4. Race and Crime

4.1 The Origins of Race and Racism

Dr. Michael Ma

Race is a social invention, also referred to as a social construct (see 1 What is Crime?) that is, in part, a historical product of Western European colonisation and the systems of Trans-Atlantic slavery. Through a process of discovery, dispossession and colonisation, practices of race and racialisation, which persist in the 21st century, developed through a Western European encounter with non-Western people as early as the 15th century. The encounter created a conceptual and practical framework of Western European versus non-Western “others” and what the Europeans considered uncivilised new worlds. The framework was later expanded and adopted worldwide. The encounter with non-Western societies also gave rise to flawed ideas about human variety, which then became attached to notions of biology, helping cement race as a biological, common-sense belief.

An important component of race and racism is the scholarly pursuit to hierarchise and categorise the physical differences and appearance of human beings. During the 18th century, many European scholars attempted to categorise humans into distinct biological groups. The German physician and anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach imagined there were different races of human beings, including the “Caucasian variety”—named after an area in the Caucasus mountains that he believed produced the “most beautiful race of men” (Blumenbach, 1865, p. 269). In this regard, Blumenbach’s thesis was more of an aesthetic judgment than a scientific investigation of the human race. However, his work was instrumental in establishing “Caucasian” as a privileged category. Blumenbach and others began to measure skulls, the height of foreheads, the angle of jawbones, the shape of teeth, eye sockets, and nasal bones to differentiate the “races.” Blumenbach concluded that humankind was split into five categories: Caucasians, Mongolians, Ethiopians, Americans, and Malays. Today, biologists and geneticists no longer believe in the physical existence of races, and Blumenbach’s scientific method and theories have been discredited as pseudo-science and scientific racism (see 6 Biological Influences on Criminal Behaviour).

A critical perspective on race rejects the idea that race is a natural category reflecting real human differences but rather understands race as a social construct used to artificially sort and divide humans. The question that needs to be asked is, “If race is a flawed social construction, why do we not simply change, alter, or erase the idea of race?” The reason we cannot simply do this is because race has become a naturalised part of the way society understands and sorts people, and it is deeply embedded in common sense and institutions.

This chapter proposes that race is important to criminology because it is a powerful way people are identified, categorised, judged, and treated differently in modern societies. We can infer that the criminal justice system must also use race to interpret the world—that is, police, courts, and corrections leverage and use race as part of their everyday operations. Race not only influences the actions of individuals (e.g., police officers) but also organisations and institutions who racialise the populations they encounter. We can observe how race is a factor in interpersonal interactions, in institutional settings, and on a systemic level. To understand how race became such a systemic organising idea, it is necessary to examine the history of colonialism.



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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Michael Ma is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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