

Part II also consists of four essays: The Code of the Streets by Elijah Anderson; The Contemporary Penal Subject(s) by Mona Lynch; The Punitive City Revisited: The Transformation of Urban Social Control by Katherine Beckett and Steve Herbert; and Frightening Citizens and a Pedagogy of Violence by William Lyons.

Part III consists of five essays: Smart on Crime by Kamala Harris; Rebelling against the War on Low-Income, of Color, and Immigrant Communities by Gerald Lopez; Of Taints and Time: The Racial Origins and Effects of Florida’s Felony Disenfranchisement Law by Jessie Allen; The Politics of the War against the Young by Barry Krisberg; and Transformative Justice and the Dismantling of Slavery’s Legacy in Post-Modern America by Mary Louise Frampton.

Thematically, this anthology endeavors and succeeds for the most part in developing an appreciation for how the now three decades old and more “war on crime” has lost its momentum and that the national mood may be swinging against this war based on its economic, social, and cultural costs. However, as the contributors reveal the devastation brought by this domestic war and the transformation of American society according to the “logic of crime control” is not easily undone. Nevertheless, in analyzing the formation, the growth, and the effects of the war on street crime across the institutions of society and by employing what I call a “cultural-ideological” approach, the book tries to explain how we got where we are and how we might extricate ourselves and create a post-crime control society. More particularly, the editors also declare that the “reentry problem” or crisis has reframed the debate about crime:

            For decades the issue was whether harsher prison

            sentences could protect Americans from the violent

crimes they most fear. Little attention was paid to what

happened to the people consigned to years of incarceration.

With reentry, the debate has changed to how prisons create

crime risks for Americans and what can be done in and after

prison to diminish the risk.3

In addition, the editors and contributors ask and answer questions about the ways in which government, foundations, communities, and activists can respond in efforts to repair the damage done, especially to those communities most victimized by aggressive policing and strategies of mass incarceration as well as to those persons who have also suffered from years of warehousing in violent and racially divided institutions. In tying these two ends of the problem together, a basic question becomes how does the United States reintegrate those several hundred thousand persons annually that are currently being released back to inner-city urban areas which, for the most part, are incapable of sustained economic activity, social reproduction, and informal social control? Even more fundamentally, as Van Jones wants to know, how do citizens resist the merging of the prison-industrial complex, the military-industrial complex, the national surveillance security state, the “seamless web of repression, from west Oakland to Baghdad,” and the U.S. government acting violent inside of, at, and beyond its borders? In refusing to accept racialized policing and racialized oppression, Jones calls on progressives to move well beyond those welfare state policies that have outlived their usefulness and toward the building of strategies of resistance, which are capable of merging “the struggles for immigrant and refugee rights, for peace and freedom, and for racial justice.”4

            Finally, in reconsidering the future and in imagining a post-war on crime America, the editors call for a new discourse that: (1) exposes the highly artificial and distorted image of the crime problem created by the “nationalizing project,” which essentially rendered it more or less the same crime dilemma from one community to the next community, (2) re-emphasizes “racial justice” as a central axis to reimagining a new criminal justice enterprise, and (3) reconsiders crime control from the perspective that looks beyond criminal justice to the broader questions of governance and democracy, both at home and abroad.

            While I identify the approach taken by After the War on Crime as cultural-ideological, I identify the approach taken by Race, Crime and Justice as “structural-inequitable.” For openers, Krivo and Peterson inform us in their introductory overview that the contributions in this volume examine the “structural underpinnings of racialized justice” in an effort to sort out “how inequality in crime and justice is an outgrowth of structured societal inequality and the dynamic ways that individuals interact with social structures.”5 The articles included in this thematic issue of The Annals are an outgrowth of the work and ongoing activities of the Racial Democracy, Crime, and Justice Network (RDCJN), a diverse set of academics throughout the United States that seek “to stimulate, conduct, and support scholarship that deepens and challenges current knowledge on racial and ethnic differentials in all aspects of crime and justice.”6 These articles also tend to be more ethnographic in nature than the other two anthologies and the contributors are also more racially/ethnically diverse. This no doubt contributes to the fact that though all three volumes reviewed here aim to move beyond one-dimensional analyses of the black-white dichotomy, this collection accomplishes greater racial/ethnic diversity in its examination and analysis than the other two collections.

            In continuing the activities of RDCJN, the editors aver that the included articles contribute further to new and expanding dimensions of knowledge in three ways: “(1) by highlighting the complex and nuanced patterns of involvement in crime and treatment by criminal justice organizations; (2) by assessing the various processes and mechanisms that operate to generate racialized patterns of crime and the application of justice; and (3) by examining the collateral consequences of perceived or actual interactions with the criminal justice system.”7 Accordingly, this collection is divided into three sections consisting of five articles each.

            Section One—Patterns—consists of articles that discuss the patterns of race-ethnic inequality in crime and justice. These include: The Impact of Neighborhood Context on Intragroup and Intergroup Robbery: The San Antonio Experience by Jeffrey Cancino, Ramiro Martinez, Jr., and Jacob Stowell; Youth Violence—Crime or Self-Help? Marginalized Urban Males’ Perspectives on the Limited Efficacy of the Criminal Justice System to Stop Youth Violence by Deanna Wilkinson, Chauncey Beaty, and Regina Lurry; Latino Youths’ Experiences with and Perceptions of Involuntary Police Encounters by Carmen Soils, Edwardo Portillos, and Rod Brunson; The Environmental Context of Racial Profiling by Patricia Warren and Amy Farrell; and The Effects of Race/Ethnicity and National Origin on Length of Sentence in the United States Virgin Islands by Gale Iles. Taken as a whole, these five contributions reveal “how differential involvement with crime and contact with systems of justice are similar or dissimilar across characteristics like immigrant status, nationality, geographic location, time, and/or class.”8

            Section Two—Processes—consists of articles that investigate those social processes that link race/ethnicity to inequitable patterns of crime and justice. These include: Race and the Response of State Legislatures to Unauthorized Immigrants by Jorge Chavez and Doris Marie Provine; Segregated Spatial Locations, Race-Ethnic Composition and Neighborhood Violence by Ruth Peterson and Lauren Krivo; Race, Ethnicity, Class, and Noncompliance with Juvenile Court Supervision by Hilary Smith, Nancy Rodriguez, and Marjorie Zatz; Race Effects of Representation among Federal Court Workers: Does Black Workforce Representation Reduce Sentencing Disparities? by Amy Farrell, Geoff Ward, and Danielle Rousseau; and “Cultures of Inequality”: Ethnicity, Immigration, Social Welfare, and Imprisonment by Robert Crutchfield and David Pettinicchio. Taken as a whole, these five contributions focus on the contextual, organizational, and attributional mechanisms that help to create and reproduce racial and ethnic disparities in both the adult and juvenile justice systems. 

            Section Three—Consequences—underscores the societal consequences of racialized crime and justice patterns, processes, and policies, especially those underlying the development over the past three decades of mass incarceration in the United States. These include: The Consequences of the Criminal Justice Pipeline on Black and Latino Masculinity by Victor Rios; Perceptions of Criminal Injustice, Symbolic Racism, and Racial Politics by Ross Matsueda and Kevin Drakulich; Mass Incarceration of Parents in America: Issues of Race/Ethnicity, Collateral Damage to Children, and Prisoner Reentry by Holly Foster and John Hagan; Sentencing Disadvantage: Barriers to Employment Facing Young Black and White Men with Criminal Records by Devah Pager, Bruce Western, and Naomi Sugie; and Structuring and Re-creating Inequality: Health Testing Policies, Race, and the Criminal Justice System by Bryan Sykes and Alex Piquero. Taken as a whole, these studies help to demonstrate how contemporary criminal justice, and in particular penal policies, not only impact individual offenders and their families inequitably, but they also help to reinforce the larger systems of inequality operating across communities and labor markets.  

             Not unlike the contributions in After the War on Crime, the contributions in the special edition of The Annals on Race, Crime, and Justice, when taken as a whole, represent the efforts by those associated with RDCJN and others “to produce research that will move us toward a more just society in which all groups are full participants.”9 The same may also be written about the research and the authors that contribute to the Racial Divide.

            In terms of the third anthology, I identify Racial Divide as taking an “institutional-macro/micro” approach. In short, this book of readings incorporates an analysis of the structural and unconscious relations of racial justice throughout society, linking the racial and ethnic biases within the criminal justice system to the racial and ethnic biases of the larger society. Comparatively, this anthology is more of an issues-oriented text. It also provides one-third fewer contributions than the other two anthologies and yet this collection is approximately twenty percent longer, revealing in some ways deeper and more theoretically informed or penetrating analyses of the material examined. 

            In this reader’s introduction, The Context of Racial and Ethnic Bias in Criminal Justice Process, editors Lynch, Patterson, and Childs provide a framework that importantly underscores the evidence of racial-economic disparity as it pertains to both African Americans and Hispanic Americans. They also connect these material relations to those institutional relations of discrimination operating throughout American society. They accomplish this by reviewing the enduring social-structural inequities, including those of poverty, education and occupation, geographical segregation, differential opportunities, and life experiences. For just one example, the editors identify those inequities in the residential segregation patterns that are connected to the institutionalized discrimination found in the insurance, housing, and mortgage industries.  

            The ten chapters that follow the introduction are not grouped together or divided into separate sections or parts, as was the case with the other two anthologies. As the editors point out, each of these contributions “stands on its own as a discussion of racial and ethnic biases, but each was included as part of the design of this book to present a well rounded examination of the various dimensions of racial and ethnic bias” within and without the criminal justice system.10  In the first of these chapters, Theories of Racial and Ethnic Bias in Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Michael Leiber presents an overview of the macro-and-micro factors that interact with individual characteristics to produce outcome bias. He also provides a comprehensive discussion of both the traditional and more contemporary explanations of bias that influence criminal justice decision-making. This chapter nicely sets the stage or frames the discussion for the rest of the book.

             The next couple of chapters consider racial bias, policing, and policy reforms that may reduce racial/ethnic disparities in law enforcement. In the first of these, Racially Biased Policing: The Law Enforcement Response to the Implicit Black-Crime Association, Lorie Fridell analyzes the research on unconscious racial bias and how this impacts social behavior. In the second, Perceptions of Bias-Based Policing: Implications for Police Policy and Practice, Brian Williams and Billy Close utilize focus group interview data of police officers and residents from a community where community policing was practiced in order to shed light on the perceived differences of racial bias.

            The four chapters that follow provide in depth reviews of the literature and research on selective enforcement/application and sentencing disparities, on the differences between drug laws and drug enforcement, on minority overrepresentation in prisons, and on the state’s decision to take a life. Respectively, these review essays include: Race, Ethnicity and Sentencing by Amy Farrell and Donna Bishop; Race, Drugs and Juvenile Court Processing by E. Britt Patterson; The Racial Divide in U.S. Prisons: An Examination of Racial and Ethnic Disparity in Imprisonment by Michael Lynch; and Racial Bias and the Death Penalty by Judith Kavanaugh-Earl, John Cochran, M. Dwayne Smith, Sondra Fogel, and Beth Bjerregaard.

            In the final three chapters, the contributors “present unique examinations of racial bias that are often omitted from criminological discussions and that have not previously appeared in a collection of essays examining racial bias and criminal justice.”11 Included here are: Profiling White Americans: A Research Note on “Shopping While White” by Shaun Gabbidon and George Higgins; The Things that Pass for Knowledge: Racial Identity in Forensics by Tom Mieczkowski; and The Neglect of Race and Class in Environmental Crime Research by Paul Stretesky.

            As editors Lynch, Patterson, and Child conclude and as the editors and the contributors to the three anthologies would all probably agree—there remains a deep and persistent racial divide in U.S. society:

                        This racial divide exists on numerous dimensions: as

                        a perception of others or in the form of stereotypes; in

                        vastly different access to health care and education; and

                        in the unequal distribution of economic goods and access

                        to employment. And, despite society’s best interests and

                        intentions, there appear to be unconscious processes that

                        continue to facilitate racial bias in criminal justice


                              Unfortunately, numerous legal remedies and policies—

                        ranging from civil rights laws to affirmative action programs

                        and to enforcement efforts by agencies such as the U.S.

                        Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—have failed

                        to eliminate America’s racial divide. Policies to help achieve

                        this objective, however, must be informed by an understanding

                        of the nature and extent of racial bias in American society and

                        in its institutions, which, in turn, highlights the need for the

                        continued study of this issue within criminology as well as

                        other disciplines.12

Briefly, this consensus over the persistence of the racial divide that I am attributing to an impetus behind each of these anthologies and to the excellent research and scholarship found on the pages therein does not insulate these works from a respectful critique. Such a critique is both “structural-epistemological” and “process-ontological.”

Regarding the former, I am referring to the omission of a “radical criminology” that was characteristic of the legitimation crisis of the 1960s and early 1970s or to the absence of any discussion of a political economy of crime, justice, inequality, status and privilege. In other words, in these anthologies there is scarcely any mention of the workings of capitalism in relation to race, crime, and justice. There are no discussions of how the current practices of crime and the various forms of capitalism shape crime control, including the processes of racial/ethnic, gender, and class disparity. Or more broadly, how capitalist formations shape social institutions, social identities, and social actions. And, how the conflicts and contradictions of race/ethnicity, gender, and class are created by capitalism. Or how, crime and justice are responses to these conflicts and contradictions, and to the multiple ways in which capitalist law facilitates and conceals the crimes of domination and repression committed throughout the world. In short, there are no examinations of how the inequalities of crime and justice are functional to capitalism and to the perpetuation of the skewed distribution of goods and services throughout society. Finally, by ignoring these social relations of production, these anthologies help to perpetuate these inequitable conditions as they contribute to and call for variations of the same old reformist reforms that exempt the structural changes called for, not only from political and social examination, but also from policy development, implementation, and reform.

Regarding the latter, I am referring to the one-dimensional lens or modes of inquiry employed in the study of race, crime, and justice. As valuable as each of these three anthologies are, and as strong as each of these lens—cultural-ideological, structural-inequitable, and institutional-macro/micro—used to examine the racial divide is, an approach that incorporates the three lenses is a more comprehensive and powerful lens. Similarly, but in other ways, I am also referring to the macro-micro need to examine the variables of race/ethnicity, gender/sexuality, and class/status in relation to each other and to crime and justice identities, not through independent and separate lens but through interdependent and intersecting lenses. Finally, what are called for are more integrated approaches that bring all of these lenses to the theory and practice of crime, justice, and inequality in America.13


1 Simon, J. (2007). Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. New York: Oxford University Press.

2 After the War on Crime, p. 3.

3 Ibid. p. 5.

4 Ibid. p. 224

5 Race, Crime, and Justice, p. 7.

6 Ibid. p.8.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid. p. 9.

9 Ibid. p.10.

10 Racial Divide, p. 10.

11 Ibid. p.12.

12 Ibid. pp. 13-14.

13 The one existing book (not anthology) to date to take up this challenge raised in the 1990s by Schwartz, Milovanovic, and other criminologists has been the first (2001), second (2007), and third (2010) edition  of Class, Race, Gender, and Crime: The Social Realities of Justice in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield) by G. Barak, Paul Leighton, and Jeanne Flavin.

Published in Crime, Law, and Social Change, Vol. 53 (3) 2010