American Sociological Association

Christopher Michael Muller - 2015 Dissertation Award

Christopher Michael Muller

“Historical Origins of Racial Inequality in Incarceration in the United States” 

Between 1970 and 2010, the U.S. imprisonment rate increased fivefold, from roughly 100 per 100,000 residents to roughly 500 per 100,000 residents. No other nation incarcerates such a large proportion of its population. As the incarceration rate increased, it retained a striking racial disparity. African Americans today are imprisoned at about six times the rate of whites. 
Muller's dissertation focuses on three historical periods. The first essay examines a unique data set linking the administrative records of individuals in the convict lease system in the South in the late 19th century to their ensus records. It describes the highly exploitative convict-lease system that lent out mainly black prisoners to white industrialists and farmers. Muller's research shows that African-American men were more likely to be incarcerated for property crimes in counties where African Americans had begun to achieve economic and geographical mobility. The second essay focuses on racial disparity in incarceration among African Americans in the North in the early 1900s. It traces a portion of the increase in disparity during this period to increasing rates of African American migration to the North, which triggered economic, residential, and status conflicts with European immigrants. African American incarceration rates in the North increased with the influx of southern migrants, and these increases were largest in states where immigrants from Europe dominated the police force. The third essay provides a descriptive account of trends in racial inequality in imprisonment from the late 1980s through the first decade of the 21st century. It shows that although prison admissions grew dramatically, relative racial disparity in admissions remained roughly stable. Disparity in drug admissions spiked dramatically between 1985 and 2005, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, but disparity in admissions for non-drug crimes was also high. This suggests that racial disparity in imprisonment cannot be traced to the War on Drugs alone.
This dissertation is timely since the issue of African American and police relations, and, indeed, race relations in the United States as a whole, have dominated the news in the last few years after protests in Ferguson, MO, Baltimore, MD, and New York City. Taken together, these essays suggest that racial disparity in imprisonment is not solely a product of the recent history of the prison boom. Muller's dissertation has compelling theory and uses rigorous methods. It applies the tools of causal inference to data gathered from archives and historical administrative records. Further, it is timely in showing that African Americans' distrust of the police has deep historical roots reaching back to the 1930s in the North and the 1880s in the South. 
Muller completed this work at Harvard University under the supervision of Bruce Western, Christopher Winship, Orlando Patterson, and Robert Sampson. He is currently a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at Columbia University. In June of 2016, he will join the sociology faculty of the University of California-Berkeley.