Racial Discrimination, Racial Socialization, and Crime

Racial discrimination persists and influences the life changes and routine situations of everyday life for racial minorities. Research shows that experiencing interpersonal racial discrimination — the blatant, subtle, and covert actions, messages, or signals that are supported by racism and malign, mistreat, or otherwise harm racial minorities (Essed 1991; Feagin 1991)–is a common experience for many African American adults and youth alike.

In addition to being associated with negative physical (e.g., hypertension, coronary heart disease) and psychological outcomes (e.g., depression, eudemonic well-being), research suggests that interpersonal racial discrimination increases the risk of offending. Indeed, at least 15 studies conducted in the past decade have demonstrated the criminogenic consequences of racially discriminatory interactions for African Americans (e.g., Simons et al. 2006; Unnever et al. 2009). The evidence is clear and moving to the mainstream: interpersonal racial discrimination is a potent risk factor for crime and therefore plays a role in explaining racial disparities in offending.

Adopting a microsociological perspective, my research seeks to enhance our understanding of the risks and resilience processes involved in the link between interpersonal racial discrimination and offending. In particular, my research seeks to elucidate the mechanisms whereby more frequent experiences with racial discrimination increase the risk of later general offending. Furthermore, recognizing that most African Americans do not engage in crime in response to racial discrimination and building on work that takes a “strength approach” to African American families and communities, my research seeks to identify sources of resilience to the criminogenic effects of racism. In particular, my work focuses on familial racial socialization–explicit or tacit messages that messages that family members communicate to children about their racial cultural heritage and history, the realities of racism, and how to cope with racism effectively (e.g., Hughes et al. 2006; Stevenson 2003).

The Family and Community Health Study (FACHS)

My research on racial discrimination, racial socialization, and crime has used data from the Family and Community Health Study (FACHS), an ongoing life-course investigation of health and development among African American families living in Iowa and Georgia at the first interview. The FACHS was designed to analyze the particular risks and resources that or promote African American family functioning and youth development in various contexts, capturing the diversity of African American families and the variety of communities in which they live.

The FACHS data is unique; it is the largest in-depth panel study of African Americans in the United States. It overcomes several limitations of prior studies, which tended to focus on poor African Americans living in disadvantaged segments of large cities and thus overlooked the diversity of the African American community and provided a limited and sometimes stereotypical view of this population. The FACHS examines Black families in a variety of settings and includes respondents from a range of socioeconomic situations from the very poor to the upper middle class. With its developmental focus, the FAHCS is particularly well suited for examining the developmental pathways through which racial socialization influences offending. For more information, see: FACHS CFR


1. Racial Discrimination, Racial Socialization, and Crime: A Micro-sociological Model of Risk and Resilience.

In this paper from my dissertation research, we began to develop theoretical model linking racial discrimination to offending among African American youth. This paper also revealed that two forms of racial socialization (cultural socialization and especially preparation for bias) both compensate for and buffer the effects of racial discrimination on offending. Indeed, this study, which examined the subsample of males in the FACHS data, revealed that discrimination was not significantly associated with an increase in offending among youths who received high levels of preparation for bias. These models also showed that racial socialization practices are more beneficial when they occur in the context of a warm, supportive parenting.

But, what about among females?

2. Interpersonal Racial Discrimination, Ethnic-Racial Socialization, and Offending: Risk and Resilience among African American Females.

This explored the relationships between interpersonal racial discrimination, racial socialization, and offending among females, and compared the findings to that from males. This study extended the earlier model linking racial discrimination to offending by drawing upon a theoretical model known as the social schematic theory (Simons & Burt 2011). Our findings revealed that racial discrimination increases the risk of offending among males and females by increasing views of the world as a hostile, unpredictable place, where delayed rewards inequitably or unpredictably materialize, and social rules and punishments do not apply to everyone equally. Such lessons from discrimination increase impulsivity, hostile views of others and relationships, and disengagement from conventional norms, which increase the likelihood of offending. Results also show that racial socialization provides resilience to the criminogenic effects of racial discrimination, but that it does so in slightly different ways by gender. Altogether, this study reaffirms the earlier finding that racial discrimination increases the risk of crime among both males and females in the manner suggested by the social schematic theory, and that racial socialization provides resilience for both males and females.

These findings raised many new questions. My ongoing research in the area, discussed below, is supported by a W.E.B. Du Bois Fellowship for Race, Gender, Crime and Justice from the National Institute of Justice. The research questions, along with findings and working drafts, are discussed below.

  3. Mechanisms of Resilience?

Having found that racial socialization provides resilience to the criminogenic effects of racism, I was interesting in how these effects come about. In other words, I sought to identify some of the social psychological mechanisms through which racial socialization fosters resilience.

Theory and research on culture, stress, and coping from sociology, African American studies, and psychology suggest two potential mechanisms: racial identity and spirituality/religious involvement (e.g., Brown 2008; Nicolas et al. 2008). I hypothesized that through teachings about cultural heritage and pride, racial socialization practices influence positive racial identities, which buffer youth against some of the potential harmful effects of racial discrimination (e.g., Cross et al. 1991; Neblett et al. 2009). In addition, I expect that by providing a system of meaning as well as instrumental social support through an extended network, religiosity is an important mechanism through which racial socialization inculcates resilience to racial discrimination (e.g., Barnes 2009; Stevenson 1997). Both of these factors are proposed to not only reduce offending directly but also indirectly by buffering the effects of racial discrimination on crime (e.g., Nicolas et al. 2008).

Consistent with our expectations, our research revealed that racial socialization provided resilience to the criminogenic effects of racial socialization both by increasing positive racial identities and spirituality.

For more, see Burt et al. (2017). Racial Discrimination, Racial Socialization, and Crime: Understanding Mechanisms of Resilience. Social Problems 64(3): 414-438.

4. (How) Do the criminogenic effects of racial discrimination endure across the life-course? And, do racial socialization practices provide lasting resilience effects?

Most studies to date have focused on the short-term effects of racial discrimination on offending, invariably among African American adolescents. Consequently, there is a gap in our understanding on the longer-term effects of racial discrimination and racial socialization. Addressing this gap, I seek to advance knowledge by exploring whether and how racial discrimination and racial socialization’s effects endure by taking a developmental, life-course approach that puts at its center mechanisms that sustain continuity and allow for change. Our goal is to conceptually trace the criminogenic effects of racial discrimination and resilience effects of racial socialization experienced in childhood and adolescence on the structuring of the life course in ways that influence the likelihood of offending, highlighting both social and cognitive developmental pathways and their interplay.

Specifically, we extend Simons and Burt’s (2011) social schematic theory of crime to delineate a life-course model. Our findings reveal that discrimination’s criminogenic effects endure through both cognitive (discussed above) and structural pathways and their interplay. In particular, we find that persistent exposure to racial discrimination reduce’s the likelihood of involvement in supportive, satisfying romantic relationships and employment as well as educational achievement, and these, in turn, sustain the criminogenic effects of racial discrimination.

Furthermore, we find that racial socialization’s resilience effects endure in part through their direct effects on increasing involvement in supportive relationships and institutional ties, as well as by reducing the negative effects of discrimination on involvement in supportive social relationships and institutional ties.

For more, see: Burt et al. (2017). Racial Discrimination, Racial Socialization, and Crime over Time: A Social Schematic Theory Model. Criminology 55(4): 938-979.

5. How do racialized factors influence individual adaptations increasing the risk of crime underlying evocative cultural landscapes as structural-cultural influences? 

In a forthcoming chapter, I examine the connections between interpersonal racial discrimination, cultural adaptations, including racial socialization, and crime. I focus on racialized experiences as risk factors for crime in the context of a racialized general theory of crime, the social schematic theory (SST), with a particular emphasis on the criminogenic effects of anti-Black interpersonal discrimination. I expound on the evolutionary developmental underpinnings of SST to elucidate both the nature and logic of allegedly ‘maladaptive’ adaptions to racism. Next, I extend this theoretical framework to fill gaps in undertheorized, yet salient, structure shapes culture arguments in criminology. My aim is to unite findings and reframe them within an approach that focuses on harsh, unpredictable environments and contextually-appropriate adaptations with an underlying evolutionary developmental logic. The end result is a framework that links racial discrimination and “race-neutral” risk factors (profoundly shaped by racism) to psychosocial orientations that tend to increase the risk of street crime and other behaviors that can reinforce disadvantage through their consequences. I conclude by discussing the implications of this perspective drawing on scholarship that points to the need ameliorate harsh, racist contexts of development as well as working with rather than against the strengths of stress-adapted individuals.

For more, see: Burt, C.H. (forthcoming). Racial Discrimination and Cultural Adaptations: An Evolutionary Developmental Approach. Advances in Criminological Theory, Vol 24: Building a Black Criminology: Race, Theory, and Crime.