Race, Ethnicity and Culture

Psychological Variables in the Ethiology of Deviant Behavior




The terms race, ethnicity and culture have no generally agreed upon definitions.  The term deviance, does.  There is a growing interest in the interaction between these four terms perhaps as a result of the biogenetic, psychiatric and psychological studies being conducted to identify a possible link between criminality and genetics, physiology, mental disorders, personality and moral development. This writing presents a general overview of deviance and how it is influenced by such elements as race, ethnicity, culture and socioeconomic status.



Personality and Behavior

            Personality, as defined by theorist Salvador Maddi, is “a constant set of intrapsychic or internal characteristics and predispositions that directly determine psychological behavior” (Maddi, 1989, p.41).  Lewin, on the other hand, views personality as one of the two determinants of behavior; environment being the other (Lewin, 1935).  According to Lewin, personality variables are categorized as internal causes of behavior and environmental variables are categorized as external causes of behavior.  Lewin also argues that internal variables, or external variables, or some combination of both, are the only possible determinants of deviant behavior (Lewin, 1935). 

A more complex explanation is posited by Gustav Bergman, a logical positivist philosopher.  He argues that personality and behavior are the end results of a combination of heredity or physiology, past learning, reaction to different levels of stimuli, and the various elements of the environment (Bergman, 1967).  According to Bergman, since heredity, past learning and reaction to stimuli are all internal variables, then personality is either physiological, biological or learned.  Each of these arguments seems to say that psychological and social needs are more significant than biological needs and result in changes in behavioral patterns and consequent changes in the direction of personality development.


Etiology of Deviance

What is deviance?  Who is a deviant?  How do you control deviant behavior?  These questions all have major societal relevance.    Crime, deviance and delinquency are concepts that are inextricably intertwined and, for the purposes of this writing, will be used interchangeably. 

Goode (1994) defines deviance as “behavior or characteristics that some people in a society find offensive and that generates--or would generate if discovered--in these people disapproval, punishment, condemnation of, or hostility toward, the actor or possessor “ (p. 29).  And individuals are described as delinquent or deviant when the individuals (more often than not, adolescents), acts out their hostility towards the parent, guardian, caregiver, abuser, or society at large, in a deviant manner (Lemert, 1972).  Obviously, as Lemert seems to suggest, deviant personalities do not develop overnight.  He argues that there are initial acts that deviate from normal or socially acceptable behavior. These acts result in reactions from the immediate social environment since they represents violations of social norms. The social reaction would often involve some measure of reprimand and, despite warnings, other deviant acts and reactions will continue to occur (p.59). 

Lemert also notes that because some instances of deviance are simply cases of unintended clumsiness, the resultant punishment or admonition may very well be the reaction that provokes a sense of unfairness, victimization and, ultimately, deviant retaliation (p. 59).  Eventually, the individual will begin to use deviant behavior as a means of defense, attack, or response to the corrective reaction that the initial behavior provoked (p. 200).  Other researchers argue that within the family structure, divorce, neglect, abuse, deviant parents, and general familial conflict, are the main determinants of the deviant or criminal behavior of the offspring (McCord & McCord, 1959).  In fact, early researchers first thought that parental absence only affected girls and whites (Offord, 1982). 

               Poverty has also been identified as having a significant impact on family conflict and deviance (Lemert, 1972).  Research has shown that children need close and supportive relationships with their parents; therefore an inability to communicate with parents could probably promote deviance, especially if the child feels a need for attention.  Family size also has the potential to affect an adolescent who does not receive the requisite level of individual attention.  Middle children, for example, are more likely to behave deviantly because they receive less attention than their older or younger siblings (p. 48).   
               Deviant behavior is also linked to other influences occurring outside of the home. Peers, media images, and mainstream society set the standard norms in any given environment, and the degree of the impact on each individual depends on the level of peer influence as well as media influence.  
Theories, Approaches and Perspective of Deviance
               Within the last century alone, a plethora of theories, approaches and perspectives have emerged all attempting to explain the causes of deviance.  Most of these explanations tend to emphasize events and stimuli that occur prior to the initiation of the deviant behavior. Some claim that the deviant is abnormal because of a substandard socialization process (Becker, 1964; Bennot, 1960; Davidson & Neal, 1997; Goode, 1994; Lemert. 1971, 1972; Lewin, 1935; McCord & McCord, 1964).  Others argue that deviants and criminals evolve because of an inability to properly internalized society's norms (Merton, 1938; Offord, 1982; Oetting, 1998, 1999; Pfuhl, 1980; Polednak, 1997; Sellers et al. 1997).  Following is a discussion of some of the more popular theories, approaches, and perspectives. 

Once an individual is labeled deviant there seems to be a tendency to continue to respond to society accordingly.  This aspect of deviance is referred to as the Labeling Theory.  As Becker (1964) explains,

                      …..social groups create deviance by making the rules

as to whose infraction constitutes deviance, and by

applying those rules to particular people and labeling

them as outsiders.  From this point of view, deviance is

not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a

consequence of the application by others of rules and

sanctions to an “offender’ (p. 9).


According to Becker, once individuals begin to internalize the label that society has given to them, there is a tendency to continue to behave that way simply because that behavior is what society now expects (Becker, 1964). This, of course, raises the argument of nature vs. nurture.  Are certain individuals genetically predisposed to deviance at birth or, are they influenced by their environment? 

The Labeling theory’s primary concern is with the social processes that objectively label individuals as deviants, and what affects these labels have on deviants and non-deviants alike. As Becker put it, "deviant behavior is behavior that people so label" (Becker, p. 9).  A deviant label changes society’s perception of the individual as well as the individual’s perception of himself.  In fact, researchers are convinced that labels only serve to exacerbate the behavior that prompted the label in the first place (Shaw & Mckay, 1942; Pfuhl, 1980). By treating the individual as a deviant, the individual begins to see herself or himself as a deviant.  A self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will.

Another perspective of deviant behavior is the sociological perspective.  Sociologists focus on cultural influences as opposed to biological or psychological biases, to identify the emergence of an individual’s character (Pfuhl, 1980, p.50).  Instead of focusing on biological characteristics, proponents of the sociological perspective view deviance as the type of behavior engaged in by individuals who have a common sociocultural background or have similar experiences within a particular culture (Pfuhl, 1980; Sutherland, 1945). 

There is another school of thought that society’s reaction to deviance is the major determinant of the level of deviance in society at any given time (Fiske et. al, 1998; Landrine & Klonoff, 1996).  The societal reaction perspective argues that the current level of crime is generated by the current level of societal concern rather than by any actual changes in criminal behavior (Lemert, 1971,1972).  This raises the question, “Does the level of fear in society create the deviance or the deviant behavior create the level of fear in the society? 

There are several theories that place emphasis on the groups within which deviance occurs and the socialization processes by which their deviant lifestyles were created. These theories are referred to as Socialization approaches.  These approached divide deviance into two categories.  Achieved forms of deviance include crime, prostitution and drug use.  Ascribed deviance is the result of physical handicaps or mental retardation (Sutherland, 1945; Oetting & Donnermeyer, 1998; Oetting, Deffenbacher & Donnemeyer, 1998; Oetting, Donnemeyer, Trimble & Beauvais, 1998)

One of the most noteworthy socialization theories is Sutherland's theory of differential association.  According to Sutherland (Sutherland, 1945), deviance is learned in the same way that normative or conforming behavior is learned.  All individuals interact with positive and negative people, situations, values, and behavior patterns.  The tendency to assimilate deviant behavior is a result of some mixture of both these positive and negative experiences.  In other words deviance is the result of excessive exposure to negative experiences as opposed to positive experiences (pp. 132-139).

On the other hand proponents of the Conflict theories argue that socioeconomic and class status are strong determinants of deviance (Goode, 1994).  These theorists believe that the law is a weapon used exclusively by the majority to control the minority.  As such, crime rates appear to be higher among the poorest of neighborhoods, simply because criminal laws are written by the social majority and, more importantly, because crime is the rational response to social inequalities. Instead of labeling criminals as impulsive or pathological, conflict theorists tend to view them as rational beings reacting naturally to the inequitable distribution of wealth (Goode, 1994).

The strongest support for the conflict theory is seen in the public’s reaction to white-collar crime as opposed to street crime.  Sutherland’s research of cases involving anti-trust violations, false advertising, unfair labor practices, fraud and embezzlement revealed that although these offenses are potentially more costly and injurious to society at large than street crime, white-collar offenders seldom received heavy, if any, criminal sanctions (Sutherland, 1945).  In fact, Sutherland pointed out that all the major players in these crimes, (the offenders, the regulators and the judges) tended to treat these offenses as if they were not really crimes.  Sutherland concluded that deviance and criminal behavior were more a function of selfish political interests than a function of genuine societal concern (Sutherland, 1945). 

In attempting to define deviance, some researchers have used what is called a normative approach.  This approach defines deviance as a formal violation of societal norms (Lemert, 1971, 1972).  It could be argued, however, that this approach is too simplistic and therefore inappropriate because there are societal sub-cultures whose norms may differ from the mainstream but whose behavior may not necessarily be classified as deviant.  The reactive approach defines deviance by its ability to meet two necessary conditions.  The behavior must be observed by a third party and it must be the type that is condemned or punished.  Secret behavior, therefore, can never be classified as deviant simply because it has not been observed by a third party.  This approach may also be inappropriate because it does not allow someone to be a victim until the behavior is seen or acknowledged publicly.

               A third approach presents a combination of both the normative and the reactive approaches.  The normative approach is based on the minimum guidelines for behavior meeting societal norms, and the reactive approach differentiates between deviant behavior that is observable to one persons, a group of persons, or the general public (Petee, 1987).  According to Petee (1987), there are two theories of deviant/criminal behavior, the “Typological” or "Criminal types" theories.  Both theories argue that there are basic physical and psychological differences between criminals and noncriminals (Petee, 1987). 

Another 200-year-old theory posited by Lombroso’s "positive" school of criminology argues that criminals are characterized by physical abnormalities and low sensitivity to pain.  These attributes supposedly represent humanoid degeneration.  Additionally, because of their predisposition, criminals and deviants are seen as being unable to abstain from crime unless they are exposed to unusually good life circumstances (Lombroso, 1912).  Empirical evidence presented by current philosophers has failed to support this argument (Forth & Hare, 1989; Lemert, 1972; Stryker & Serpe, 1994).

Other theories include the “Intelligence test" posited by (Goddard, 1920).  Goddard argues that criminals as mentally deficient and therefore unable to appreciate the consequences of behavior. Goddard claims that all criminals are weak-minded and almost all weak-minded individuals are criminal. The "Criminal somatypes" theory argued by William Sheldon (1949) also attempts to differentiate criminals from noncriminals based on body type.  The "Social Organization" theory argues that since crime rates are directly correlated to changes in social organization, then deviance is directly related to the degree of social change (Stryker and Serpe, 1994).  Therefore the greater the rate of social change, the greater the degree of social disorganization, and the greater the level of deviance and criminal behavior.

The "Chicago School" theory is based on studies of Chicago conducted in the 1920s, which showed that delinquency rates varied widely according to the neighborhood (Park, Burgess, & McKenzie, 1925). As expected, rates of delinquency were generally highest in the low-rent areas in the inner-city.  However, the studies also revealed that some areas had consistently high rates of delinquency for more than 50 years despite significant changes in ethnic composition. As a result the “Chicago School” researchers concluded that delinquency is perhaps a function of social conditions as opposed to individual traits  (Park and Burgess, McKenzie 1925; Shaw and McKay, 1942).

Yet another theory of the causes of deviance is Merton's theory of anomie. He defines anomie as “a confused, normless state” that results when individuals are faced with certain dilemmas (Merton, 1938).  Merton was interested in which types of societies were more or less likely to generate deviant behavior and determined that the societies most prone to deviant behavior would be those which placed the greatest emphasis on achieving specific materialistic goals, while making it difficult, if not impossible, for all individuals to legitimately achieve those goals.  According to Merton, the state of anomie increases the likelihood that crime will be used to achieve desired goals (Merton, 1938).

The concept of Primary Socialization theory is fairly new.  Its basis is interdisciplinary and its purpose is to define the cultural, social and personal etiology of deviant behavior.  According to proponents of this theory lack of affection or parental rejection contributes to the development of psychopathic traits (McCord, 1964).  This theory argues that deviant behavior emerges from the interaction with the primary socialization sources-the family, school, and peer groups (Oetting et al., 1998, 1999).  According to these theorists each of these sources encourages either normative or deviant social norms, however, individual personality characteristics and traits also influence the final outcome. The theory attempts to explain how characteristics of both the local community and the larger extended community influence deviance (Oetting & Donnermeyer, 1998; Oetting, Deffenbacher, & Donnermeyer, 1998; Oetting, Donnermeyer, & Deffenbacher, 1998; Oetting, Donnermeyer, Trimble & Beauvais, 1998;Oetting, 1999). 

Outside of these primary areas of diagnoses there are a number of disorders, which can, and do contribute significantly to criminal behavior.  As part of their research on the Etiology of Deviance, researchers have identified these disorders, which although not commonly known, are significant to the etiological relationship between criminal behavior and mental disorders. These disorders are characterized as Personality Disorders and include Paranoid Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, and Borderline Personality Disorder.   Paranoid Personality Disorder is characterized by an innate distrust and suspicion of others (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). This disorder frequently leads to violence because of a perceived, but often time nonexistent, threat of harm.

Antisocial Personality Disorder, commonly called antisocial behavior, is the mental disorder most often correlated with criminal behavior and deviance.  Individuals diagnosed with this disorder are the 'psychopaths' who display an unhealthy pattern of disregard for the rights of others, and easily violates them. The disorder is characterized by a “lack of conformity or respect for lawful behavior” (Robins et al., 1984).  Additionally, children of adoptive or foster parents whose biological parents have been diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder show a higher than average rate of Antisocial Personality Disorder.  

The results of a study done by Lykken (1957) indicate that psychopaths experience little or no anxiety, so they are comfortable committing acts that are antisocial in nature (Lykken, 1957). Similarly, individuals with Antisocial Personality Disorder have developed the ability to block out or ignore negative messages and can therefore focusing single-mindedly on the things that interest them (Forth & Hare, 1989).   About 3% of males and 1% of females suffer from Antisocial Personality Disorder or antisocial behavior (Robins et al, 1984), and although rates seem higher in younger as opposed to older individuals, this disorder seems to predominate in individuals with a low socioeconomic status (Davison & Neale, 1997).

Borderline Personality Disorders has been described as the most difficult mental disorder to treat.  It, too, contributes to deviant behavior and criminality. This disorder typically manifests itself in instable interpersonal relationships and negative self-image.  However, this disorder also has an external component.  Individuals suffering from this disorder have extreme mood swings and characteristically display uncontrollable, inappropriate and intense outbursts of anger (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).

Misleading Definitions of Deviance

Several of the current theories of deviance have been identified as being misleading.   According to Goode, these include, but are not limited to the following.  The absolutist theory claims that deviance is a God given natural fact and that deviance is a part of God’s plan.  This theory is not generally accepted by all cultures.  Another theory is the statistical theory that argues that any select group of humans that is small in number should automatically be labeled as deviant. This theory is impractical because that there are several groups of humans that are small, for example, world presidents, who would be labeled as deviant.  Another misleading theory of deviance is that of social harm.  This theory claims that anything that is bad for society is deviant.  However, there are many things that are deviant that cause no harm, just as there are many things in society that are not deviant that cause great social harm.

Yet another misleading theory is the claim that only criminal behavior is deviant (Lemert, 1971).  It is well accepted that, criminal behavior must, by necessity, be labeled as deviant behavior.  Although this writing uses the terms interchangeably for practical reasons, it is not generally accepted that all deviant behavior is automatically defined as being criminal.  Another misleading theory is the belief that there is positive deviance.  The term “deviance” has a negative connotation because it diverges from societal norm. The term “positive deviance” is an oxymoron and, therefore, contradictory (Goode, 1994, pp. 33-43). 

It is generally agreed that an individual would be labeled deviant if he or she were to violate a significant social norm of a particular culture. What causes individuals to act deviantly is still strongly disputed.  Despite all of the above mentioned studies, theories, approaches and perspectives, no one group has yet come up with an exact reason why individuals behave deviantly (Pfuhl, 1980.  p.40).  The one common denominator of all attempted explanations is that the underlying reasons have either a psychological, biological, or sociological basis.  These will be discussed next.


Biological Perspective

For at least a century, American medical and public health researchers have used race as a marker for biology, and have documented race-associated differences in health and illness behavior. The research has often been inappropriate and has led to abuses and erroneous conclusions about the role played by race in the production of disparities in health status. Consequently, some researchers have begun to advocate the abolition of medical and public health research in the name of race. Although the arguments against continuing to study race have some merit, more rather than fewer studies on the biology of race are needed.

Race, Ethnicity and Culture

               There is considerable controversy about the definitions and parameters of the terms race, ethnicity and culture.  Researchers claim that these terms overlap (Helms & Talleyrand, 1997; Phinney, 1996).  The term “race” has been the source of many psychological debates (Helms & Talleyrand, 1997; Jensen, 1995; Levin, 1995; Phinney, 1996; Rushton, 1995; Sun, 1995; Yee, Fairchild, Weizmann, & Wyatt, 1993).  According to Helms and Cook (1999)  "race" has no precise definition, and is considered to be a social construct, rather than one of biological determination. Race, is the category to which individuals are assigned based on physical characteristics, skin color or hair type, not to mention the generalizations and stereotypes which result (Helms & Talleyrand, 1997).

The term “ethnicity” is similar in concept to the terms race and culture.   "Ethnicity" also has no generally agreed upon definition.  For the sake of this writing “ethnicity” will be used to refer to “the acceptance of the group mores and practices of one's culture of origin and the concomitant sense of belonging” (Brewer, 1999; Sedikides and Brewer, 2001; Hornsey and Hogg, 2000).  “Culture" is defined as “the belief system and value orientations that influence customs, norms, practices, and social institutions, including psychological processes…and organizations”, and also includes racial and ethnic rituals, symbols, language and general patterns of behavior (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus, & Nisbett, 1998). 

Historically, racial differences have been synonymous with biological differences. Banton identifies the first use of the term ‘Race’ in early 1500 Europe (Banton, 1987). Then, as now, there was an underlying belief that race is a result of biogenetic differences. Race has been interpreted as a distinct fixed lineage, but it has also been used to define a subspecies of potentially transferable genes (Mead, 1968).  Research by Jensen and Johnson, for example, emphasizes racial differences in head size and intelligence and attests to the continuing controversy on the significance of interpreting racial data from a biogenetic perspective (Jensen & Johnson, 1994).  The direction of this research is perhaps connected to the growing interest in the biogenetic, psychiatric and psychological explanations of criminal and deviant behavior and the possible existence of a link between criminality and genetics, physiology, mental disorders, personality and moral development. 

Additionally, recent surveys show that 65 of 191 sociologists and 162 of 300 physical anthropologists actually agreed that biologically defined race categories exist (Reynolds, 1992).  In their opinion, therefore, to be African-American rather than Anglo-American in the United States may be associated with a distinctive set of life experiences, life opportunities, and life chances. But more importantly, to be African-American rather than Anglo-American in the United States is associated with distinctive biological and biogenetic differences. 

These racial differences, although interpreted for their social significance, have also been interpreted to reflect distinctive cultural, and therefore psychological, experiences.  Unfortunately American society has placed such emphasis on social significance and racial differences that superiority and inferiority complexes have resulted.


Psychological Influence

African-Americans continue to face innumerable race-related challenges to achieving and maintaining high levels of psychological well being (Delgado 1982; Harrell 2000; Jackson, Brown, Williams, Torres, Sellers, and Brown 1996; Klonoff, Landrine, & Ullman 1999).  Additionally, declining federal funding combined with the inability of mental health organizations to address more subtle forms of discriminatory practices in health care settings, as well as increasingly narrow interpretations by the courts, and a the lack of adequate mechanisms for monitoring of healthcare providers, all contribute to disparate levels in the availability of mental health services for minorities.

There are many other indicators of racial disparity in the mental health system that are beyond the direct control of health services providers, and disparities in income, wealth, insurance, housing, and environmental risk exposures also play important roles.  So even if African Americans are diagnosed with certain mental disorders related to incidences of deviance and criminal behavior, disparities in the availability and quality of treatment will be at issue.

There is also another significant consideration in the mental health perspective of the criminal justice system.  Statistics suggests that African-American males in the United States continue to have a shorter life span than any other population group. The life expectancy for African-American males is 64.9 years, compared to 72.3 years for their Euro-American counterparts. African-American males are also three times more likely than young white males to die between the ages of 15 and 30 years (U. S. Department of Justice, 1995). There are several reasons for these differences.

While accidents and cardiovascular disease are the most common cause of death among white males, homicide, drug abuse, suicide, and death from sexually transmitted diseases (e.g., AIDS) are the primary causes of death among African-American males (Jenkins, Lamar, & Thompson-Crumble, 1993; Johnson & Leighton, 1997). Among youth ages 14 to 17, African-American males are victims of violent acts at a rate of 65.9 per 100,000, in comparison to white males of comparable age, who were being victimized at a rate of 8.5 per 100,000 (U. S. Department of Justice, 1995). African-American males also have a 50% higher probability rate of dying before age 20 than do white males (U. S. Bureau of Census, 1990). African-American male adults, age 25-44, had a death rate of 367 per 100,000 population, or 2.5 times the rate for white adults, 149 per 100,000 (U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1990).   So not only are African-American men likely to die earlier that Anglo-American men, but during their already short life span they have been labeled as being prone to delinquency and deviance, more likely to commit crime, kill each other or in the case of the survivors, become a statistic of the criminal justice system in one form or another.  Here again, there is evidence of the effects of the labeling theory.

Society’s labeling of African-Americans reflects both culture and minority status (Manuel, 1982).  According to Manuel, culture and minority are social structures that relate to two factors of perceived discrimination: "identity as a perception of lifelong victimization by social injustices," and "identity as a perception of current victimization by social injustices” (Manuel, 1982b). 

Similarly, identity and consciousness are two distinct social psychological concepts.  Identity refers to the similarity of personal experiences, and similarity of expected fate as opposed to consciousness, which refers to the continuum that is identity, self perception, minority status, deviance and criminal behavior (Gurin, Hatchett, & Jackson, 1989).

When mainstream society assumes, and does not observe each person's actual circumstance, it results in errors in the setting of social standards.  To observe at a general level, and not on a personal level, skews the perception.  It becomes difficult to acknowledge or even understand the specific psychological meaning (in the case of identity) or actual social structure (attitudes/laws/customs/social organizations) that each category means to each individual.  Thus, while scholars such as Landrine and Klonoff attribute distinctive African-American outcomes to their cultural distinctiveness, others such as Ogbu attribute it to their minority status (Landrine & Klonoff, 1996; Ogbu, 1986).

To develop a thorough understanding of how these theories relate to race, researchers must transcends biological and sociological realms. Researchers, scholars and practitioners must acknowledge the importance of identity as a social psychological construct. The manner in which African Americans identity themselves moves the issue of race from an abstract level to a behavioral one.  The traditional view that membership in a particular racial group assumes certain experiences must be denounced because it is nothing more than labeling.  The approach should focus less on the social organization producing the experience and more on the personal meanings attached to it. The question is, therefore, whether a person's membership in a group, whether defined objectively or subjectively, should automatically assume an identification with the history, the culture, and the common experiences known about that group (Stryker & Serpe, 1994). 

Stryker and Serpe link identity to a set of mental structures which they define as internalized, cognitive, and symbolically held definitions of societal roles (p.16). Racial identity is derived from various group memberships and the meanings attached to the experiences within those groups. But, if identity is what is captured, does knowledge, for example, that a person says he is African-American tell us anything about this person's cognitively held definitions or meanings about his actual or perceived victimization caused by race linked discrimination? 

In other words, can we safely assume, that belonging to a special racial category necessarily implies having a specific identity with the history, culture, and experiences of that group?  Should a race's biological and socially structural significance automatically extend to its psychological significance?  And should this society be allowed to use these assumptions as an excuse to subtly perpetuate segregation in any form?


Sociological Influence

Although de jure racial segregation in public and private places was ruled unconstitutional nearly 50 years ago, today, de facto separation is a social fact (Jacoby, 1998). Whether in primary or secondary educational settings, neighborhoods, places of employment, or even houses of worship, the chances of finding proportional racial representation as well as amicable interracial relations are almost none existent.  The collapse of Jim Crow (de jure) segregation is most notably linked to the 1954 Linda Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas Supreme Court ruling (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954).

In this precedent-setting case, thirty-two social scientists testified on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that the self-esteem and chances for educational success of African-American children were damaged by their physical (and ultimately psychological) separation from Anglo-American children.  Justices then ruled that “separate” African-American and Anglo-American schools were inherently “unequal,” and that biracial schooling contexts would be the most significant method of fostering racial tolerance.  The logic was that if African-American children in segregated schools could not get a quality education equivalent to that given to Anglo-American children, then integrating the children would insure parity.  It was also hoped that bringing the children together would reduce racial antipathy of Anglo-Americans, improve the psychological and sociological well being of African-Americans, their individual behavior, personality and ultimately the level of their deviant and criminal behavior.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal for race to be a consideration in public accommodations such as hotels, motels, restaurants, gasoline stations, and amusement parks. Racial segregation in publicly owned facilities such as parks and swimming pools, as well as federally supported institutions such as hospitals and colleges was also ruled illegal (Civil Right Act of 1964).  Despite these and other judicial and legislative actions, in the contemporary United States, African-American and Anglo-American segregation persists in the form of various methods of subtle discrimination in healthcare, employment and especially within the criminal justice system.

If Sutherland’s Socialization Theory of deviant behavior is to be believed, then the negative experiences of segregation and discrimination increase the risk of deviance and criminal behavior within African American communities (Sutherland, 1945), which then leads to African Americans being labeled as having deviant or criminal tendencies.  This labeling, according to Becker’s labeling theory (Becker, 1964), perpetuates the stereotyping of African Americans.

From persistent patterns of housing discrimination (Yinger, 1995), to the overwhelming issue of disproportionate minority overrepresentation (Mauer, 1991), racism is the predominant factor in the psychological and social emasculation of African Americans.  In fact, scholars have argued that both de facto and de jure discrimination permeate the very fabric of our society and is manifested in an overwhelming manner in the criminal justice system (Dovido, John & Gaertner, 1986; Hacker, 1992; Jones, 1997).  In 1990 Peter Reuter and his colleagues at RAND executed a study of the criminal histories and demographics of young black males arrested for drug distribution in Washington, D.C. because they represented the vast majority of persons arrested for that offense.  That research revealed the extent to which drug dealing has become a source of income for this particular group, with one-sixth of the black males born in 1967 having an arrest for drug distribution by the age of 20, and expectations of one-quarter having an arrest by the age of 29.   The surprising outcome of the study was that at the time of arrest, two-thirds of the offenders had been employed at low-wage jobs with a median income of $800 per month.  In effect, drug dealing had become a second job for some of these young men, with the daily sellers earning average incomes of $2000 a month in drug sales (Reuter, 1990).  The psychology developed from the negative experience in the employment arena spill over into the criminal justice system.

Another race-based cultural argument being presented is one of the “culture of poverty”.  This theory received strong support from anthropologist Oscar Lewis in the 1960s. Lewis argued,

a distinctive set of cultural patterns and values

among the poor— antithetical in nature to

mainstream” culture—impairs poor individuals’

attempts at full participation in myriad social,

political and economic institutions (Lewis, 1969,


The feelings of hopelessness and despair that are cultivated within this subculture create a society based on poverty and fed by sub-standard social and economic conditions- in effect a “culture of poverty” (Lewis, 1969).  This argument parallels Merton’s “anomie” theory (Merton, 1938)

Models of oppositional culture presented by the likes of Ogbu and Wilson support this theory with their contention that the historical legacy of involuntary servitude, subjugation, high unemployment, and lack of political opportunity forces racial and ethnic minorities to develop and adapt to another way of life-another culture- out of a need to successfully navigate the confines of mainstream society (Anderson, 1994; Bourgois, 1995; Hannerz, 1969; Lewis, 1969; Liebow, 1967; Ogbu, 1974; Ogbu, 1978).  As a result, African-Americans might respond negatively to both perceived and actual practices of discrimination and consequently reject mainstream norms because of the belief that it only benefits the white middle class.  It is this outward rejection of mainstream norms that has been identified by mainstream society as “deviance”.   This reaction has a negative effect on the opportunity structure (i.e., access to jobs and educational resources) and could eventually influence the aggregate social, economic, legal and political outcomes for African-American communities.

Since culture is such a significant component of the societal hierarchy, any negative ideas about a particular culture, especially a culture that deviates from the norms of mainstream society, will have negative repercussions on the social and economic attainment of the members of that culture.  Hannerz has captured the problem and offered a solution that should be taken seriously.  He claims that what we need is a cohesive set of meanings to facilitate interracial, ethnic, and class interaction and participation (Hannerz, 1969, p.197).  So the challenge lies in the establishment of a fair and equitable opportunity structure that also supports distinctive racial and ethnic groups and the distinctive elements of each cultural. 

Psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists have attributed differences in educational and job mobility between African-Americans and Anglo-Americans to cultural and linguistic differences.  They argue the theory of a “defective culture” to explain the differences in cultural norms between racial minorities and Anglo-American (Anderson, 1994; Bourgois, 1995; Hannerz, 1969; Lewis, 1969; Liebow, 1967; Ogbu, 1974; Ogbu, 1978). This argument has also been used to identify and categorize the behavior of African-Americans in general and African-American youths in particular.  It claims to support an oppositional cultural and identity theory and is being used to explain such phenomena as low school achievement, delinquency, and deviance (Fordham, 1996; Fordham and Ogbu, 1986; Ogbu, 1978; Solomon, 1991; Urciuoli, 1996).  But does this theory not encourage the already negative perception of African Americans by labeling them as “defective” simply because they deviate from mainstream social norms.  Does this theory paint a “defective” picture of the African American community by supporting the paradigms of segregation and discrimination?

The degree of integration within any society has become an excellent barometer of the level of economic and social improvement (Bloom, 1971; Dovidio and Gaertner, 1986; Gordon, 1964; Jones, 1997; Myrdal, 1944; Park, 1947; Simpson and Yinger, 1953).  For African-Americans, continuing racial intolerance as well as such persistent racial problems as wealth, employment and health, make integration a much sought after practical and moral goal (Committee on the Status of African-Americans, 1989; Hacker, 1992; Fleming, 1984; Marable, 1983; Oliver and Shapiro, 1995; Polednak, 1997). 

In fact, higher levels of assimilation are being actively sought because racial concentration has shown a decided tendency to expose African-Americans to pathogens. For example, alcohol is marketed to African-American communities with greater frequency that in Anglo-American communities (Hacker, Collins, and Jacobson, 1987).  Moreover, the experience of poverty among African-Americans is exacerbated by residential racial concentration (Massey and Denton, 1993; Massey et al., 1987; Polednak, 1997).  Examples of ethnic issues in Hispanic and Asian communities also suggest that the level of economic and political growth may indeed be correlated with racial separation and consciousness (see Marable, 1983, p. 146 for discussion of “The Golden Era” of African-American businesses). 

The rationale of assimilation and integration is not new to the African-American community (Carmichael & Hamilton, 1967; Jacoby, 1998).  As a community, African Americans have been subjected to many differing opinions as to whether assimilation into mainstream Anglo-American society whether it be political, or cultural assimilation, is the answer to the elimination of racial inequality. The recent advent of the war on drugs and the new concepts of “policing African-American” and “racial authenticity” belie beliefs within the African-American community that integration is an ideal goal and that desegregation can even really occur. Several arguments have also been raised to support the theory that deviance is nothing more than a socially determined concept created to foster greater degrees of separatism (Rand, 1990), and the African-American economic and educational disadvantage is reproduced in part by racial concentration and segregation. Following are several illustrations that deviance is socially determined, rather than innate. 

The use of alcohol was criminalized during prohibition and decriminalized after that period (Hacker, Collins & Jacobson, 1987).  Therefore, alcoholics were viewed as deviant or delinquent during prohibition and “ill” after that period.  The only factor that changed was society’s view of alcohol and not the effects of its use.  At one time, the American Psychological Association listed homosexuality as a "sexual deviation" (2000).  In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declared that homosexuality in and of itself does not necessarily constitute a psychiatric disorder.  Drug addicts, the mentally ill, and alcoholics have all come to be recognized as being “ill” rather than being deviant or criminal (Hacker, Collins & Jacobson, 1987). Medical intervention has therefore replaced punishment for what was once considered deviant behavior. 

Despite all the theories and perspectives, scholars have not been able to agree on whether race, ethnicity and culture-terms defined by mainstream society- are being applied in such a way that they have assumed psychological significance to minority groups.  They cannot agree on whether race, ethnicity and culture are the basic elements of the paradigms of discrimination and segregation.  Scholars cannot agree on whether discrimination and segregation have psychological and sociological influences on the personalities and behavioral patterns of individuals and groups.  The one thing that all scholars seem to agree on, however, is that there is a direct relationship between personality and deviant or criminal behavior.

Whatever the cause of deviant behavior, it is still a major societal problem.  What causes individuals to act in certain ways is, to say the least, a controversial topic.  The trait may be inherited, learned from society and family, or even a combination of both.  An exact answer will probably never be known.
































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by  Dianne A. Fenton, Assistant Professor ,Department of Criminal Justice, Livingstone College, Salisbury,  North Carolina