Criminal stereotype of African Americans

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As of 2001, the likelihood of going to prison in percentages for various demographic groups in the United States.

The criminal stereotype of African Americans in the United States is an ethnic stereotype according to which African American males in particular are stereotyped to be dangerous criminals.[1][2] The figure of the African-American man as criminal has appeared frequently in American popular culture[3][4][5] and has been associated with consequences in the justice system such as racial profiling and harsher sentences for African American defendants in trials.


In 1993 African Americans comprised 31 percent of total arrests yet constituted 12 percent of the population.[citation needed] A study found that in 1979, 80% of the racial disparity in prison populations was accounted for by African Americans committing more crime, but by 2008, another study by Michael Tonry and Matthew Melewski found that this percentage had decreased to 61%.[6]

Incarceration for drug related crimes[edit]

For drug related offenses, from 1965 through the early 1980s, African Americans were approximately twice as likely as whites to be arrested. However, with the War on Drugs in the 1970s, African American arrest rates skyrocketed, while white arrest rates increased only slightly. By the end of the 1980s, African Americans were more than five times more likely than whites to be arrested for drug-related offenses.[7] In 1993, criminologist Alfred Blumstein argued that as national self-report data showed that drug use was actually declining among both African Americans and Whites, it is highly unlikely that these race differences in arrest rates represent "real" patterns of drug use. Instead these crime statistics reflect the government's targeting of only specific types of drug use and trafficking.[8] Although the "black drug user" stereotype is heavily associated with young African Americans, a 2011 survey using self-reported data found African American young people less likely to use illegal drugs than other racial groups in the U.S.[9] According to Michelle Alexander, the disproportionate mass incarceration of African Americans in drug-related offenses is caused by racial bias within the criminal justice system, terming this phenomenon as "The New Jim Crow", in a book of the same name. Alexander claims that racial beliefs and stereotypes as a direct result of a media saturated with images of black criminals have obviously and predictably created a sharp disparity in the rates at which blacks and whites are subject to encounters with law enforcement.

Statistics and self-reporting[edit]

Scholars have argued that these official arrest statistics do not fully reflect actual criminal behavior as the criminal stereotype that African Americans hold influences the decisions to make arrests. Specifically, because the stereotype of African American is pervasive and embedded in society, police officers unconsciously believe that African Americans are dangerous and are therefore more likely to arrest African Americans.[10]

Instead, self-reporting crime statistics have been used to overcome the criticism that the official arrest statistics are biased. Many studies found little or no differences in self-reported offending among juveniles of different racial and ethnic group, with some scholars suggesting that institutionalized racism within the criminal justice system is the cause for the disproportionate arrest rates of African Americans.[11] However, Hindelang found that black males were least likely to self-report offenses recorded by the police, with 33 percent of total offenses and 57 percent of serious offenses known to police not being self-reported by African American males,[12] suggesting some caution in concluding that self reported crime statistics accurately portray the actual rate of crime behavior.


According to some scholars, the stereotype of African Americans males as criminals was first constructed as a tool to "discipline" and control slaves during the time of slavery in the United States. For instance, Amii Barnard alleges that out of fear of the fugitive slaves staging a rebellion, slaveholders sought to spread the stereotype that African American males were dangerous criminals who would rape the "innocent" and "pure" white women if they had the opportunity to.[13][14] A law introduced in Pennsylvania in 1700 illustrates the fear of a dangerous African American man within the slaveholding society- it mandated that should a black man attempt to rape a White woman, the perpetrator will be castrated or punished to death.[15]

Carter et al. argues that this criminal stereotype contributed to lynching in the United States that mostly targeted African American males in the south.[16] Ida B. Wells, the well-known anti-lynching activist published the pamphlet entitled the "Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases" from 1892-1920 reporting that contrary to the notion that lynchings occurred because African American males had sexually abused or attacked white women, fewer than 30% of reported lynchings even involved the charge of rape. She also followed up with an editorial that suggested that, most sexual liaisons between black men and white women were consensual and illicit.[17] The criminal stereotype of African Americans as potential rapists at that time is also illustrated in the controversial media portrayal of African American men in the 1915 American epic film, The Birth of a Nation.[18]

According to Marc Mauer however, although African Americans have been consistently stereotyped as "biologically flawed" individuals who have a general tendency towards crime, the depiction of African Americans as criminals became more threatening only in the 1970s and early 1980s- with the evolution of the stereotype of African American males as "petty thieves" to "ominous criminal predators".[19] In the late 1990s, Melissa Hickman Barlow argued that the perception of African American males as criminals was so entrenched in society that she said “talking about crime is talking about race”.[20] Between 2005 and 2015, the gap in the incarceration rate between blacks and whites declined while still remaining high. The rate of incarceration for blacks declined -2.0% per year, for Hispanics it declined -2.3% per year while for whites it declined only -0.1% per year. Blacks today continue to be incarcerated at a rate over 2.1 times Hispanics and 5.6 times whites.[21] The disparity varies widely by state and region.


Katheryn Russell-Brown in her book The Color of Crime: Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment and Other Macroaggressions (1998) refers to the stereotype as the "criminal black man", because people associate young black men with crime in American culture. She writes that the black male is portrayed as a "symbolic pillager of all that is good".[22] Russell-Brown refers to the criminal black man as a myth[23][24] and suggests that the stereotype contributes to "racial hoaxes". She defines these as "when someone fabricates a crime and blames it on another person because of his race OR when an actual crime has been committed and the perpetrator falsely blames someone because of his race".[25] Stuart Henry and Mark Lanier in What Is Crime?: Controversies Over the Nature of Crime and What to Do about It (2001) refer to the criminal black man as a "mythlike race/gender image of deviance".[26]

Perpetuation of negative images by popular culture[edit]

Linda G. Tucker in Lockstep and Dance: Images of black Men in Popular Culture (2007) argues that the representations in popular culture of criminal African American men help perpetuate the image.[27] She writes that the portrayal of crime by conservative politicians during heated campaigns is used as a metaphor for race: they have recast fears about race as fears about crime.[28] For instance, Republican opponents of Dukakis used the case of Willie Horton to attack the Democrat's stand on law enforcement, suggesting that people would be safer if led by Republicans. She says that such politicians used Horton as a collective symbol of African American male criminality.[29]

The criminal African American man appears often in the context of athletics and sports. Arthur A. Raney and Jennings Bryant discuss this in Handbook of Sports and Media (2006). They cite Beyond the Cheers: Race as Spectacle in College Sport (2001) by C. Richard King and Charles Fruehling Springwood,[30] which examines the connection between race, crime, and sports. They study the ways in which "criminality indelibly marks the African American athlete". Raney and Bryant says coverage and reception of accusations of crimes by sportspeople differed depending on the race of the individual.[31]

John Milton Hoberman in Darwin's Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged black America and Preserved the Myth of Race (1997) blames entertainment and advertising industries for propagating the negative stereotypes, namely, for "the merger of the athlete, the gangster rapper, and the criminal into a single black male persona ... into the predominant image of black masculinity in the United States and around the world", which has harmed racial integration.[32]

A number of studies have concluded that the news systematically portrays black Americans as criminals and whites as victims of the crime.[33][34] For example, a study found that in news programs broadcast in the Los Angeles area, blacks were overly represented as perpetrators of crime and underrepresented as victims of crimes on television news, compared to actual crime statistics. This is in stark contrast to how, compared to actual crime statistics, whites were found to be underrepresented as perpetrators and overrepresented as victims of crime in television news stories.[35]

A study examining the news reports from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today covering the effects of Hurricane Katrina showed that in 80% of the time black evacuees were portrayed in photographs, the word "looting" was mentioned in the captions, suggesting that the black evacuees were criminals.[36]

In 1995 a little over 600,000 people were placed in prison for violent crimes but a little more than half, 54%, were white. This just goes to show that no matter your race or culture anyone can commit a violent crime.[37]


There is evidence that the American society has internalized the criminal stereotype of African Americans. For example, in experiments where African American and white individuals perform the same act, respondents have reported that the black figure is more threatening than the white figure.[38] Likewise, in surveys asking about fear of strangers in hypothetical situations, respondents are more fearful of being victimized by black strangers than by white strangers.[39]

In other research, whites have been found to overestimate the differences between the rates at which whites and blacks commit some crimes. A 2012 study found that white Americans overestimated the percent of burglaries, illegal drug sales, and juvenile crimes committed by blacks by between 6.6 and 9.5 percentage points.[40]

There is also some research suggesting that blacks have also internalized the criminal stereotype. According to a study, 82% of blacks think they are perceived as violent by Whites.[41] African Americans are also more likely than Whites to think that racial profiling is widespread[42] and to think they are treated unfairly by police, both in general and in actual criminal justice encounters.[43]

Consequences in the justice system[edit]

Many psychologists argue that the cultural stereotype of black criminality can have an unconscious but substantial influence on the way that "people perceive individuals, process information, and form judgments".[44] For example, the criminal stereotype of African Americans could contribute to the reason behind why blacks are disproportionately more likely than Whites to be targeted by the police as suspects,[45] interrogated[46] and wrongfully convicted.[47] The stereotype of a criminal African American has also been associated with racial profiling.[48]

In addition, a report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission stated that the sentences of black men were on average 19.5% longer than the sentences of white men from December 2007 to September 2011. Although the report did not attribute racism to the difference in sentencing decisions, the report did write that the judges “make sentencing decisions based on many legitimate considerations that are not or cannot be measured.”[49] Another similar study examining 58,000 federal criminal cases concluded that African-Americans’ jail time was almost 60% longer than white sentences while black men were on average more than twice as likely to face a mandatory minimum charge as white men were, even after taking into account arrest offense, age and location.[50] Although some scholars say this discrepancy is due to them being repeat offenders, others state that this is partially due to prosecutors over-charging African American defendants in contrast to white defendants.[51] Supporting the latter claim, in mock trials that experimentally manipulate the race of the defendant, respondents have been found to give African-American defendants harsher judgments of guilt and punishment than white defendants in otherwise identical cases.[52] Similarly, Giliam found that exposure to African American rather than White suspects led to increased support for capital punishment and the three-strikes legislation.[53]

Joseph Rand also suggests that when black witnesses are on trial with white jurors, they are more likely to feel stereotype threat and are more likely to appear less credible. To elaborate, because black witnesses are aware of the stereotype relating them as criminals, they are more motivated to control their behavior to counter stereotypes and appear truthful. However, because they try so hard to appear credible, they appear more anxious and unnatural, and therefore less credible to jurors.[54]

Social consequences[edit]

Lincoln and Devah argue that the criminal stereotype of African American males can explain the growing racial segregation in the United States. Specifically, they found that the percentage of young black men in a neighborhood is correlated with the respondent's perceptions of neighborhood crime level, even after taking into account measures of actual crime rates and other neighborhood characteristics. This could explain why other races avoid areas with many black men, as the area is perceived to be dangerous.[55]

Another study found that after priming the "black criminal" stereotype among respondents (by exposing them to photographs of blacks appearing to plunder after Hurricane Katrina), the respondents reduced policy support for black evacuees-in-need but did not influence responses towards white evacuees-in-need.[56]

Consequences in other countries[edit]

The criminal stereotype of black individuals is not just limited to the United States. One study administered a survey to Canadians showed that they believed African Canadians are more likely to commit crime, with nearly half of the respondents believing that 65% of black people committed more crimes than other racial groups in Canada.[57] A working group of human rights experts from the United Nations has also expressed concerns that anti-African Canadian systemic racism is rampant in the Canadian justice system, especially in the arbitrary use of racial profiling.[58]

Rahier argues that Afro-Ecuadorians have been consistently stereotyped to be dangerous criminals in the popular and widely circulated magazine Vistazo, since the late 1950s. Similarly, he also argues that when race is mentioned in reporting of a crime in Ecuador's daily newspapers, the criminal was always black and the victim was always not black.[59]

See also[edit]


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