Racial Disparities

The United States is a multiracial, multiethnic society. The major racial/ethnic categories in American society are white, African‐American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American. Racism, an insidious social problem in the United States since the founding of the country, is the belief that members of one or more races are inferior to members of other races. Racism in the United States has been directed primarily by the white majority against racial and ethnic minorities. Historically, the white majority has singled out racial/ethnic minority groups for differential and unequal treatment in the areas of housing, employment, education, and criminal justice.

The meaning of racial disparity

The term racial disparity refers to a difference that may or may not be related to discrimination. Criminal justice experts distinguish between legal and extralegal factors to explain racial disparities in criminal justice. Legal factors include seriousness of the offense and prior criminal record. These are legitimate reasons for disparities because they pertain to an individual's criminal behavior. Extralegal factors include race, class, and gender. These are not legitimate factors upon which to base decisions because they relate to group membership rather than criminal behavior.

Types of racial disparities

One type of racial disparity occurs when there is a significant difference between the percentage of a racial group represented in the general population and the percentage of the same group represented at any point in the justice process. For example, African‐Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but account for about 40 percent of all arrests, 50 percent of the prison population, and 50 percent of the inmates on death row. Another type of racial disparity appears whenever there is a significantly larger percentage of members of a racial/minority group involved in a part of the criminal justice system than whites. For instance, more than 9 percent of all African‐American adult males are in jail or prison or on probation or parole, compared with not quite 2 percent of all white adult males. To cite another example, blacks are four times as likely as whites to be arrested on drug charges—even though the two groups use drugs at almost the same rate.

The reasons racial disparities exist

Racial disparities in criminal justice are explained in three ways: differential involvement, individual racism, and institutional racism. First, African‐Americans and Hispanics are differentially involved in criminality—they commit more crimes. Their criminality is tied to the fact that these groups suffer from poverty and unemployment. Second, some of the disparities are due to the bigotry of individual police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, probation officers, parole officers, and parole board members. This individual racism consists of prejudicial beliefs and discriminatory behavior of individual criminal justice authorities against blacks and other minority group members. Third, part of the disparities can be attributed to institutional racism. This type of racism occurs whenever there are statutes, classifications, and practices that have a “disparate (unequal) impact” on racial minorities.