The Racial Invariance Thesis Revisited

Date01 February 2016
Published date01 February 2016
Subject MatterArticles
Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice
2016, Vol. 32(1) 7 –26
© The Author(s) 2015
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DOI: 10.1177/1043986215607254
The Racial Invariance
Thesis Revisited: Testing an
African American Theory of
James D. Unnever1, J. C. Barnes2, and Francis T. Cullen2
The racial/ethnic invariance thesis is a foundational assumption of the general
theories of crime. It assumes that all persons, regardless of their racial/ethnic
background, engage in problematic behaviors for the same reasons. This thesis
allows general theories to be generalizable and, for the most part, has received
empirical and theoretical support. Yet, recent research and new theoretical
developments question the validity of the racial/ethnic invariance thesis, breathing
new life into the debate over whether the factors that influence African American
youths’ problematic behaviors are similar to those that influence the behaviors
of other youths. Drawing on data from the Project on Human Development in
Chicago Neighborhoods–Longitudinal Cohort Study (PHDCN-LCS), our results
question the validity of the invariance thesis by showing that the impact of perceived
discrimination by the police has a stronger influence on African American youths’
externalizing problems than it does for other youths.
Racial invariance, racism, African American offending
The issue of whether the prevailing general theories of crime are equally applicable to
all offenders—regardless of minority–majority status—has a long history within the
criminology literature. In his classic, Causes of Delinquency, Hirschi (1969) strongly
made the case that there is no need for race-specific theories of crime. “It is important
to note,” observed Hirschi,
1Department of Criminology, University of South Florida Sarasota–Manatee, Sarasota, FL, USA
2School of Criminal Justice, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, OH, USA
Corresponding Author:
James D. Unnever, Department of Criminology, University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee 8350 N.
Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, FL 34243
607254CCJXXX10.1177/1043986215607254Journal of Contemporary Criminal JusticeUnnever
8 Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 32(1)
that nothing we have seen contradicts the assumption that the causes of delinquency are
the same among Negroes as among whites. It follows from this assumption that we need
not study Negro boys to determine the cause of their delinquency. (p. 80)
This claim that the causes of youth misconduct are the same across racial groups—
often called the “racial invariance thesis”—has been reaffirmed since Hirschi’s (1969)
pronouncement and said to exist across levels of analysis (Sampson & Bean, 2006).
For example, in his presidential address to the American Society of Criminology,
Sampson (2013) declared that the racial invariance thesis is valid (the community-
level causes of violence are the same) because the key predictors in regression models
explain the “wide variability in crime rates among white and black communities”
(p. 17). Indeed, scholars generally do not question the validity of this thesis even when
key predictors fail to fully account for racial and ethnic differences in problematic
behaviors. Rather, they attribute any unexplained variance to criminal justice biases.
Hirschi outlined this position in 1969: “The present data also support the conclusion
that Negro-white differences are exaggerated by differential police activity” (p. 81; see
also, LaFree, O’Brien, & Baumer, 2006).
Unnever and Gabbidon’s (2011) race-specific theory presents an alternative expla-
nation for why the key predictors of crime may not fully account for racial variations
in problematic behaviors. They argue that the everyday experiences of being Black in
a racialized society have caused most African Americans to have a unique racialized
worldview. This racialized worldview has been forged out of their lived experiences
with chattel slavery, the Jim Crow era, violent oppression by the criminal justice sys-
tem and other White-dominated institutions, and their continued struggle to achieve
the same rights and privileges afforded to Whites (Winant, 2015). In other words, there
is a “long history of public dishonor and ritualized humiliation of African Americans
by Euro-Americans” that has caused African Americans to develop an inimitable
racialized worldview (Hagan, Shedd, & Payne, 2005, p. 382). Unnever and Gabbidon
(2011) contend that a foundational component of the racial subordination of African
Americans is their systematic chronic exposure to racial discrimination. They argue
that chronic exposure to racial discrimination is a salient feature of the racialized
understanding African Americans develop as to what it means to be Black living in a
racist society. In short, these scholars assert that African Americans are fully aware
that their race matters.
Unnever and Gabbidon (2011) stipulate that their theory does not apply to Whites
or other minorities and is only applicable to explaining African American offending.
They assert that minority groups ground their experiences with their racial/ethnic sub-
ordination within dissimilar group-based historical experiences and varying systemic
and situational contexts. This assertion indicates that the systematic forms and degree
to which races and ethnicities encounter and react to their racial/ethnic subordination
(e.g., discrimination) should vary across groups. In this regard, Unnever, Barnes, and
Cullen (2015) suggest that further research needs to be conducted that investigates the
nuances of racial/ethnic experiences and interpretations to determine whether behav-
iors that may be particularly problematic for one group (e.g., racist encounters with the

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