Genetic Promissory Note with a Moral Twist

A Rapid Book Review[1] of The Genetic Lottery by Kathryn Paige Harden (Princeton University Press)

We all know that our DNA makes us different and unique. To what extent, how, and whether we can understand how our genetic differences shape differences in social and behavioral outcomes has long been debated. [Post posting read–that is a terrible sentence.] The field known as behavior genetics has used family, twin, and adoption studies, and more recently measured genetic differences, to show that our genetic differences are correlated with social and behavioral outcomes that matter to us. The idea that ‘our genes’ shape our social and behavioral outcomes, including educational attainment, dates back at least 50 years.

In her forthcoming work, K. Paige Harden, a now-renowned behavior geneticist at the University of Texas at Austin, draws on these findings to a make a stronger (more controversial) case. Skirting important methodological issues, Harden argues that these studies identify genetic causes of our life outcomes, such as educational attainment, income, wealth, and ‘externalizing’ behaviors (crime, substance use, risky sex). Further, she claims that social science research and policy must incorporate a consideration of genetic differences into our theories, models, and policies if we are to truly understand inequality and reduce it. By positioning herself as distinct from those who are infamous for promoting genetic determinist claims, especially with direct or indirect implications for genetic racial differences in outcomes like IQ, Harden frames herself as a scientific realist with progressive aims. Yet, as I will quickly argue here, the reasonable, progressive story she presents only works by ignoring or downplaying important scientific details. 

Having just finished reading her book, I feel compelled to write something in response, in part because Harden’s writing is engaging, disarming, and persuasive and likely appeals to the segment of the public who hear of the irrational academics who deny biology (e.g., recognition of the reality of biological sex in gender studies) along with those who wish to position themselves against those Galtonian types and Bell Curve supporters of the world, whose works are fodder for white supremacist groups, according to Harden. (She makes several claims that white supremacists are avid consumers of the scientific products of these scholars; I have no idea if that is true). In large part, Harden’s book continues her (and others’) appeal to use genetics because those other (‘bad’) guys will use it anyway and not to good ends. Yet, Harden’s clear prose and ostensibly lucid arguments obscure substantial scientific complexities and unknowns, and contains some leaps in logic and reasoning. With few minutes I have, here are my thoughts hastily written. 

If you are looking for a detailed overview or a description of the biological and methods of contemporary social science genomics (sociogenomics) work, including GWAS, polygenic score studies, sibling difference studies, and the like, look elsewhere. Introducing readers to the science of sociogenomics is not the aim of this book. Indeed, for readers like myself with extensive familiarity with sociogenomics, including Harden’s prior works, this book’s primary new contribution is its (a) depiction of her conception of causality, and (b) a glimpse into her personal life through stories. For those not reading her recent work in which she pitches many of these same arguments (including a 2021 Annual Review of Psychology piece, for the interested reader with less time), Harden does flesh out the arguments that she presents in recent work elsewhere, captured in the summary of the primary aim of her book:

“I am going to argue that [the data showing the] relationship between measured genes and educational outcomes, is also critically important, both empirically and morally, to understanding social inequality. Like being born to a rich or poor family, being born with a certain set of genetic variants is a lottery of birth…. And, like social class, the outcome of the genetic lottery is a systemic force that matters for who gets more, and who gets less, of nearly everything we care about in society” (14-15). 

Harden argues, incorrectly in my view, that the genetic influences on social outcomes, like educational attainment, are not given due attention in social science and policies in part due to our sordid legacy of eugenics, which she immediately addresses head on and from which she distances herself. As a result of this history, in Harden’s view, mainstream social science is ‘biophobic left’, such that it theorizes ‘genetic sameness’ out of fear of what studying genetics might reveal about ourselves and how this may be put to use (in the service of bolstering the status quo and social hierarchies). I will note, and do so more below, I do not think this is a proper characterization of the position of most who critique behavior genetics.

On the other side, Harden argues that there are others who support genetics research on social outcomes, include a eugenics right, which has and will put this to use in the service of inferiorizing racial/ethnic and other disadvantaged groups. Harden positions herself as occupying the rational (ostensibly non-ideological) middle: In contrast to this ‘eugenics view’, Harden states that “[w]hat I am aiming to do in this book is to re-envision the relationship between genetic science and equality.” She asks, “[c]an we peel apart human behavioral genetics … from the racist, classist, and eugenicist ideologies it has been entwined with for decades? Can we imagine a new synthesis? And can this synthesis broaden our understanding of what equality looks like and how to achieve it?” (p18-9).

To this she answers not just ‘yes we can’, but ‘we must’. Indeed, in a surprisingly aggressive section of the book, which departs someone from her tone elsewhere, she argues that to do social research without considering genetic differences between individuals is the moral equivalent not of jaywalking but bank robbery(!!). Specifically, Harden writes about an asserted (but not demonstrated) “tacit collusion in social science to ignore genetic differences between people.” She states such ‘tacit collusion’ (which I dispute exists, more on that below), “is not wrong in the way that jaywalking is wrong…. It’s wrong in the way that robbing banks is wrong. It’s stealing.” 

Yikes. For the non-criminology readers, robbery isn’t ‘stealing’. Robbery is the use of force or threat of the use of force to take something from others; in bank robbery, this would be money. Perhaps if she mentioned this offhand or in a talk, I may let it go, but in a book this was clearly a thoughtful, albeit absurd and unjustified in my view, moral comparison. How does she get here? And, are her arguments sound? [Foreshadowing: no idea and no.]

The journey is interesting, especially with the relatable personal examples, but the logic and evidence presented is partial and tendentious. Harden battles with straw men, overlooks nuance and contrary or complicating evidence, and deftly avoids several of the longstanding critiques of behavior genetics, which now apply to sociogenomics: these include the population specificity and, therefore, incomparability of heritability studies across groups (defined, for example, by social class), the social construction of the outcomes, and downward causation, as well as a host of methodological issues, including assumptions and limitations, in current GWAS and other sociogenomics studies.

 I do think there is much to discuss on these issues (in fact, I’m writing a book about it myself), but charitable engagement with different views and thorough engagement with existing scientific evidence and theory is not found in this book, in my reading. She’s selling a view, in part by curiously denigrating her opponents while ignoring their critiques. I’ll briefly break down the arguments into their two parts to reveal the shortcomings. 

First, Harden’s portrayal of the genetic-resistant, even biophobic, mainstream social science is misguided, in my view. Few to zero social scientists believe endorse a ‘genetic sameness’ or ‘blank slatist’ view of the world, where individuals are genetically the same, and no scholar I’ve ever met. While her book is thin on citations, for a university press book, these sections are particularly sparse in terms of actual references. Rather than scholars, Harden references speeches and claims made by non-scientist, then president Bill Clinton on the Human Genome Project in support of her arguments for the mainstream social scientist view of ‘genetic sameness’. This straw man depiction allows Harden to dismiss social scientific critiques as being ideological rather than scientific—and no doubt some are ideological. But others are scientific. These are curiously ignored or quickly dismissed without engagement. 

Harden also repeats the longstanding argument that social science genomics continues to be relegated to the margins of academia and ignored by social scientists. Yet, here too, the evidence is missing, and I disagree. Harden has received considerable public and private funding, including prestigious fellowship, like several of her sociogenomics and behavior genetic colleagues. She, like those colleagues, publishes in high prestige general science outlets and social science outlets. Sociogenomics work receives public and media fanfare that I would argue is significantly greater than that of most social scientific work. The claim that the public and academics are tacitly colluding to ignore genetics is surely questionable (and requires supportive evidence) given that Harden herself has graced the pages of the NYT and New Yorker, as well as the Guardian, the Atlantic, and others, with these same arguments—with much fanfare–in addition to publishing these ideas in prestigious social science journals. Given sociogenomicists’ success in funding, publication, awards, and popularity—where exactly is the ‘tacit collusion’ to ignore this work? As Aaron Panofsky has argued, this claim that behavior genetics scholars scholars are outsiders fighting a reality-resistant academia is central to the identity of this field. Yet, at present, I keep coming back to ‘who does she think believes ‘genes don’t matter” because she doesn’t cite these people; (some personal correspondences where no one says ‘genes don’t matter’ are discussed). I think Harden’s creating an oversimplified, inaccurate portrait of critics on the political left is a result of her misunderstanding our critiques (which I turn to next).

Harden takes great pains to distance herself from the ‘eugenics’ or ‘Galtonian’ scholars, such as Robert Plomin, and the late Herrnstein as well as Charles Murray (of the Bell Curve infamy). Although at times I found myself concerned that she was exaggerating their differences, it seems clear that Harden truly believes that studying social science genetics is not just consistent with supporting egalitarianism, but it is necessary to creating a better society. Yet, why this is the case is never clearly articulated, in my reading. Importantly, in making this case for its importance (and the moral imperative that social scientists include genetics), Harden skips over some important methodological details and less supportive studies that would cast some doubt about her claims. 

For example, Harden notes that education polygenic scores explain from 10-14% in educational attainment (without noting this is basically net of only age and sex and 10 or so ancestry PCs). While mentioning that these findings ‘hold up’ when using sibling studies, which control for the potential environmental confounding variables by examining differences between siblings who share such environments, she never acknowledge that the variance explained/effect size drops in these sibling studies from 10-14% to <3%. Nor does she note that the variance explain dives when well-known, easily measurable variables like parental income and educational attainment, are included. Throughout she grapples with ‘genetics of educational attainment’ which, she claims, causally explains more than 10% of differences in educational attainment rather than the more realistic (net of relevant controls) relatively <3%.

This matters for her thesis. Given that ‘genetics’ explains less than 3% of the variance in educational attainment net of environmental confounds, it is (a) unlikely that it will explain away *larger* social environmental influences, such that we are being morally bankrupt (or rather bank robbers) for not included genetic measures in social scientific models, and (b) unlikely to significantly shape public policies in a way that would radically change things. That is not to say it can’t; some social scientific variables that are considered important explain less than 3% of the variance in outcomes. Yet, we have some idea what these variables are and what they do. This is not the case with current sociogenomics studies.

Harden also ignores concerns about what these GWAS results indicate. She barely mentions, more as a quick aside, that GWASs do not measure genes or causal variants, and that efforts at biological annotation (i.e., linking these measured genetic variants with genes, much less causal variants) remains an exercise in educated guesswork. She asserts that, for example, the ‘genes relevant to educational attainment are found in the brain’, while also recognizing elsewhere that because we, for example, treat taller, more attractive people better, they have advantages in educational and labor market outcomes which would, in her view, be appropriately deemed a genetic cause. That we still don’t know what most genes do is fully ignored in this book. The charge that scholars that fail to consider genetic influences are morally equivalent to bank robbers against this backdrop seems silly at best.

Ignoring Downward Causation

Harden devotes a section to causation to bolster her (quite controversial) claim that heritability studies identify genetic causes of individual differences. Curiously, she does not sufficiently engage with the work of her mentor who has written several pieces articulating why heritability studies are not about cause, (personally, I agree with her mentor Turkheimer on this one). Even more surprisingly, she uses the hypothetical from Sandy Jencks explaining how putative genetic causes reflect social causation and thus heritability studies cannot be used to inform us about biological causes. In Jencks’ well-known hypothetical, under an arbitrary social policy that banned red-haired people from getting an education, genetic differences related to (causing) red hair would appear as genetic causes of educational attainment, despite the cause actually being the social policy proscribing education for those individuals. This is really important to understand, as I believe this is a key source of differences in approach between scholars such as Harden and myself, and why behavior geneticists like Harden are speaking at not with behavior genetic critics.

The red hair example seems, on the one hand, preposterous because we obviously would never exclude people based on their hair color….but then you remember we excluded people on the basis of skin color and sex not very long ago. But, today, you say, this wouldn’t happen in western industrialized countries, even if in other parts of the world some biological characteristics (e.g., sex) do restrict people from education. What I and others have argued, and Harden does not fully account for, is the fact that our genes, and thus the effects of our genetic differences, always operate in context, and an unequal one at that. And, genetic studies—even sibling difference studies—do not control fully for context. As Harden recognizes, people who are more attractive tend to be treated better in a variety of social environments, including educational ones. But does anyone—besides Harden—really think we want to focus on genetic differences related to greater attractiveness as causing higher education? Whether or not this is properly treated as a ‘cause’ of educational attainment, how in the world is this useful to help (a) advance knowledge or (b) ameliorate inequality in a world where we can easily see who is more conventionally attractive and measure any privileges they may experience from it (see Monk, Esposito, & Lee 2021). Second, again, we do not know what most genes do (and, as Harden doesn’t really explain well, we don’t measure genes in GWASs, we measure variants). 

I, and others, have a serious problem with studies of the ‘genetic potential for educational attainment’ because they confuse downward causation with upward causation by viewing genes as the primary cause of action. The effect will be—as Harden admits openly—that social policies that give meaning to genetic differences that are otherwise not involved in the biology of educational attainment, will be conceptualized as ‘genetics of potential’ or ‘innate differences’, when they may result from social and physical arrangements. To use but one real world (non-red haired exclusion policy) example, many kids have a lot of energy and struggle with the artificial nature of the classrooms that require us to stay still and be quiet, much more so than the careers that we may choose and the lives we craft around them (e.g., use lunch break to go on a run)–because everyone must go to school, usually not of their choosing, but we have agency in the choice of our jobs (within huge constraints, of course). Yet, in a school district where recess and exercise is shortened or not daily (as I experienced in my third grade class when I struggled to ‘not talk so much’, where we had recess only on Mondays and I ended up in the principle’s office for talking too much), or in all schools where physical activity and movement breaks are arbitrarily restricted, those kids who have a higher metabolism or more energy—in many ways and contexts a positive trait—will be penalized, stigmatized (maybe as ADHD, when they just need to move more), and struggle. Do these kids have a lesser ‘genetic potential for educational attainment’? I would say no. Harden’s view would say yes. 

Aha, but you may argue, Harden thinks we need to understand these differences, identify these ‘high energy genes’, and accommodate those individuals!! That all sounds well and good, but a closer look suggests otherwise. Talk to a first-grade teacher (such as my sister), and you will find that within the first few days of class she can often readily identify the students who have excess energy and could benefit from (my words) ‘a good running’ (such as my own son). Second, recall the effects of these genetic variants are MINISCULE. There is no ‘high energy gene’ that we can find and figure out what it does, and again, we can usually already identify the high energy kids with ease by watching them for a day or two.

What Harden fails to acknowledge and grapple with is the fact that most teachers can readily identify students who struggle, and many teachers can understand the source of their struggles (focus versus logic, versus application of concepts, versus problem solving). In a recent piece, Morris et al. (2020) examined whether ‘education-related genetics’ could actually provide more useful information than well-established, easily measurable variables such as prior GPA, parental educational, current performance in shaping policies or programs to enhance educational attainment. They concluded, quite clearly, that genetics does not really move us forward in policy or programs or understanding.

Harden suggests that by incorporating genetics, we will have better interventions and waste less money, but how is that supposed to work? We have already identified low hanging fruit, in terms of large effect size genes for monogenic disorders. The genetic influences on educational attainment are nothing like that, instead characterized by thousands of variants associated with educational attainment for reasons we do not know and probably, for most, will never really understand (at least in the next several decades, if ever). Given that Harden agrees that genetic engineering is unwise, what, exactly, does she think this offers us? She doesn’t tell us in this book.

In sum, because my time is running out, Harden’s book is interesting, if oversimplified and unsatisfying. She exhorts us to incorporate genetics for a more egalitarian society, but does not tell us how this would enhance understanding or make society more equal. And, she rightly notes that resources are not unlimited, which is why I question our application of millions of public funding to the understanding of genetic influences on educational attainment when the payoff is unspecified.

Harden thinks the worst-case scenario is that we are going to find that some people are just ‘better at educational attainment’ which could be used to justify the status quo, which is why we have to study it with an egalitarian approach. I disagree. We already know some people are better at educational attainment, just like some people are better at golf, playing musical instruments, learning foreign languages, and dancing (not me). We aren’t all the same. However, education is not like height or deafness, two examples she uses frequently as analogies. Educational attainment is not a ‘biological trait’, except in the banal sense that everything we do is biological because we are biological creatures. Given the state of knowledge, we already know that genetic effects are far too complicated to link to such a distant, complex, socially constructed outcome like educational attainment. Instead, in my view, the realistic worst-case, is, as we have seen for the candidate gene era and candidate gene interaction era before it, that we throw tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of scientists hours chasing a chimera of actionable or useful genetic influences for social disparities. I’d rather throw that money at social interventions that may not work well, but they might help a few. Harden disagrees, which she is free to do, but I won’t call her a bank robber [the moral equivalent of] for thinking differently.

Back Cover Description of ‘The Genetic Lottery’

A provocative and timely case for how the science of genetics can help create a more just and equal society

In recent years, scientists like Kathryn Paige Harden have shown that DNA makes us different, in our personalities and in our health—and in ways that matter for educational and economic success in our current society.

In The Genetic Lottery, Harden introduces readers to the latest genetic science, dismantling dangerous ideas about racial superiority and challenging us to grapple with what equality really means in a world where people are born different. Weaving together personal stories with scientific evidence, Harden shows why our refusal to recognize the power of DNA perpetuates the myth of meritocracy, and argues that we must acknowledge the role of genetic luck if we are ever to create a fair society.

Reclaiming genetic science from the legacy of eugenics, this groundbreaking book offers a bold new vision of society where everyone thrives, regardless of how one fares in the genetic lottery.

[1] Because I’m busy, like everyone else, but I also have things I want to say about things, I allow myself ‘fun writing’ on topics that I feel compelled to write about, without encroaching upon my family/leisure time and/or my work time. So, I am giving myself 30 minutes write this review. These are quick thoughts written hastily because I want to and I can. I ran out of time to think of a catchy title, so this one, which is disappointing, will have to do.

Response (Objection) to My Removal from Editorial Board

For those interested, I thought I would provide a quick update about my response (objection) to my removal from the Feminist Criminology Editorial Board. Quick reminder: I was removed because I published a peer-reviewed article in said journal that recognized the distinction between sex and gender and opposed the prioritization of in-the-moment gender self-ID over sex for access to all (formerly) sex-separated spaces, no exceptions. (See here for a description of situation.)

Last week I requested a review of the rationale and process of my removal from the editorial board. I directed this request for review of the process and justification to the Chair of the Division of Women and Crime (DWC), who convened with the DWC Executive Board (this is the group that voted to accept the recommendation of the (overlapping) Editorial Board Committee to remove me on the basis of my ‘WrongSpeak)’. The overlap is due to Dr. Vanessa Garcia, who basically served in multiple, non-independent, roles in this particular situation.

DWC Backdrop: Late last year, the DWC chair stepped down, chair-elect became chair, a vocal group on the listserv pressured all non-BIPOC non-LGBTQ Executive Board members to step down; they did, including the new chair. Vanessa Garcia became the acting (unelected) chair; she and the executive board members (some unelected) developed the new ‘diversity and inclusion statement’ and created a new ‘Editorial Board Committee’ to oversee the Feminist Criminology Editorial Board; (I’ve never heard of an editorial board committee), which she then appoints herself to serve on, serves on and recommends my removal, and then when the recommendation to remove me reaches the Executive Board, she then votes as a member in support of my removal.

On May 13, 2021, I wrote this to the Chair of the DWC

Naively, I believed that I would write this email, and they would recognize the lack of procedural justice, and we would have a healthy discussion and they would be willing to poll the members. Alas, no.

I received this response a week later.

I blocked emails and their names out of courtesy, but the board and committee membership information can be seen on the ASC’s Division of Women and Crime website.

I suppose I should no longer be shocked, but I am. The request was simple: allow me to have a voice in these one-sided proceedings, poll the membership to see if my removal was something that the membership would approve. Apparently, they do not just oppose free inquiry and oppose the airing of diverse viewpoints on important social issues related to women and crime, but also they are not interested in fair or democratic procedures.

Good to know.

Context of my Removal from the Editorial Board of Feminist Criminology

I wanted to clarify a few things about this situation, given the interest and the peculiarities of academia that may not be known to many and to add context so that people who should not be blamed for this outcome are not blamed (if blame is deemed necessary for anyone—I prefer to focus on the larger sociopolitical context in which these things happen—I am a sociologist after all—and interrogate this current moment in which a certain contingent of social activists have deemed it not only justifiable, but proper, to silence any discussion about sex and negotiation of competing sex-based and gender-identity-based rights. Some might say, and I might agree, this is part of the larger ‘woke’ movement among those who identify with the Left. I might note that my political beliefs position me on the Left, but I believe in the importance of evidence, reason and logic, and a material reality in which we all exist). On to the context.

#1: This was not a decision of the editorial board or the editor of Feminist Criminology. 

I was informed by the editor of the journal about my removal and given this information.

Email received on 04.22.21

#2: Academic backdrop (getting through the academic speak):

My job is as an associate professor with tenure in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. That is my primary job. Academics have teaching, research, and service jobs, and serving on an editorial board is both a service-honor job. It is, basically, a recognition that you are a scholar whose expertise and peer reviews are deemed valuable (some esteem or prestige) and comes with the expectation that you review for the journal 3-8 submitted manuscripts per year (depending on the journal, in my experience). Thus, for those concerned (thank you, dear hearts), I have not lost my job job. I have instead been cast out of a position by a professional association and group because they claim I am a ‘transphobe’ whose ‘anti-LGBT’ sentiment and presence is not acceptable for the Division of Women and Crime’s journal, Feminist Criminology. 

I consider this slanderous. Feel free to read my writings and decide for yourself, but I have no hate for transgender people and I support non-discrimination and human rights protections for them. 

#3: My Article 

This labeling of my work as transphobic and me as ‘anti-LGBT’ has followed from my article published in Feminist Criminology in 2020 (Article here.) The article is critical of the Equality Act’s terminological imprecision (conflation of sex & gender identity) and prioritization of gender self-identification over biological sex for currently sex-separated provisions (in all circumstances, no exceptions). 

I submitted my article, Scrutinizing the Equality Act, which sought to remedy the lack of consideration for the effect of the Equality Act on females and women (however defined). It was published under a normal process. I submitted to the journal after completing the manuscript; I received a revise and resubmit (reviewers suggest changes and issues to be addressed); I then resubmitted; I received a ‘conditional accept’ [which means the journal is committing to publishing your paper conditional upon successfully addressing a few remaining comments and formatting issues], then it was published. I was told that I might expect people to write a response to the piece. That was great with me because I wanted to stimulate discussion and debate (not foreclose it), and I admit I have only partial knowledge and not all the answers. 

The initial response was not too much. I received a number of emails from people thanking me for writing the piece, and a few mentions on twitter (including from people in the DWC) about my ‘horrible, harmful, essay’ and the like, and some chastising the journal for the ‘horrible transphobia’. Several months passed, and aside from a few complaints that came up a few times, I was not aware of much happening. (Of course, I am not privy to what goes on behind the scenes at the journal.)

Early this year (I think), I received two responses to my article, including one that has the term ‘transphobia’ in the title, calls me a ‘cis-white feminist’ and calls my work (and the recognition of the material reality of sex) ‘colonizing transphobia’. While I find the responses to be unconvincing or irrelevant, I did want to stimulate a discussion. 

I was encouraged by the editorial board to turn my response around quickly so that these could be published. I wrote the response over the weekend (sorry family!!) and submitted; later an RR, and I resubmitted. It is currently still under review. In the meantime, the 2 responses to my piece appeared online (have been published as online first now for 2 months), and another response was published online recently—which I had not seen or known about. 

The posting of article responses without replies is unusual, in my experience, but I understand the pressure the journal has been under, so I have not complained. The editor and advisory board, I believe has been pressured to renounce my paper as transphobic and anti-LGBT—and to their great credit, they have not done so. I knew this was a fraught issue—but one that we must discuss, and I knew it would be difficult. 

However, this isn’t how academia is supposed to work or how it works normally. We discuss, we debate, and science proceeds through the resolution of controversy, expansion of understanding, and correction of mistakes.

#4: The Division of Women and Crime Backdrop

I had been a member of the Division of Women and Crime (DWC), since 2002. I received (and greatly appreciated) a student paper award from them while a graduate student in 2004. 

The DWC has a listserv. And a vocal crew on the listserv began to complain about several things, among them, ‘Callie Burt’s transphobic article’. Never mind that none engaged with the substance I wrote or identified anything that I wrote that was specifically transphobic. [Because there isn’t anything actually genuinely transphobic, in my view.] The discussions continued, and this included pressure for ‘non-BIPOC LGBTQIA2S+’ DWC ‘leaders’ to step down from their positions. Many did; those that remained created a new Diversity and Inclusion statement (see here or save your time), which included the following. 

The DWC’s non-inclusive ‘inclusivity’ statement

I might draw your attention to the fact that among the ELEVEN ‘discriminations’ the Board denounces, discrimination based on ‘sex’ is not one of them—predictably gender identity or expression is one of them. Among the additional actions made by this haphazard board with a chair who was unelected and prior to the ‘special elections’ that took place after those elected were encouraged to step down for their lack of diversity, included this:

The editor, who during her term has increased the status of the journal on all metrics of which I am aware, normally selects a board and that is that. I was asked and agreed to serve in the role as a reviewer several years ago. I agreed to review every manuscript that was sent my way, and I was always timely in my reviews.

This new advisory group, it might be noted is composed of 5 individuals at least 3 of whom had previously signed a letter calling my article ‘transphobic’.

Thus, reading this diversity and inclusion statement, it was obvious to me that they didn’t want diversity or inclusion in thought or ideas. I therefore resigned from the Division of Women and Crime with the following email.

Dear colleagues,

I am leaving the DWC effective as soon as Susan removes me from the list, as it is clear you do not wish to have a diversity of LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC voices—as the new inclusivity statement implies. You have made it quite clear that my voice and that of others who have concerns about sex self-ID for access to prisons, rape-crisis shelters, domestic violence centers, etc. are not welcome or allowed here.

I’ve appreciated being a member of DWC for the past nearly 20 years, and I appreciated the focus on women, girls, and crime—that was long overlooked and neglected. Thanks to the incredible work of many people in this group and those that came before this topic is no longer overlooked or under theorized. 

However, a division that traffics in mantras and refuses to engage with people raising valid concerns (dismissing people for ‘hateful wrong think’), is not a group I wish to be a member of. For those of you who consider me a ‘meany’, baddie, hater who is a transphobe, you’re probably relieved. But you are wrong. I am not a transphobe, and I do not hate trans people or males or anyone. 

Just this week reports came out of a male who self-ID’ed into the women’s prison in Washington state and raped a female prisoner housed there. I think that’s something to discuss; your explicit position is that doing so is hateful transphobia that must be silenced for inclusivity and the well-being of transgender people. But what about females and transwomen who would be harmed by predatory males self-ID’ing into women’s spaces?

Many of you were part of the LGBT movement in the late 1990s/early 2000s, and some of you weren’t. I was. We didn’t effect change by refusing to engage, dismissing those who disagreed, and censoring any discussion of negotiating gay rights. We were successful because we talked. We tried to understand the positions of others and helped them see ours. Maybe your attempts to censor any discussion of sex will work to effect the change you wish to see in the world. Maybe it won’t. Regardless of the outcome, I do not find the division’s silencing discussion of issues, which are complex and multilayered and sometimes uncomfortable, acceptable in academia or in the Division of Women and Crime. 

I wish you well, and I’m sad to go. But I refuse to go along silently with a group that calls discussion of gender/sex-self-ID ‘transphobic’ when there are real issues to discuss here that have everything to do with the safety of females and transwomen and nothing to do with hate or bigotry.

Be well,


#5: The group of 5 advisors takes among its first tasks a vote of ‘non-confidence’ [sic] on my role as a member of the Feminist Criminology editorial board.

The email noted that the DWC board approved their recommendation, which was then sent to the editor to implement.

I might note, I just held a vote at my kitchen table, and I unanimously (1-0) voted in favor of no confidence in the editorial board committee. 

A Reply to DWC Listserv complaints about the publication of my article ‘Scrutinizing the Equality Act’

A group of scholars in the American Society of Criminology’s Division of Women and Crime (DWC), of which I am a member, have recently emailed to the listserv a statement signed by other DWC members, which expresses several grievances, among them the publication of my recent article ‘Scrutinizing the Equality Act’ in Feminist Criminology.

Here, I limit my response to those that address my paper as ‘TERF hatred’ and the publication of my paper by the journal as the promulgation of objectionable transphobia. 

First, I reject charges that my article is ‘transphobic’, ‘hateful’, and ‘unfriendly to queer people’. Critics, including signatories, have repeatedly called my work ‘hateful’, ‘transphobic’, ‘horrible’, and so on. They are free to make such claims, and as I noted in the paper and in response to several tweets, I remain open to a discussion of these issues. I welcome debate; indeed, stimulating discussion was the purpose of my article. 

Second, I find it disturbing that people fail to see (or comment on) the inconsistencies between levelling charges of harm, hurt, queer and trans exclusivity, and other such accusations at my work, myself, and Feminist Criminology while making obviously hurtful charges at same. This is particularly odious given the blatant misrepresentation (or misunderstanding) of my arguments. I can only speculate as to their reasons for non-engagement with the substance, but their actions suggest they prefer condemnation and name-calling over rational debate and critique. Given the lack of engagement, I can only make conjectures about their objections, but the most obvious seems to be that they do not think sex exists as a material reality and, therefore, issues related to sex and the needs of female people, including discussion of sexism, are verboten. I expect people on the political right to deny the persistence of sexism, but a denial of sex and sexism from the Division of Women and Crime is alarming. 

If the name-calling was meant to change my position or deter me from expressing my concerns, I am sorry to inform that such tactics are unlikely to be successful. I am persuaded by logic and evidence not name-calling and slander. Whether they have deterred others from speaking out or engaging with the issues discussed in my article remains to be seen. I hope not. But I remain resolute that we feminists have a responsibility to consider how sweeping legislation that would prioritize unchallengeable gender-self-ID over biological sex would affect females. This does not imply a prioritization of females or a lack of concern, much less hatred, for transgender people. 

In a society where you have to show formal government ID to *buy a beer*, the idea that any male person can gain access to female provisions, including rape crisis centers, prisons, shelters, and other spaces and events, simply by uttering the magic words “I identify as a woman” – no sincerity required – is absurd and displays a callous disregard for the well-being of females and ostensibly a misunderstanding of the rationale of sex-separated spaces. IF ANYONE CAN OPT IN TO PROTECTED SPACES ON A SAY-SO, THEY ARE NO LONGER PROTECTED SPACES, SO WHAT IS THE POINT?!! (Yes, I’m yelling that one, because I’d really like an answer.)

I was prepared for a heated discussion, but I must admit my deep disappointment with my DWC colleagues who make no attempt to engage in a dialogue, to acknowledge the substance of my critique, including my recognition of the need to protect transgender persons, and instead engage instead in gossip, name-calling letters, and attacks on the editorial team who bravely published my piece without endorsing it. Condemning the editorial team for a) publishing an article that went through peer review and/or b) not accepting (‘desk rejecting’) a response to said article, is unprofessional. Personally, I have had several responses desk rejected at various journals, so I understand the disappointment of rejection. However, having a response rejected does not justify an attack of an editorial team. Nor does the rejection preclude their posting a response to many preprint outlets or blogs, as I and others have done to articles in the past, while they attempt publication in other outlets.

I entered this debate, like others, given a sense of political urgency after the House passage of the Equality Act, in its problematic form, and the upcoming election. I believed that a discussion among criminologists, many of whom are intimately familiar with the disturbingly high rates of victimization and trauma in women in prison, domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers, and other sex-separated spaces from male violence (often sexual violence), would be beneficial. That a discussion that considers how a fundamental shift from sex-based to gender-identity based rights could affect females is off-limits in the division of WOMEN and crime, is quite simply not a state of affairs I find acceptable nor am I willing to accept. Once again, quoting Kathleen Stock, I object to letting “even small numbers of females be the automatic collateral in sweeping social changes such as those proposed”, without any discussion or consideration for their needs. In sum, their unwillingness to engage with the substance of my arguments is disappointing because I have always acknowledged that my knowledge is partial like everyone else’s.

Best wishes to all of my colleagues, including those condemning my article, during this difficult time. I remain hopeful that we can, in some not-so-distant future, recognize that we can disagree without malice, debate without slander, and find strength in our commonalities and stimulation from our differences and work together to make the world a safer, better place for all people.

**Apologies in advance for typos. Written in a hurry because first week of classes.

Against California’s SB132

A Leftist’s Opposition

California’s SB132 would drastically alter current arrangements to allow people to choose whether they are housed in the men’s or women’s prison. There are no doubt good intentions behind this bill, including its aim to protect transgender individuals from assault and abuse in prison. In current form, the bill displays a blatant disregard for the reality of male violence against women.

SB132’s problems are threefold. First, the bill prioritizes gender self-identification over (biological) sex, ignoring the reality of differentially sexed (male and female) bodies. This despite the fact that international standards, such as the UN’s Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners, prescribe sex separated facilities. Transwomen are not (biological) females (or they wouldn’t be trans); therefore, SB132 violates international standards for the separation of male and female prisoners.

Notably, SB132’s replacement of gender with sex is neither defended in statute nor justifiable in light of continued male violence and sexual harassment of females, which is facilitated not only by their greater size and strength (attributable to sex, not gender) as well as male socialization. Research shows that transwomen offend at a rate that is statistically indistinguishable from (non-trans) men; both offend at a rate much higher than that of non-trans women. 

Second, SB132 creates a clash of rights unnecessarily. Housing in the women’s estate is not an answer to the problems that transwomen face—which include abuse and violence. Importantly, a 2019 study by UC Irvine researchers found that most transwomen in prison prefer to be housed in the men’s estate.  SB132 would do nothing to increase the safety, respect, or dignity for those nearly 65% of transwomen who would remain in the men’s estate. At the same time, SB132 would undermine the safety, dignity, and well-being of females housed in the women’s estate by allowing males into a female population with high rates of male victimization.

Many incarcerated women have been targeted by male physical and sexual abuse, and evidence suggests that at least one in five suffer from PTSD—a rate that is eight-fold higher than the general population rate. Yet, SB132 would require females to be housed with transwomen–85% of whom retain male genitalia and many of whom have lived most of their lives as men. 

Notably, SB132 has no gatekeeping whatsoever, so that any male (not just sincere transwomen) could self-ID into the women’s estate simply by saying “I feel like a woman”. It’s one thing (and a good one at that) to prohibit the firing of people for being transgender. It is another thing entirely to say that females have to share jail or prison cells with any male who is willing to say “I identify as a woman” to gain access to the women’s estate. 

This reliance on gender self-ID without any gatekeeping is the most egregious problem with SB132. What this means is that any male can opt to be housed in the female estate. Even males convicted of serial rape of women can simply say they ‘identify’ as women and they would be treated in every way as if they were female under this bill. That’s not simply misguided, that’s absolutely absurd and displays a callous disregard for the well-being of imprisoned females. 

Some may suggest that men would never say they identify as a woman. They would be wrong. Indeed, the very scenario described above played out in England in 2018. Karen White, a born male, was incarcerated for charges of sexually assaulting women. Under UK’s gender self-ID policies (which they have since changed), White identified into the women’s estate despite their history of assault. Once there, White proceeded to sexually assault two incarcerated women, charges for which White was later convicted. Although the White incident is particularly egregious, it is neither a lone aberration nor should we expect it to be, as predatory men will go to extraordinary lengths to prey on women. 

Fortunately, there are alternatives to the current form of SB132; namely, policies that can protect transwomen without undermining the privacy, safety, and dignity of females from predatory males. Italy and the UK (the latter after several negative incidents and an admitted failure to strike a balance between sex and gender identity rights), have established separate transgender prison units. This can be modeled after the LA County jail’s K6G unit, which houses transwomen and gay males separate from the general population. There is evidence this is an effective compromise, which protects individuals at risk in sex-separated general population without undermining the privacy or safety of another vulnerable group—females. 

Albeit with the laudable aim of protecting transgender people, California’s SB132 would undermine the safety of both females and transwomen in the women’s estate without addressing the problems that transwomen in the men’s estate continue to face. SB132 would not only produce some obvious absurdities (requiring female officers to treat male genitalia based on a feminine gender identity), but more importantly undermines the rights of female people, threatening the well-being of females and transwomen in the process. After all, if male predators can opt into the women’s estate on just their say-so, the safety of everyone in the women’s estate is undermined.

Good intentions–protecting transwomen–are not enough. All too often, legislation has unintended negative consequences disproportionately affecting already marginalized groups. In this case, the negative consequences for females are foreseeable and should be recognized. SB132 is a terrible bill. We deserve better. It should be opposed.


*I will note that I submitted this piece–not my best work (written in a hurry)–to the San Francisco Chronicle, the LA Times, and the Orange County Registrar. None were interested, which is reasonable. However, none, to my knowledge, have written about these issues with SB132.

Idaho HB500: Pro-Female not Anti-Trans

Similar versions of this piece appeared in the Idaho Statesman (see here) and the Post Register (see here)

On April 15, the ACLU filed a legal challenge to Idaho’s HB500, named the “Fairness in Women’s Sports Act’. This bill is the first of its kind, which seeks to maintain the sex separation of sport. Criticized as the discriminatory, hurtful, and anti-transgender, the ACLU suggested that this bill ‘bans trans girls from sports,” by “addressing a problem that does not exist.” Idaho ACLU Legal Director Ritchie Eppink noted that “we have been fighting this hateful, unconstitutional legislation since it was introduced.” They have been fighting it, but is it hateful, discriminatory, and anti-trans? No. Does it address a real problem? Yes.

Sports are separated by sex because of male-female biological differences of which we are all aware. Starting before puberty and accelerating thereafter, males are stronger, faster, and bigger than females, on average, and it is not close. Furthermore, this sex-difference isn’t about socialization or effort; it is about biology. Male physiology (muscle mass, greater hemoglobin, bone strength, hip shape, lower fat composition) is exceptionally advantageous for sport. For example, as Coleman and Shreve demonstrated, 400-meter Olympic champion Allyson Felix has her lifetime best time (49.26 seconds) beaten by more than 15,000 boys and men every year. The most lauded women’s sports team of this decade, the US Women’s National Soccer Team, was defeated by the FC Dallas boys age 15 and under team 5-2 before going on to win the Women’s World Cup later that year. If sports were not sex separated, there would be almost no female college athletes, no female professional athletes, and zero female Olympic athletes for the vast majority of sports (e.g., track, swimming, tennis, basketball, soccer, cycling, hockey, and so on). For female athletes to gain benefits from competitive sport, including the possibility of being on teams and winning occasionally, sports must be sex separated. This is not debatable.

Enter gender. In recent years, we have seen various countries and US jurisdictions pass or tacitly allow gender self-identification as a replacement for sex in a variety of arenas including sports. Many of these bills and efforts no doubt have good intentions, but they are misguided. Gender (identity) is not a synonym for sex. People who are transgender experience a ‘sex-gender mismatch’, but they still have a sex and it is on that basis that they are transgender. People should not be discriminated against on the basis of gender and transgender people deserve full human rights. There is, however no ‘human right’ to opposite-sex provisions. In other words, maintaining sex-based rights, including sex separated sports, is not discriminatory against people of the opposite sex (including transgender people).

To be clear, being transgender, non-binary, or agender should not be a basis for discriminatory treatment on the basis of gender, but sex-based rights are based on sex not gender. Females are not disadvantaged versus males in sport because of their gender—being feminine (some aren’t)—or because of their gender identity—they feel female (some don’t, they just are), but because of their sex. Allowing born males (trans girls or trans women) into girls’ and women’s sports makes no sense because gender is irrelevant to sport.

Finally, the ACLU and others have framed HB500 as a violation of civil liberties, but this too is misguided as we routinely verify individual attributes for a variety of purposes. In the same way that it is not a violation of civil liberties to check people’s eligibility for the Paralympic Games; verify age for age-group categories or buying alcohol, it is not a violation of civil liberties to verify sex for the purposes of maintaining the integrity of female sports. And, this does not require ‘invasive genital examinations’; in the exceptionally rare case this is in question, a cheek swab or bit of spittle will be sufficient for a genetic test.

Thus, although cast as ‘hateful’, Idaho’s HB500 is only ‘hateful’ if you think the sex-separation of sport is hateful (and, if so, then why aren’t you calling for unisex sports?). Furthermore, the ACLU claims HB500 bans trans girls from sport; that’s false. It bans born males from competitive female athletics, which is, in my view, justifiable policy based on the latest scientific evidence about male advantages in sport. Trans girls are still free to participate in unisex and friendly competitions.

I support Idaho HB500. Maybe you do not, but at the least, I urge you to consider on what basis it is ‘hateful’ to eliminate females’ sex-separated sports because trans people experience hardships. This is both unjustifiable and unnecessary. We can create third gender neutral (unisex) competitions; moreover, many non-elite unisex competitions exist along with many other fulfilling activities for people. There is no right to compete in categories that one does not fit based on self-identification Females’ sex-based rights matter, and for sports at least, gender is irrelevant.



Better Gun Regulation, Fewer Gun Deaths, and Maybe More Freedom

*This appeared in response to coverage of an NRA campus visit by the UW student newspaper The Daily, see here for link.

Recently, the UW campus group, “The Young Americans for Freedom,” invited a representative of the NRA’s lobbying firm to campus to give a talk opposing gun control, which was documented in the Daily. I write as a criminologist, who supports gun reform, and wants to add nuance (and correct) some misleading claims presented by the NRA and noted in the Daily as well as a general observation.

First, let’s just be really clear: NO ONE wants to take away “your guns,” unless your past behavior (criminal record; domestic violence; severe mental illness diagnosis) suggests that it is in the best interests of society (societal safety—including our freedom to not be shot or threatened by dangerous persons with guns), or “your guns” include those that have no reasonable purpose in sport, hunting, or self-defense. The notorious AR-15 is a case in point; this gun has no reasonable use in society.

Currently, the NRA is galvanizing its base with claims that the government wants to take away your guns. With the above exceptions, this is not accurate. And, this overstated claim has the effect of impairing reasonable discussions about gun reforms planting the seed in people’s heads that any efforts to reform the system of gun ownership in the US will produce an outright ban on guns. It won’t, ever. If someone says that, you can be sure they are out of touch with the reality of gun reform issues.

Second, the “facts” presented by the NRA in their seminar (as documented in the Daily) are both misguided and misleading. First, the widely repeated “fact” from Gary Kleck’s small surveys that gun use in self-protection (defensive gun use) dwarfs gun crimes does not hold up to scrutiny. Conservative estimates suggest that gun crimes outnumber defensive gun use by at least 3 to 1. Second, the “more guns, less crime” findings by John Lott were subject to further examination by a scientific committee who could find no “credible evidence” of a link between more guns and less crime using these data. No surprise that the NRA didn’t share that information. However, we can look at other countries where guns are regulated much more stringently and see quite clear evidence that fewer guns and more stringent regulation equals less gun violence. Following the Port Arthur massacre in Australia, when their conservative government reacted quickly and instituted significant gun reforms (including the banning of all semi- and automatic weapons), they have had zero mass shootings and a decline in gun homicides. And, in a thought experiment, without access to guns, how successful would the Parkland, Fla murderer have been with knives, a crossbow, or even a slingshot?

One area where the evidence is clear is that in US states where guns are more tightly regulated, women are significantly less likely to be killed (in general and by a firearm). Moreover, the best evidence suggests that suicides would decline significantly were we to institute gun reforms (and more deaths are due to gun suicides than gun homicides). The irony in all of this is that given that people who reside in a home with guns are 3-4 times more likely to be a victim of gun violence, gun reforms may actually disproportionately benefit some of the people who resist the reforms the most.

I’d like to end with a brief note about freedom given the focus of the UW club. Some people want the freedom to buy and own guns without restriction and feel the 2nd Amendment gives them the right to do so. Others disagree, pointing to the ‘militia’ aspect of the 2nd Amendment, as well as the fact in this country no right is all-encompassing. The state can take away the right to life, with the death penalty; the right to vote is taken away from people who commit certain crimes (a topic for another day); and so on. Coming together to form a society means we give up a portion of our liberty to do whatever we want when we want it, for the greater good. At present, many of us are trying to push forward reasonable gun reforms that give people freedom to not fear that they will be shot in school; freedom from being threatened by a supposedly ‘good guy with a gun’ at a bar; freedom to eat, work, and play in areas without guns, because guns are killing machines, that have some uses, but not in schools, most workplaces, or restaurants. Given the horrendous deaths that occur sporadically by mass shooters and more predictably among impoverished inner-city areas, can we not at least treat guns with the same respect as we treat cars? If training, licensing, education, and insurance are deemed necessary for cars—driving machines—surely we can ask the same of our killing machines. The best evidence suggests that we would all be safer from gun violence and feel safer, and given that a majority of Americans support reforms, it seems long past time to make us safer from guns through reforms.

This Again? Homogenizing Racism, Dismissing Structure, and Adding Biology: A Response to Walsh & Yun (2017)

This, my second, blog post is my response to the recent Walsh and Yun (2017) paper “Examining the race, poverty, and crime nexus adding Asian Americans and biosocial processes” forthcoming in the Journal of Criminal Justice. No one asked me to write this, but I have things I want to say in response to this piece, which is, in my view, misguided and disjointed at best. In their article, WY repeat the tired, familiar trope of Asian Americans as the “model minority” to undergird their argument that African American cultural deficiencies and lifestyle choices are the source of elevated rates of black poverty and crime. In addition to dismissing significant differences in the historical experiences of Asian Americans and African Americans, WY sweepingly discount, if not dismiss, the existence of contemporary anti-black racism in the USA with feeble assertions about the success of some black Americans (we had a black president elected twice!; we have a holiday for MLK, Jr. “the only individual of any race so honored”!), as sufficient evidence to prove that we live in a post-racial world. In the second half of their paper, WY point to biosocial science (as others have done before) as a more scientific approach offering way out of this murky, biased social scientific haze. This section, which echoes many calls made by other ‘biosocial criminologists’, largely summarizes research on various biological pathways, seemingly oblivious to the contextual nature of the familial “abuses” they identify as causal triggers.

Despite the problems of this article, and there are many, this effort, which “[ignores] criminological orthodoxy” in attempt to “spoil the politically correct mantra that black crime results from white racism,” can be a useful reminder that the established, empirically supported models that frame scholarship on race and crime are neither universally accepted or understood, even among criminologists. Responding to pieces that challenge the orthodoxy (albeit while ignoring key facts and important scholarship) provides an opportunity for clarification. As a scholar of race and crime, this is my contribution to such a clarification. As a busy and important person, (okay, just busy), I am allowing myself 3 hours to devote to this response (so if anyone actually reads this, judge it on its terms) because I want to and I can. In this case, I believe a hasty response is better than no response at all.

This post is organized as follows (and, as usual with my writing will probably be longer than necessary to make the point). First, I will summarize my interpretation of the Walsh and Yun (2017; hereafter WY) piece. This is followed by a more detailed, critical look at some of the points WY make to support their claims, particularly those that I believe are essential to their claims and/or are deficient in particularly significant ways. Finally, I conclude as briefly as my writing allows.

I. Summarizing WY’s piece:

In my interpretation, WY seek two ends in this paper: a) debunking the notion that “[elevated] black crime [compared to whites] results from white racism,” pointing instead to culture and individual choices, and b) then (curiously) suggesting that the biosocial approach offers a way forward. If you find yourself perplexed at the two different aims and how they work together (agency and biological forces?), you are not alone. I found both the logic and flow of the arguments in this paper to be a bit disjointed and, in some cases, contradictory, especially the linkages between the sections of the paper. I discuss each in turn.

Part 1: It can’t be racism:

1) Mainstream explanations for African American crime—don’t forget choice!!: In this first section, WY make several critical claims about mainstream explanations for black-white racial disparities in crime, narrowly emphasizing Unnever and Gabbidon’s (2011) theory of African American offending (as if it is the only theoretical explanation of racism and crime). Reinterpreting Unnever & Gabbidon’s theory “through a different lens,” WY argue that the “criminalblackman” stereotype is grounded in the reality of higher “violence” among African Americans (pointing to racial disparities in homicide). They maintain that the allegedly causal linkages between experiencing racial discrimination and higher rates of offending are instead the result of African American’s “stultifying surrender to the cult of victimhood that sabotages self-reliance and excuses failure” (citing McWhorter 2000). Next, and without transition, WY link the “criminalblackman label” (Russell’s (2009/1998) theoretical concept) to the idea that being a “bad-ass” is actually valued by inner city young men (citing Anderson 1999), implicating culture.

WY conclude this section a bit abruptly, in my view, but here is what I think they are trying to say: scholarship shies away from cultural arguments because such explanations are a seen as “blaming the victim.” Instead, structural arguments are proffered, but such explanations “do not explain why these behaviors [crime] are structural rather than the products of human choice” (p.2). Uniquely citing Robert Sampson as “the dean of social ecology theory,” WY emphasize that we should not ignore human agency and individual choice, citing one of Sampson’s[i] statements that culture and structure are mutual creations. WY maintain culture and structure create each other, and human agency cannot be ignored, thus structure cannot determine culture (and crime) because we are free agents who make choices. How this all works together isn’t particularly clear, but as we shall see later, that is fine because the agency argument is inconsistent with the biosocial one.

2) The lower rate of offending among Asian Americans debunks the racial discrimination—higher crime thesis (this is presented as if this was a new idea![ii] or perhaps one that had not been given enough attention. Neither are true.). According to WY, Asian Americans have experienced discrimination, negative stereotypes, and hyper-ghettoization and have lower rates of crime than whites. Their misguided homogenization of the oppressive experiences of Asian and African Americans (themselves composed of groups and individuals with a multitude of diverse experiences) is used to minimize the role that racism plays in life chances, and, thus, falsify theories that link racial discrimination to increased offending and/or hyper-ghettoization to increased offending.

3) Racism is pretty much a thing of the past. Seriously, that is the point of this section, with powerful (sarcasm) statements such as: “Of course, anti-black racism is by no means dead, but we have a national holiday celebrating Martin Luther King, the only individual of any race so honored, and blacks win mayoral races across the U.S. in cities where they are a minority of candidates (Thernstrom & Thernstrom 2009)” (emphasis added). WY plainly argue that anti-black racism is (basically) a relic of an earlier age, and they dismiss scholarship documenting ongoing racism as output from “those with a vested interest in keeping racism alive.”

Following several paragraphs that can be ignored without missing a beat, WY conclude by arguing that based on the interracial official crime statistics for rape, robbery, homicide, and assault, Feagin’s oft-quoted statement about the prevalence of anti-black actions should be changed to the following:

“Being white in U.S. society means always having to be prepared for antiwhite actions by blacks” (p.3).

And, there you have it folks. Their “different lens.” I don’t think anything needs to be added to that. They conclude this section writing: “We cannot soberly and honestly assess racial crime differences as long as academics continue to make patently false, wildly exaggerated, and incendiary statements.” I concur; the irony is astounding.

4) It’s not poverty, its culture: Here WY argue, again falsely conflating anti-Asian racism with anti-black racism, it’s not poverty causing crime, it’s culture because Asians also experience discrimination, and they aren’t poor. Using impeccable logic, WY assert that if discrimination caused differences in poverty levels, then we would have to conclude that whites favor Asians, “which of course no one would believe” (p.3-4).[iii] So, WY deduce: it’s black culture and lifestyle choices that cause black poverty and black crime.

5) Education and poverty: WY dogmatically assert that black culture devalues education (selectively citing passages from prominent African American scholars Elijah Anderson and Orlando Patterson in decontextualized ways), and this cultural devaluation produces lower/worse educational outcomes among black Americans compared to whites. Conversely, Asian Americans value education highly and have better STEM outcomes that whites.

No effort is made to link this to any explanation of crime; rather, this section was just to further cement the notion of a deficient black culture with decontextualized facts and citations. WY thus further blame blacks for their position in society by juxtaposing black educational outcomes with those of Asian Americans, as if all else was equal.

Part 2: “Biosocial Lens”

6) In a quite disjointed fashion, WY shift to a biosocial lens arguing: “Theories that rely on social class and poverty to explain crime cannot explain variance in criminal behavior within social class” (p.4)—as if no theories have been offered to explain within-class variations in offending. They continue by noting that structural and cultural effects are not invariant; therefore: “Clearly, we have to go beyond raw demographics to explain why some people become criminal while other demographically similarly situated people do not.” WY fully ignore social theories of within-group differences in offending that seek to explain individual differences (e.g., Burt et al. 2012; Kaufman et al. 2008; Simons et al. 2003; Simons & Burt 2011; Unnever et al. 2009; Unnever & Gabbidon 2011) because why spoil a politically incorrect story?

In this section, WY continue a biosocial criminology tradition of highlighting “the” biosocial approach’s gift to the social sciences: the techniques of the “more robust natural science.” Notably, in this half of the paper, the emphasis on human agency disappears. Human choice is apparently only relevant when talking about structural effects. This is replaced with compilations (largely summaries, but informative ones) of research pointing to potential or recently empirically-validated biological pathways from exposure to childhood abuse, neglect, toxic exposures to various outcomes (some related to crime). WY aver: “Growing up in our inner cities often exposes black children to single parenthood, violence, parental abuse, neglect, and substance abuse. These children bear no blame for the conditions in which they find themselves, but as a result of cultural transmission and biological changes to the HPA axis and the ANS wrought by these conditions, grow up to perpetuate them” (emphasis added). Unfortunately, WY previously dismissed social-structural theories of these “tangle of pathologies” that explain how and why social arrangements shape contexts and pressures that increase the risk of black children’s exposure to these adverse conditions and experiences. Given this, they leave themselves in a peculiar position of pointing to culture and human agency as causes of (deterministic) biological processes. That is a first, I think.

Although, I should note that if their second section on biological processes is reframed as an explication of how structural-cultural processes get under the skin to have lasting effects on development, including criminal behaviors, elucidating how “human agency” and “lifestyle choices” are misguided explanations for racial disparities in social behavior and demographic outcomes, then this section, as a summary of what is out there (albeit a bit oversimplified), might be valuable. Obviously, such was not the intent of WY.

II. My Specific Critiques of WY paper

As should be manifest by now, even though I have done little but summary, I think this paper suffers from a host of problems in the way of evidence and logic. Rather than quibble with every point, which I want to but that would not be efficient or effective, I highlight four main ways this paper nosedives, which were suggested in the above.

1. Racial discrimination persists. I honestly cannot believe that in this day, post-Trump election, that a serious scholar could question the existence of anti-black racism in American today. One might conclude that either they are not serious scholars, or they are not serious. (Are we being punk’d?) To argue that racism is a relic of the past, WY dismiss a wealth of diverse sociological research on the topic of “white racism,” at both the interpersonal and the structural level (as a racialized social system; Bonilla-Silva 1996). WY downplay (really basically ignore) the significance of the structured nature of white advantages rooted in historical (material and ideological) struggles. Their broad brush depiction of white racism as practice of the past, with contemporary forms as being invented by “those with a vested interest in keeping racism talk alive,” is not only ignorant and fallacious, but offensive. This section is basically a farce and becomes even more so in the end when WY reverse Feagin’s claim about the prevalence of antiblack actions by whites. I don’t have the time to say more, but for some (of many) excellent discussions of racism and our racialized social system see: Bonilla-Silva 2001; 2017; Essed 1991; Feagin 1991; 2014; Omi & Winant 1986.

2. Racial discrimination/racism is not uniform across racial-ethnic minority groups. Despite WY’s claims (echoing others over the years), racism against Asian Americans is not tantamount to that against African Americans. To be fair, WY mention that “unlike blacks the Chinese came to the United States voluntarily,” but summarily downplay that stark difference by noting that the employment conditions of the Chinese “often amounted to what Kitano and Daniels (1995:22) called a ‘new system of slavery.’”

The repeated false conflation of the Asian and African American experience of oppression, which includes the overworn trope of the “model minority” in contradistinction to black Americans, is neither novel nor productive, and WY’s brief discussion of this is banefully ignorant of social scientific scholarship in this area. As Wu documents in her (excellent) book The Color of Success (2014) before the 1940s and 1950s, whites considered Asian Americans as unfit for citizenship and unassimilable, “marking them as definitively not-white, and systematically shutting them out of civic participation…” (p.2; emphasis in original). However, Wu documents how, in seemingly an astonishing public transformation, the “model minority” narrative was invented in response to geopolitical dilemmas, among them the Cold War and civil rights movement:

“A host of stakeholders resolved this dilemma by the mid-1960s with the invention of a new stereotype of Asian Americans as the model minority—a racial group distinct from the white majority, but lauded as well assimilated, upwardly mobile, politically non-threatening, and definitively not-black.” (p.2, emphasis in original).

To be sure, like Wu, I do not wish to diminish the efforts of Asian Americans, but focusing narrowly on their actions is but one (and some argue small) piece of their story of upward mobility. Instead of a shift in “lifestyle choices,” socio-historical scholarship suggests that it was a transformation in the public image of Asian Americans from disgusting and unassimilable (not white) to law-abiding, hard-working, compliant, and the like (not black) that opened doors for Asian Americans to climb the social ladder. Thus, while WY credit this shift to hard work and a cultural emphasis on education among Asian Americans, research suggests that the upward mobility observed among Asian Americans between 1950 to the 1970s was due to this shift in treatment that this change in public image fostered: a decline in racism against Asian Americans (Hilger 2016).

To be sure, this social scholarship was available to WY, but it didn’t fit their politically and (factually) incorrect story that the experiences of Asian and African Americans are, for all intents and purposes, tantamount. This undergirds “their alternative view” that at the root of racial disparities in offending is not white racism/structure but black culture and poor lifestyle choices.

Futhermore, clearly misunderstanding (or forgetting) the tenets of labeling theory and excellent criminological and historical work on the criminalization of blackness, as a means of racial control,  and the roots of the “criminalblackman” stereotype in white racism (e.g., Alexander 2010; Russell-Brown 2009; Muhammad 2010), WY note: “Despite these hardships and negative stereotypes, the Chinese have never had a reputation for being criminally inclined” (p.2). That is, in part, exactly the point. Labeling theory, generally, and research on racial threat and criminal justice control, which focuses on the criminalization of blackness and the equating of blackness with criminality, specifically, theorize that this criminalblackman stereotype will increase crime and criminality, all else equal, and distort official rates of offending, due to the increased surveillance and greater punishment accorded to black law violators as a result of the belief that they pose a greater danger to society (Tonry 1995; Spohn 2015). There is so much to discuss here but so little time, so I will move on. Ultimately, and unfortunately, social scholarship documenting the ways in which powerful individuals/stakeholders can project various political agendas onto a socially-constructed cultural narratives is ignored, like much other relevant scholarship.

Additionally, WY attempt to debunk prominent macro-level theories that focus on the hyper-ghettoization of African Americans as a causal factor in elevated rates of offending, by noting that the hyper-ghettoization of Asian Americans has been used to explain their lower crime rates. Therefore, according to WY, hyper-ghettoization cannot explain crime. Viewed in isolation, that argument might be reasonable or persuasive, but only if it is removed from the entire theoretical apparatus in which it is situated, including historical and current struggles (such as the deterioration of community bonds to the high rates of incarceration of African American males and so on). These various issues/influences are all intertwined in complex ways, and the idea that voluminous amounts of social scientific research on race, racism, and crime can be swiftly dismissed by a cursory comparison of Asian Americans and African Americans is astonishing. WY must adhere to that same worldview as Wright and Morgan (2014) that most social scientists are so blinded by their liberal worldviews, hampered by their allegiance to the methods and assumptions of that inferior branch of social “science,” and fettered by their fear of being labeled racist, that the biased, “politically correct” knowledge they create can be dismissed with quick and weak arguments. Such sweeping dismissals of the “standard social science model” as well as dogmatic overreactions to findings ostensibly contradicting theoretical explanations is rather unproductive, and in this case, quite preposterous.

To be sure, I am not suggesting that the Asian American experience (historically or at present) has not involved considerable oppression and discrimination. It has, and that is not up for debate. Rather, I am stating clearly (following many others) that the Asian American experience and the African American experience are not interchangeable but are quite different in many significant ways due numerous factors, including the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the criminalization of black Americans, all of which shape structure, culture, and social behavior in profound and complex ways that must be considered when theorizing about criminal behavior.

3. “Biosocial Approach”: In the second half of the paper, as noted, WY present a “biosocial approach” as an alternative to mainstream social scientific criminology, one which “can lead to a criminology that is rooted more in science and empirical observations” and which can aid our understanding of within-class differences in criminal outcomes. In making their case, WY state: “Clearly, we have to go beyond raw demographics to explain why some people become criminal while other demographically similarly situated people do not” (p.4). No problem, here, but recourse to biological mechanisms is not necessary to explain differences in offending within various groups; many micro-level theories, some cited above, (especially combined with theories including resilience processes) explicate within-group differences in “positive” or “negative” outcomes.

Next WY state: “Too many black children are born into fatherless homes in neighborhoods riddled with violence and poverty for which the children bear no responsibility.” I concur, too many black children (and children of all races and ethnicities) are born into harsh, unpredictable conditions not of their own making that impede their health and life chances. (Although I will quibble that good evidence suggests that rather than needing a mother and father, children need a loving family (regardless of gender) who have the time, energy, and resources to provide warmth, nurturance, and predictability for healthy development, but that is just a queer digression.) Finally, WY conclude, more debatably, “and the conditions in which these children grow up require a biosocial analysis of how the environment penetrates the person down to the molecular level.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t follow their logic. To be sure, analyzing the biological mechanisms through which environmental exposures is one level of analysis that, in my view, has value. But, incorporating biological pathways at the current state of knowledge (and likely ever) is neither necessary nor sufficient to understand within-class differences in outcomes (or within-race differences). Rather it is one layer of information, but one that is certainly not more valuable than the socio-environmental layers. That a biosocial analysis (which focuses on biological pathways) is necessary to understand racial disparities (or more valuable than social explanations) seems particularly misguided, in my view, given the fact that social interventions to prevent or reduce minority groups’ exposures to harsh, noxious, and unpredictable environments seem preferable than pharmacological interventions (if possible at some future date) to undo or offset biological adaptations to such conditions. But, I am getting ahead of myself. I shall quickly look at a few ideas WY consider:

Epigenetic processes: WY focus on DNA methylation, which is the most well-understood and well-researched form of epigenetic regulation. As WY note, research reveals that the effect of methylation, especially when it occurs in the promoter region of a gene, is typically to reduce gene expression. In other words, DNA methylation serves as a dimmer switch for genes (by blocking DNA transcription enzymes; Ng & Bird 1999). Importantly, research suggests that DNA methylation patterns are dynamic and responsive to the environment, especially during sensitive periods, and can have long-term impacts on development (Meaney 2010; Slavich & Cole 2013). In other words, research suggests that DNA methylation is a key biological (genomic) mechanism mediating the effects of social conditions on development (e.g., Feinberg 2007; Hochberg et al. 2011).

Just to repeat clearly, because I am fond of repetition, DNA methylation has been identified as a key mechanism through which socio-environmental forces have enduring effects on development (McGowan & Roth 2015; Syzf & Bick 2013). In recent years, researchers have generated a small but steadily growing body of evidence connecting social adversity to DNA methylation patterns and adverse health outcomes, including depression, antisocial behavior, and the like (e.g., Beach et al. 2016; Essex et al. 2013; van der Knaap et al. 2015). Moreover research has also identified epigenetic markers of exposure to social disadvantage, including SES and racial discrimination (Essex et al. 2013; Simons et al. 2016).

Evidence over the past decade suggests that a social epigenetic approach will provide a new layer of information, not an alternative explanation to that offered by social theories. Importantly, some epigenetic marks appear to be intergenerationally transmitted (see Kuzawa and Sweet 2009 for a discussion involving race and health disparities), meaning that, for example, stressful experiences including those accompanying slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, and ongoing racial discrimination may induce epigenetic changes (adaptations) that are transferred to future generations, in ways that may influence biopsychosocial development.  Among humans, Kuzawa and Sweet (2009: 7) note:

   “Indirect evidence for maternal-fetal transfer of epigenetically based alterations in stress (HPA) reactivity has been documented in humans. In holocaust survivors, severity of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms—which influences maternal cortisol production during pregnancy—predict levels of cortisol excretion in postnatal offspring, and Manhattan women who were pregnant during the 9/11 attacks gave birth to offspring who show evidence for alterations in HPA activity in childhood (Yehuda and Bierer, 2008).”

Recent evidence accumulating over the past several years suggests that it is hardly a stretch expect that historical and contemporary traumatic racialized experiences, including ongoing vicariously experienced incidents involving police (and citizen) shootings of unarmed black men (Trayvon Martin and so many others), influence epigenetic alterations or patterns that influence development, such that at the present day individuals are “marked” (in potentially insignificant, but also potentially significant ways) by experiences of racial oppression (in the same manner that impoverished individuals may be shaped by harsh conditions accompanying low SES in the USA). Of course, this area of research is incredibly new and there is so much we still do not know[iv]; yet, all the new evidence emerging further underscores the fallacy of the (long dead in most circles) independent “culture of poverty and crime” explanations for racial disparities in social outcomes.[v]

Perhaps more importantly, across all of the biosocial factors WY examine, there is a need for social scientific models to elucidate the social factors that shape biological adaptations, such as DNA methylation. This is why recent calls from NIH and other scientific bodies have highlighted the need for social and genomic scientists to work together to develop holistic models linking various levels.

Summarizing the point of the above, WY’s focus on epigenetics, allostasis, telomere length, cortisol, sex hormones, and the like is both curious and explanatorily evasive because research on each of these points to the central role of environmental (including social, structural) influences. Rather than replacing a social scientific model linking our racialized social system to social behavior, a focus on such biological processes are more likely to provide evidence supporting it, including by identifying “hard” (biological) pathways for racism’s enduring effects. The more we learn, the more we see that human psychophysiological development is profoundly shaped by the social-environmental conditions of experience, and given the role of structural arrangements in shaping exposures to stressful, oppressive, and noxious conditions, the unique oppressive experiences of African Americans undoubtedly influence life chances through biological adaptations in a manifold of ways.

 4) Crime is a social construct: In discussions of race and demographic outcomes, scholarship invariably notes that race is a social construct (WY is an exception in this paper, but they have discussed this in earlier pieces). Yet, crime, including violence, is a social construction that involves not only arbitrariness and vagueness but also is, as we all know, itself shaped by structure (including racism) and historical context. I will make three points, none novel, but all worthy of remembering:

i) Crime is racialized; race (especially blackness) is criminalized. Approaching the race and crime question without serious consideration of this reality will distort any explanation.

ii) Crime is not a biologically-given construct. Any biosocial explanation of “crime” must recognize that what counts as “crime” or even “violence” is not given in nature. Physically and psychologically injurious acts (“violence”) can be lauded (in war, on football fields, in the boardroom), can be excused (“justified” killings by self-defense or official agents of government), or can be punished. There is no inner biological reflection or any clear phenotype of “illegal violence” or “crime” that does not rely on historical, situational, individual and other social influences. Hence, any “bio” explanation of “crime” must inherently be incomplete because crime is not bio; crime and illegal violence are not given in nature.

iii) Crime is invariably measured/theorized as “street crime” not the universe of illegal acts. Should we capture that universe (corporate crime, governmental crime), and the harm entailed, race and crime statistics probably look quite different.

Conclusion: The criminological study of race and crime over the past several decades has moved from an uneasy state of “controversy and silence” to a fertile terrain for new developments and considerable knowledge growth. Although much remains to be learned and much more (most) remains to be done, a complex, diverse set of studies has evidenced the manifold ways that white racism—from the structural level to its interpersonal instantiations—increases the risk of African American offending, in large part, through its associations with life chances (education, employment, health, and the like) and worldviews, including individual schemas and shared cognitive landscapes. Moreover, more recent years have seen the potential, and in some areas hard evidence, for biological pathways through which racism influences development, including physiological and psychosocial outcomes. We have also witnessed enhanced recognition amongst many social scholars of the potential for biopsychosocial work to advance knowledge on the lasting effects of living and developing in a racialized social system such as ours. Thus, at the present time with the current knowledge base, it is rather astonishing that a paper such as this would make its way to publication. On the other hand, as we all know science (and publication) does not exist a part from social context and political agendas but is itself part and parcel of this racialized social system.

(Really, I am concluding this, promise.) In this post, I have tried to make sense of WY’s paper, attempting to avoid the trappings of their one-sided agenda and dogmatic rejections of a diverse body of research documenting the complex relationship between race/ethnicity and crime, while resisting the almost paralyzing recourse to the “hard sciences” as a way out of a “period of controversy and silence” long past. Now, more than ever, we have the evidence, tools, and motivation to further explore the nuances of living in our racialized social system and, especially, the deleterious effects on oppressed groups. I will end by fully endorse WY’s concluding remarks with a few corrections:

“We agree with LaFree and Russell (1993. p. 279) who argue that the crime/race connection should be studied honestly and courageously because ‘no group has suffered more than African-Americans by our failure to understand and control street crime.’ The corollary of this is that no other group can benefit more from a candid examination of race and crime. This will not, and cannot begin to happen, until we stop misidentifying causes,” [exhuming long-buried arguments, such as the “culture of poverty” thesis and reiterating misguided notions about the “model minority”.]

Anti-black racism persists, and scientists are not immune.


References (not cited in WY’s article):

Alexander, Michelle.  2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press.

Beach, SRH, M-K Lei, GH Brody, S Kim, AW Barton, MV Dogan, & RA Philibert. 2016. Parenting, socioeconomic status risk, and later young adult health: Exploration of opposing indirect effects via DNA methylation. Child Development 87: 111-21.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2001. White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era. Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2017. Racism Without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Rowman & Littlefield.

Brody, Gene H., Yi-Fu Chen, Velma Murry, Xiaojia Ge, Ronald Simons, Frederick Gibbons, Meg Gerrard, and Carolyn Cutrona. 2006. Perceived Discrimination and the Adjustment of African American Youths: A Five-Year Longitudinal Analysis with Contextual Moderation Effects. Child Development 77:1170–89.

Burt, Callie H., Ronald L. Simons, and Frederick X. Gibbons. 2012. Racial Discrimination, Ethnic-Racial Socialization, and Crime: A Micro-Sociological Model of Risk and Resilience. American Sociological Review 77:648-677.

Essed, Philomena. 1991. Understanding Everyday Racism: An Interdisciplinary Theory. Sage.

Essex, MJ, WT Boyce, C Hertzman, LL Lam, JM Armstrong, S Neumann, & MS Kobor. 2013. Epigenetic vestiges of early developmental adversity: Childhood stress exposure and DNA methylation in adolescence. Child Development 84: 58–75.

Feagin, Joe R. 1991. The continuing significance of race: Antiblack discrimination in public places.” American Sociological Review 56: 101-116.

Feagin, Joe R. 2014. Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. Routledge.

Feinberg, AP. 2007. Phenotype plasticity and the epigenetics of human disease. Nature 447: 433-40.

Hilger, Nathaniel G. 2016. Upward Mobility and Discrimination: The Case of Asian Americans.  No. w22748. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2016.

Hochberg, Z, R Feil, M Constancia, M Fraga, C Junien, J-C Carel, et al. 2011. Child health, developmental plasticity, and epigenetic programming. Endocrine Reviews 32: 1-66.

Kaufman, Joanne M., Cesar J. Rebellon, Sherod Thaxton, and Robert Agnew. 2008. A General Strain Theory of Racial Differences in Criminal Offending. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology 41: 421-37.

Kuzawa, Christopher W., & Elizabeth Sweet. 2009. Epigenetics and the Embodiment of Race: Developmental Origins of US Racial Disparities in Cardiovascular Health. American Journal of Human Biology 21:2-15.

McGowan, PO, & TL Roth. 2015. Epigenetic pathways through which experience becomes linked with biology. Development and Psychopathology 27: 637-48.

Meaney, MJ. 2010. Epigenetics and the biological definition of gene x environment interactions. Child Development 81: 41-79.

Muhammad, Khalil Gibran. 2010. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. Harvard University Press.

Ng, HH, & A Bird. 1999. DNA methylation and chromatin modification. Current Opinion in Genetics & Development 9: 158-63.

Omi, Michael, & Howard Winant. 2014. Racial Formation in the United States. Routledge.

Russell-Brown, Katheryn. 2009. The Color of Crime, 2nd Ed. New York University Press.

Simons, Ronald L. and Callie Harbin Burt. 2011. Learning to Be Bad: Adverse Social Conditions, Social Schemas, and Crime. Criminology 49:553–98.

Simons, Ronald L., Yi-Fu Chen, Eric Stewart, and Gene Brody. 2003. Incidents of Discrimination and Risk for Delinquency: A Longitudinal Test of Strain Theory with an African American Sample. Justice Quarterly 20:827–54.

Simons, RL, MK Lei, SRH Beach, CE Cutrona, RA Philibert. 2016. Methylation of the oxytocin receptor gene mediates the effect of adversity on negative schemas and depression. Developmental Psychopathology, Advance online publication.

Slavich, GM, & SW Cole. 2013. The emerging field of human social genomics. Clinical Psychological Science 1:331-48.

Spohn, Cassia. 2015. Race, Crime, and Punishment in the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries. Crime and Justice 44: 49-77.

Szyf, M., & J. Bick. 2013. DNA methylation: A mechanism for embedding early life experiences in the genome. Child Development 84: 49-57.

Tonry, Michael. 1995. Malign Neglect: Race, Crime, and Punishment in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Unnever, James, Francis Cullen, Scott Mathers, Timothy McClure, and Marisa Allison. 2009. Racial Discrimination and Hirschi’s Criminological Classic: A Chapter in the Sociology of Knowledge. Justice Quarterly 26:377–409.

van der Knaap, LJ, JM Schaefer, IHA Franken, FC Verhulst, FVA van Oort, & H Riese. 2014. Catechol-O-methyltransferase gene methylation and substance use in adolescents: The TRAILS study. Genes, Brain, and Behavior 13: 618-625.

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Wu, Ellen D. 2014. The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority. Princeton University Press.

Young, Vernetta. 2006. Demythologizing the ‘Criminalblackman’: The Carnival Mirror. Pp.54-66 in The Many Colors of Crime, edited by R.D. Peterson, L.J. Krivo, & J. Hagan. New York: New York University Press.



[i] Pointing to Sampson to support their claim about missing agency in the structural-cultural arguments about race and crime is super ironic (or ignorant) given that Sampson & Wilson (who they cited earlier) provided one of the seminal pieces linking racial stratification (structure) to cultural adaptations shaping black-white disparities in crime, often viewed as the piece that ended the “period of controversy and silence” around race and crime.

[ii] Notably, WY did not cite William Petersen, a UC Berkeley sociologists whose 1966 NYT piece encouraged comparisons between Japanese-Americans and African Americans and strengthened stereotypes of Asian Americans as the model minority in contrast to African Americans, nor any of the numerous responses to this comparison that have unmasked the hollowness of such comparisons in the more than 50 years since Petersen popularized this juxtaposition.

[iii] WY assert: “To be consistent with structural arguments for black crime, proponents of such views would have to attribute Asian successes to pro-Asian bias on the part of whites to their own detriment, or to return to cultural or genetic arguments to explain Asian advantage vis-a-vis whites and blacks. They are not likely to do so because that would entail group comparisons along these lines, which they find invidious.”

[iv] As WY note, the potential of the epigenetics field has not yet been matched by the reality of research given its complexities; yet, that is not reason to deny that epigenetic research provides a plausible biological mechanism linking racist and other social experiences to development in lasting and potentially reversible ways (with supportive preliminary evidence).

[v] To be clear, WY are not completely silent about the social inputs into the biological pathways on which they address. Rather, WY focus on parental abuse and neglect and its lasting effects. Given their earlier arguments, they seem to imply that such parental treatment—no fault of the child—they assure, is due to not only to culture and structure but to human agency. However, the very first epigenetic example they provide reveals, at least among rodents who clearly have less complex lives especially in the social realm, that female rat pups who were licked and groomed in early life go on to become licking and grooming mothers. As noted, cross-fostering studies show that this is not learned or genetically transmitted, rather the experience of licking and grooming in the early life of rat pups produces a cascade of epigenetic changes which shape development and later parenting, presumably for adaptive reasons. This implies, at least extrapolating from the simpler life of the rat pups, that parenting practices are powerfully shaped by familial experiences, and likely among humans, ongoing experiences in development that provide cues about the nature of the world and the people in it. This example completely undermines their arguments about culture and agency.