Racial-Ethnic Differences in Offending: Labeling Theory Explanation

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There are some major differences in criminal offending, particularly in the ethnic-racial differences among offenders. Studies over the years have shown a correlation between race and crime (Gabbidon, 2015:4) But, why is that? There are three theory’s that adequately explain and justify the ethnic-racial differences in criminal offending. The first theory that adequately explains these differences in the social disorganization theory. This theory was created in the Chicago School during the 1930’s (Gabbidon,2015:50). The second theory that explains the differences in offending, is Labeling Theory, there are several theorists within Labeling theory that have very strong and valid theoretical ideas, but one supersedes the others. Conflict theory is the third theory that does an adequate job at explaining the ethnic-race difference in criminal offending. All these perspectives bring forth valid points, but they can also work together to explain the bigger picture of ethnic-racial differences in crime. No perspective by itself fully explains crime, but maybe together they can.

Social Disorganization was first theorized at the Chicago School in the 1930’s. According to Gabbidon (2015:50), social disorganization was defined by Elliot and Merrill in 1934 as “a breakdown in the equilibrium of forces, a decay in the social structure, so that old habits and forms of social control no longer function effectively.” Elliot and Merrill were suggesting that delinquency in urban areas was defined differently, and they wanted to find out why this was. Social Disorganization theory combined with the Ecological Approach create the combined theory. The theory brakes cities up into 5 zones. These zones are defined by who or what makes up that part(s) of the city. The first zone is comprised of the central buisness districts. The second zone can be considered the ‘slums’ or in more common terms the ‘ghetto’. This zone houses the majority of minority families and businesses. Little Italy and China town for instance would be located in zone two. Zone three is considered the working-class housing. Gabbidon (2015:51) suggests that people who work in zone one, and are still consider working class, will live in zone three. This will also will also be a second immigrant settlement area. The forth zone is considered the residential zone and will have housing and hotels and that’s about it. The fifth zone is considered the commuter zones and will consists of farms, and bungalows. The theory predicts that the farther away from zone one you live; the more crime will decrease. Also, the farther you go out, the more expensive housing is, and the longer the commute. The theory suggests that zone two, which has the most mobility, meaning they are the most easily able to move up within the socioeconomical class, will also have the most crime (Gabbidon,2015:52). The theory also suggests that because of the mobility, it is the most likely for social control to be broken down completely. This intern leads to “ … demoralization, promiscuity, and vice” (Gabbidon,2015:52) Clifford Shaw and Henry McKay, drive home this theory in their own version of it. During Shaw and McKay’s study they found that zone one and two had the highest rates of delinquency(which we will discuss later, leads to criminals and criminal offending)(Gabbidon,2015:54). Shaw and McKay also found that these zones have marked characteristics. Such as population fluctuation, significant welfare users, several ethnic groups in one area, high truancy rates, high levels of unemployment, condemned buildings, and a large number of “…foreign-born or negro ” heads of houses (Gabbidon,2015:54)

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Labeling Theory suggests that our identities are rooted in how other people see, perceive and label us (Gabbidon, 2015:93). There are several theorists within Labeling theory that have solid ideas, such as Charles Cooley and Herbert Mead, Kelly Miller, and Frank Tannenbaum. Edwin Lemert’s Social Pathology however, supersedes them all. Lemert’s theory is very simple in how it works. The model has two processes or steps. The first is known as primary deviance. Primary deviance is wherein the youth commits a deviant act, and continuously commits deviant acts, he or she would them be labeled or stigmatized as a delinquent or deviant individual (Gabbidon 2015:97). After the labeling and/or stigmatization occurs, it is likely that secondary deviance will occur. Secondary Deviance is deviance or delinquency that occurs after a label or stigma has been applied to an individual (Grindal,2019a). Secondary deviance occurs because the individual has accepted the label of delinquent or deviant. The time between primary and secondary deviance can be broken down in to 8 steps. Everything starts with primary deviance and is the first step. This is where the individual either breaks a cultural norm or law. This is followed by societal penalties, which is the second step. Societal penalties could be anything from a ticket, jail time, school suspension, not being invited to community events, etc. This is a form of punishment though for breaking a norm or law. The third step is more primary deviance. This could be breaking the same norm/law, or a new one, its just further primary deviance. The forth step is stronger societal penalties, and rejection. This is most likely going to be two different forms of societal penalties. The fifth, and next step would be more primary deviance, combined with hostility/resentment towards the person or entities penalizing the individual. This is the point where a stigma/label is applied to an individual and is the sixth step. The stigma/label is applied at this point because the community tolerance has been met, and this is the community’s formal way of punishing an individual. The seventh step will happen when an individual again commits a deviant act, and as a result of the stigma/label, it will be worse than previous deviance. The last step is when the individual accepts the label and adjust themselves to fully fulfill the role (Gabbidon,2015:97). Gabbidon (2015:97) goes on to explain that Lemert believed that the reason for the larger overrepresentation of minorities was because of bias, discrimination and the greater visibility of their crimes. Lemert used crime statistics to show the overrepresentation of African Americans, American Indians and even Irish. To this extent, even now, media shows Minority’s crimes more than Caucasians. This leads to harsher societal penalties on all minorities, not just the one who did the crime.

Conflict Theory suggests that there is a power struggle between individuals and/or groups. In the instance of race and crime, and in the context of this paper, the power struggle would be between minority individuals and nonminority individuals. Furthermore, within the U.S.A. the power struggle is between Minority individuals (African Americans, Latinos, Asians, etc.) and Caucasian individuals. Willem Bonger’s work within this area, is a perfect example of the differences between race and crime. Bonger’s classic Criminality and Economic Conditions, emphasizes the importance that capitalism has on crime (Gabbidon, 2015:122). Grindal (2019b) states that “Bonger ties crime to the systematic oppression of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie.” Proletariat’s are poor and working-class people, when talked about as a group or collectively. Bourgeoisie’s are the capitalist class who own most of a society’s wealth and power. In short, Proletariats are the poor and the Bourgeoisie are the rich. Grindal (2019b) also points out that because of the struggle of oppression and survival between the rich and the poor, individuals are more likely to develop attitudes that are lacking in empathy, which in turn accounts for the increase in violent crimes of capitalist societies. One of the main points that is drove how throughout Bonger’s theory is the poor people need to steal resources in a capitalist society, which leads to the increase in poverty crimes (Grindal 2019b). One thing that is only eluded to, but not stated directly is how race plays into Bonger’s theory. Using what is already known about society from the previous two theories that have been discussed, we can conclude who will be included in those under Proletariat. Based the Chicago Schools Social Disorganization and Ecological Theory, we know that zones one and two are mainly poor people, while zones three to five are middle class and up(Gabbidon, 2015: ). Furthermore, from Shaw and McKay’s theory we know that zone two has several minority groups, as well as “foreign born and negro” heads of houses(Gabbidon,2015: ). With this in mind, we can conclude that the poor talked about in Bonger’s theory will include a large number of minority individuals and well as a large number of African Americans.

So, what do we do with this knowledge? How do we change the overwhelming facts about ethnic-racial difference in criminal offending? Well the simple answer should be that we stop labeling each other, and/or a socialist society. But that’s not a realistic answer, that’s a utopian idea. Besides that, some theorist suggest that crime is actually a good part of society, because it helps create change in society (Gabbidon,2015: ) There are two pieces of public policy though, that could change the ethnic-racial differences in criminal offending. The first being situating government controlled affordable housing through all five zones, instead of the first and second zones. This relates back to the Chicago schools Social Disorganization and Ecological Theory. By spreading out the affordable housing, zone one and two will have less minority people squeezed into one area. It’s also well known that police presence and patrols are heightened in areas with a lot of minorities. This is partly why there are higher crime statistic for one race versus another in some cities. By spreading poor and minority people from zones one and two, the education for minority people may go up. This may in turn change the class structure, and move more people out of the lowest class, and result in less poverty crimes. The second being an accountability board within police departments specifically focused at juvenile cases. This board would-be made-up community members of all ethnic groups. It would act as a review board so that police are held accountable for treating all ethnic and racial groups fairly and equally. For example, if a young African American boy commits the same crime as a young white boy, the cases should be treated the same. This relates back to labeling theory, and how primary deviance/delinquency is dealt with. If a Caucasian boy gets into a fight, it is often considered ‘kids being kids’ or ‘boys being boys’, but when a you a young minority boy who does it, it’s considered violent and deviant. The goal of the accountability board is to dissuade police officials/officers from thinking this way and creating more equality in the justice system.

The Ethnic-racial differences in criminal offending is a huge problem not only in the U.S. but in all societies. All three theory’s have valid and good ideas as to why that might be. The Chicago School explanation explains the zones, and where crime is centered. While Willem Bonger’s theory explains why it’s occurring, and the power struggle that creates it. And Edwin Lemert’s theory explains how social penalty’s, labeling and self- identity plays into all of it. Ideally, the hope is that as a society, these differences in offending can be changed. Both spreading out affordable housing, and an accountability board for juvenile cases, are good starts at changing these criminal disparities.


  1. Gabbidon, Shaun L.2015. Criminological Perspectives on Race and Crime. Third Edition. New York, NY; Routledge.
  2. Grindal, Mathew. 2019a. Labeling Theory Explanations.
  3. Grindal, Mathew. 2019b. Conflict Perspective.
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Racial-Ethnic Differences in Offending: Labeling Theory Explanation. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/racial-ethnic-differences-in-offending-labeling-theory-explanation/
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