The Criminal Element: Blacks in America
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
LOPEZ, M. A. (2003). The Criminal Element: Blacks in America. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 6. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

The Criminal Element: Blacks in America

Sponsored by: ELIZABETH HAMMER (
AbstractThe current issues this study addressed were the assessment of race for a subject of a crime story in conjunction with scores on a Modern Racism Scale and the participant’s race. It was hypothesized that the higher a participant’s score on the Modern Racism Scale and depending on their crime scenario, the more likely they were to attribute the protagonist’s race to Black. The subjects were 59 undergraduate males and females whose race was of importance to the study. The method of this study included McConahay’s Modern Racism Scale (1986), two crime scenarios or a success scenario about a given subject, the subject’s picture, a distracter task, a story questionnaire, and a demographics questionnaire. All results of this study were not significant. No conclusions could be drawn from the results discovered.

Introduction It is a topic we hear about on a daily basis. Prejudice, discrimination, and racial profiling are issues that affect our society as a whole whether directly or indirectly, depending on the individual. This very sensitive subject has become so much of a familiar, commonplace issue that it is portrayed in our family sitcoms. For example, an episode on racial profiling was aired on the popular, mid-nineties shows Family Matters and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. These shows portrayed middle and upper class African American families whose young, black male family members were stopped by police officers for, what some call, “driving while black.” A case of racial profiling occurred in the summer of 2000 to one of the rap industry’s highly successful recording artists. Rapper, Juvenile, a.k.a. Terius Gray, was stopped by police officers along with his business associates in an upper class area of California at the ATM of a Merrill Lynch banking branch. The group was in California for a taping of an episode for an MTV summer series. The police officers questioned he and his record mates as to why they were in this upper class area. The group was detained in the officers’ squad car until their story was checked out with their hotel and MTV. These examples of profiling certain races with certain criminal offenses are blatant and recognizable. They have occurred in very recent years, which signals to the public that racism still exists like it did before and during the Civil Rights Movement, but just in a more subtle and complex form known as “modern racism”. Modern racism refers to resistance to change in the racial status quo. It is referred to as modern because of its contrasts to “old-fashioned” racial attitudes, which refer to those prior to the Civil Rights Movement. The principles of modern racism include the ideology that discrimination is a thing of the past since blacks have freedom to compete in the marketplace and can enjoy the things they can afford. It also holds the ideology that blacks push too hard in places they are not wanted which is unfair. Modern racism is summarized by the belief that the recent gains of blacks are undeserved because blacks are getting more attention from society (McConahay, 1986). Further evidence of the dilemma of racism is the recent actions of the NAACP. Two head officials within the organization placed at the top of their to-do lists the heated discussions of allegations that police departments around the country engage in racial profiling when making traffic stops (New York Times Company, 1999). For a major national organization of this sort to prioritize this issue, it is obviously a prevalent issue of importance to our society as a whole. The history of racism between minorities and whites parallels its present state. As Erskine cites in her article, Exposing Racism, Exploring Race, the assumption of white superiority and black inferiority in Great Britain’s colonial past helped to exonerate racial social structures and political advancement for the white race that were established in North America (Skellington, 1995). Through this, race is closely linked to social status and class. As a result, social problems such as street crime can be ascribed to black people in terms of ‘racial’ characteristics (Erskine, 284). Yet, the current state of racial discrimination is not cut and dry racism. This would be defined with racist comments, actions, and situations not in compliance with a socially desirable grounding. Instead, our country is presently experiencing a trend in Modern Racism (McConahay, 1986). This consists of negative racially motivated attitudes that are not as harsh and could seem to comply with a socially desirable attitude. For example, Smith (1997) found that there was more racial tolerance on campuses but there was also less willingness to intimately associate with those of another race in terms of a social group according to Muir (1989). So here we see that racist theories have changed from “overt devaluation to covert resentment” (McConahay, 1986). Most commonly used, the term racial profiling refers to profiling by police officers where race is used as a key factor in police decisions to stop motorists or citizens. A survey was conducted, for instance, where it was found that blacks were more likely to report an incidence if being handcuffed, ticketed, or searched when being stopped by a police officer than whites (Weitzer & Tuch, 2002). But profiling can also refer to fellow citizens profiling someone of another race for criminal actions. Again, the combination of race and class creates a more stereotypical profile. Where white middle class citizens get profiled separately from white, lower class citizens, black lower and middle class gets profiled similarly (Weitzer & Tuch, 2002). People also tend to incorporate items into their memories that are consistent with their present schemas, and discard and distort things that are inconsistent (Harris 2002). If they have the preexisting schema that blacks are dangerous, they are more likely to attribute violent crimes to blacks. Therefore, this creates and perpetuates an ongoing stereotype of blacks in general. Landwher et al. (2002) created a clear example of discrimination and profiling. A mock rape trial was used for study where a where a white victim or a black victim were both testifying against a black defendant. The jury had to listen to either the white victim or black victim, view the defendant who did not speak, and deliver a verdict of guilty or not guilty. The stories of the victims were the same yet more people convicted the defendant in the case with the white woman than the case with the black woman. In the discussion section of this study, Landwher discovered that their results were less representative than what actually happens in real life. This example is consistent with the American typification of black males. Chiricos and Eschholz cite Barak (2002) in saying that America’s present criminal predator is synonymous for saying young, black male. In researching our topic, we discovered that there is little empirical research on racial profiling since it is so difficult to study. Because of social desirability, it is hard to study racial profiling and therefore we are unsure of the extent of the problem. In our relevant literature, we also unveiled that people have a hard time distinguishing racial characteristics in faces that are of a different ethnicity than their own (Ferguson et. al, 2001). This prompted us to creating our study that consists of crime scene or success scenarios, those of which are synonymous with either blacks or whites, and including a racially ambiguous picture. We hypothesize that the more violent the crime scenario, the more our participants will attribute the crime and the picture that goes along with it to be that of a black person. This attribution is hypothesized to be consistent with Modern Racism attitudes and schemas for racial profiling, those of which identify blacks with gaining unnecessary recognition and being synonymous with crime.

MethodParticipants A convenience sample of approximately 100 student volunteers from a mid-size, urban, private university was selected from various upper- and lower-division psychology classes by way of a subject pool and recruitment in psychology classes. Participants were also selected on an acquaintance basis and via campus wide emails. Student age ranges were from 18 to 25.Instruments Participants were asked to complete a Demographic Questionnaire, a questionnaire pertaining to their reading selection on a crime or a success, a distracter task consisting of an unrelated puzzle, and the Modern Racism Scale (McConahay, 1986). The demographics questionnaire will include questions about the participant’s race, gender, ethnicity they most identify with, financial/ social status, and the type of community they grew up in. The independent variable within the study is the reading selection pertaining to either one of two crimes or a success scenario. Participants will be asked to answer a questionnaire relating to their specific scenario, but dealing with information not actually stated. The reason for this is so they will not be primed to the question asking the race of the subject of the story. The dependent variable is the answer that the participant gives to the question of race. A distracter task consisting of a simple crossword puzzle will also be given to the participant. The purpose of his task is to detach them from the reading selection so they do not relate the selection and the Modern Racism Scale. The Modern Racism Scale is a 60-item instrument designed to measure modern racist attitudes. These items measuring these attitudes are hidden within other controversial questions. This is done in order to obtain an accurate measurement of racism without evoking social desirability in participants. Several areas of evaluation include the topics of discrimination against blacks, equal rights issues, and school desegregation. The Modern Racism Scale has good internal consistency among its items dealing with racism. It also possesses good construct validity and has significant correlation with The Symbolic Racism Scale (Henry & Sears, 2000). Participants respond to each item by assigning it either Strongly Disagree (-2), Disagree (-1), Neither agree nor disagree (0), Agree (1), or Strongly Agree (2). Higher, positive scores indicate higher levels of racism towards blacks.Procedure Once the Informed Consent documents were collected, participants were administered the Demographic Questionnaire, the crime/success scenario, the scenario questionnaire, the distracter task, and lastly, the Modern Racism Scale. Once completed, the participants were briefed on the purpose of the study.

Results After eliminating one participant’s study due to the fact that it was incomplete, our final sample consisted of 59 participants. We gathered our data and tested our two hypotheses. To test hypothesis one, attributing black to the subject of the violent crime scenario, we conducted a Pearson Chi-Square Test. It was found that the majority of participants attributed the subject’s race to either White or Hispanic no matter which scenario they were given. The degrees of freedom for the chi-square Test equaled 6 and ÷2=1.57, ns. Upon testing our second hypothesis that scores on the Modern Racism Scale would correlate with the racial attributions for the protagonist of the negative stories, we discovered that these results were also not significant. To test this hypothesis in hopes of finding something to support our theory, we decided to change the variables to white and non-white for attribution of race of the protagonist. This still did not support our hypothesis and r=-.052 ns. Because we found no support in our original hypotheses, we decided to compare other variables of our study. We looked at the attribution of race for the protagonist and each participant’s environment growing up. We hypothesized that people who grew up in a more rural setting would be more likely to label the protagonist black in the two negative stories. An ANOVA was performed whose F=1.674. Our findings were not significant, but they did follow the expected direction. The mean for urban participants was M=-1.52, the suburban mean was M=-1.21, and the rural mean was M=-.976 which was the expected direction that more participants who grew up in a rural environment would attribute the subject’s race to non-white . A Chi-Square test was done with participants’ ethnic classification and the race they labeled the protagonist. Here we found that the race of the participant was not related to the race ascribed to the protagonist of the negative stories and ÷2=4.163, not significant.Discussion The results of this experiment do not provide evidence that people are more likely to attribute minority race to the subject of a crime scenario, be it violent or nonviolent. There have been previous studies performed that tested for similar effects, whose results were significant. Upon analyzing our data, we discovered some of the shortcomings of this study and why they may have altered our results. There were two sections of our study that had time limits, the story and picture were given to the participants for five minutes and the distracter puzzle was five minutes also. The reason participants may not have put ‘black’ as the race for the protagonist, was that they were given too much time to study the story and the picture. For example, when someone is a witness to a crime, they usually do not have time to study the perpetrator. It is normally a split second ordeal and is usually difficult to give a clear description of the perpetrator. Our story should have mirrored this scenario of split second decision making. The participants could have only been allowed to read the story once and review the picture briefly. In addition, informing them that this was a “memory task” also primed them to make sure they knew the story well, as their memories would be questioned. Therefore, the combination of a long period of time for the story and the knowledge that their memories would be tested resulted in the participants knowing the content of the story and what information actually was not included. We expected our hypotheses to hold true mostly for white males. Our participant pool, unfortunately, consisted mainly of black males and females and white females. Therefore, the effect we were hoping for possibly did not surface because females and blacks in general are more sensitive to racial issues. Our last confounding problem was associated to recent racial incidents occurring on campus. My partner and I felt that participants were probably primed about labeling someone a specific race, especially black, since there were incidents the week before on campus directing racial slurs at blacks, Hispanics, and homosexuals. Conducting this study at a later date, with the changes mentioned could help us to obtain the effect we expected.


Chiricos, T., Eschholz, S. (2002). The Racial and Ethnic Typification of Crime and the Criminal Typification of Race and Ethnicity in Local Television News. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Vol. 39 No. 4, November 2002, 400-420.Erskine, R. (2002). Exposing Racism, Exploring Race. The Association for Family Therapy and Systematic Practice (2002) 24, 282-297.Ferguson, D. P., Rhodes, G., Lee, K. (2001). ‘They all look alike to me’: Prejudice and Cross-race face recognition. British Journal of Psychology (2001), 92, 567-577.Harris, D.A. (2002). Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work. New York: The New Press, New York, 2002.Landwehr, P.H., Bothwell, R.K., Jeanmard, M., Luque, L.R., Brown III, R.L., & Breaux, M. (2002). Racism in Rape Trials. The Journal of Social Psychology, 2002, 142(5), 667-669.McConahay, J.B., (1986). Modern Racism, Ambivalence, and the Modern Racism Scale.In J.F. Davido, & S.L. Gaertner (Eds.), Prejudice, Discrimination, and Racism (pp. 91-125). Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.Smith, T.B. (1997). Expressions of Prejudice Among College Students Over Three Assessments. College Student Journal, June 1997, Vol. 31, Issue 2, 235, 3p,1.Weitzer, R. & Tuch, S.A. (2002). Perceptions of Racial Profiling: Race, Class, and Personal Experience. Criminology, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 435-452.

Submitted 12/11/2003 1:47:24 PM
Last Edited 12/11/2003 1:47:24 PM
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