American Sociological Association

Gaps in White, Black, and Hispanic Violence

June 22, 2016

Despite significant public, political, and media attention to the issue of criminal violence in the United States, we know surprisingly little about the trends in violent crime for different racial/ethnic groups in recent decades. For example, what are the disparities in homicide between whites, African Americans, and Hispanics? Have these disparities changed over the past 20 years? If so, why? This lack of knowledge is largely due to data limitations, as ethnic identifiers are rarely collected in many official crime statistics.

Given that Hispanics now represent the largest minority group in the United States, this has been a major blind spot for criminology. However, in a new article published in the American Sociological Review, sociologists Michael Light and Jeffery Ulmer bring together the first longitudinal, nationally representative dataset that includes race/ethnicity-specific measures for homicides from 1990 to 2010. Light and Ulmer then leverage a unique combination of data sources to investigate the determinants of racial and ethnic differences in homicide in relation to both long-established explanations of violence (e.g., poverty) as well as major contemporary societal changes, such as rapid immigration, mass incarceration, and rising wealth inequality. Across all three comparisons—white-black, white Hispanic, and black-Hispanic—the authors find that racial/ethnic disparities in homicide have decreased.

A major factor contributing to these trends are changes in structural disadvantage (e.g., poverty, unemployment, and single-parent families). However, more recent changes have also influenced disparities in homicide. While racial/ethnic wealth inequality plays little role in explaining gaps in homicide between racial/ethnic groups, immigration appears to be associated with declining white-black homicide differences.

In addition, this study shows that mass incarceration has reduced the disparities in homicide victimization between African Americans and other groups, likely through incapacitation and/or deterrence. The authors note, however, that this finding must be viewed in the context of the substantial social and economic costs of mass incarceration, especially for African American communities.

Michael T. Light and Jeffery T. Ulmer

April 2016, American Sociological Review, “Explaining the Gaps in White, Black, and Hispanic Violence since 1990: Accounting for Immigration, Incarceration, and Inequality” 

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