Monday, May 01, 2023

Social Anatomy of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Violence

nih  | We analyzed key individual, family, and neighborhood factors to assess competing hypotheses regarding racial/ethnic gaps in perpetrating violence. From 1995 to 2002, we collected 3 waves of data on 2974 participants aged 18 to 25 years living in 180 Chicago neighborhoods, augmented by a separate community survey of 8782 Chicago residents.

The odds of perpetrating violence were 85% higher for Blacks compared with Whites, whereas Latino-perpetrated violence was 10% lower. Yet the majority of the Black–White gap (over 60%) and the entire Latino–White gap were explained primarily by the marital status of parents, immigrant generation, and dimensions of neighborhood social context. The results imply that generic interventions to improve neighborhood conditions and support families may reduce racial gaps in violence.

The public health of the United States has long been compromised by inequality in the burden of personal violence. Blacks are 6 times more likely than Whites to die by homicide, a crime that is overwhelmingly intraracial in nature. Homicide is the leading cause of death among young Blacks, and both police records and self-reported surveys show disproportionate involvement in serious violence among Blacks. Surprisingly, however, Latinos experience lower rates of violence overall than Blacks despite being generally poorer; Latino rates have been converging with those of Whites in recent years.

These disparities remain a puzzle because scant empirical evidence bears directly on the explanation of differences in personal violence by race and ethnicity. Aggregate studies based on police statistics show that rates of violent crime are highest in disadvantaged communities that contain large concentrations of minority groups, but disparities in official crime may reflect biases in the way criminal justice institutions treat different racial and ethnic groups rather than differences in actual offending. More important, aggregate and even multilevel studies typically do not account for correlated family or individual constitutional differences that might explain racial and ethnic disparities in violence.

By contrast, individual-level studies tend to focus on characteristics of the offender while neglecting racial and ethnic differences associated with neighborhood contexts. Individual-level surveys of self-reported violence also underrepresent Latino Americans even though they are now the largest minority group in the United States. Blacks residing outside inner-city poverty areas tend to be underrepresented as well, even though there is a thriving and growing middle-class Black population.

Recognizing these limitations, 2 panels from the National Research Council and other major research groups called for new studies of racial and ethnic disparities in violent crime that integrate individual-level differences with a sample design that captures a variety of socioeconomic conditions and neighborhood contexts. We accomplish this objective in the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), a multilevel longitudinal cohort study that was conducted between 1995 and 2002. The study drew samples that capture the 3 major racial/ethnic groups in American society today—Whites, Blacks, and Latinos—and that vary across a diverse set of environments, from highly segregated to very integrated neighborhoods. The analysis in this article focuses on violent offending among participants aged 8 to 25 years. We also conducted an independent survey of the respondents’ neighborhoods, which, when supplemented with data from the US Census Bureau and the Chicago Police Department, provide a broad assessment of neighborhood characteristics to complement individual and family predictors.

COMPETING EXPLANATIONS

Our theoretical framework does not view “race” or “ethnicity” as holding distinct scientific credibility as causes of violence. Rather, we argue they are markers for a constellation of external and malleable social contexts that are differentially allocated by racial/ethnic status in American society. We hypothesize that segregation by these social contexts in turn differentially exposes members of racial/ethnic minority groups to key violence-inducing or violence-protecting conditions. We adjudicate empirically among 3 major contextual perspectives that we derive from a synthesis of prior research.

First, the higher rate of violence among Blacks is often attributed to a matriarchal pattern of family structure; specifically, the prevalence of single-parent, female-headed families in the Black community. Some have augmented this view by arguing that female-headed families are a response to structural conditions of poverty, especially the reduced pool of employed Black men that could adequately support a family.

A second view focuses on racial differences in family socioeconomic context. Many social scientists have posited that socioeconomic inequality—not family structure—is the root cause of violence. Black female-headed families are spuriously linked to violence, by this logic, because of their lack of financial resources relative to 2-parent families.

A third perspective is that racial and ethnic minority groups in the United States are differentially exposed to salient neighborhood conditions, such as the geographic concentration of poverty and reduced informal community controls, that cannot be explained by personal or family circumstances. Prior research indicates that Blacks and, to a lesser extent, Latinos, are highly segregated residentially. Although never tested directly, the implication is that neighborhood segregation may explain individual racial/ethnic gaps in violence.

A prominent alternative to our approach highlights “constitutional” differences between individuals in impulsivity and intelligence (measured as IQ). Although low IQ and impulsivity may be sturdy predictors of violence, their potential to explain racial/ ethnic disparities has rarely, if ever, been examined. We thus assess the constitutional hypothesis that racial/ethnic differences in measured intelligence and impulsivity, more than economic, family, or neighborhood social context, stand as explanations of the observed racial/ethnic gaps in violence.

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