race, crime, and punishment has been highly acrimonious and contentious since the establishment of the republic. Although there has never been any widely held consensus as to whether or not sanctions against certain races and minorities are more severe than against white members of society, there have been a number of studies conducted that attempt to measure the perceptions of different groups in society regarding the perception that blacks and other minorities are treated differently by the legal system than whites are and that this perception is that the system is both biased and unfair toward blacks and other minorities. The studies that have been conducted, however, have suffered from two major problems First, the studies largely fail to consider both criminal and non-criminal punishment and, secondly, they have failed to consider other factors such as demographic variables and other discriminatory and legitimacy attitudes. A study by three University of Texas at Dallas criminology professors, Dr. Alex Piquero, Dr. Nicole Leeper Piquero, and Dr. J.C. Barnes, however, have published a study that attempted to close these loopholes from prior studies (Piquero, 2011).
In the study it was found that non-whites believe that NFL football player Michael Vick was punished too harshly for his role in a dog-fighting case and that whites, when viewing the results in the same case, believe that Vick was treated too lightly. The researchers involved in the study elected to use the Vick case as the backdrop for their research because of the inherent interest in the case and the fact that it was the source of so much public outcry. The results of the study were based not only what the public felt about his criminal punishment but also on the sanctions that were imposed by the NFL prior to his being reinstated by the league. Interestingly, there was no change in attitude by the public. Whites felt that Vick should not have been reinstated by the league while non-whites held a contrary view.
The methodology used by the researchers was to conduct a phone survey of 400 adults spread across the full expanse of the United States. In the survey the responders were asked a variety of questions regarding their attitudes toward Vick, the NFL, race, taxes, and animal cruelty. The analysis of the researchers suggests that there are important divides between how the legal system metes out punishment and how society reintegrates criminal offenders into society. Not surprisingly, the results highlight the fact that white and non-whites perceive the law and its administration in remarkably different ways (Peffley, 2002).
The study certainly answers the broader issue of how whites and non-whites view the legal system in general and how the two different groups view how the sanctions are administered but the study still fails to answer why these perceptions have developed. Michael Vick was used as the lightening rod because of his notoriety and his popularity as a player. It was felt by the researchers that this would help them obtain more accurate and statistically reliable results and, indeed using Vick may have been helpful, but the study still missed some vital points.
For the average white the entire concept of dog fighting is inherently reprehensible but for a poor black kid growing up in the inner city all his life dog fighting does not create the same negative picture. For such individual dog fighting is an activity like craps or dice and just another way of scratching out a dollar. The negative features attached to such activity by whites unaccustomed to it are not realized by the black community (Laucella, 2010). Therein, is the problem that occurs in surveys of this nature. The life circumstances of whites and non-whites vary to such significant degree that comparisons of their attitudes toward matters such as crime and punishment are invalid.
The uproar that occurred subsequent to the Vick dog fighting incident are evidence of the severe difference between the white an non-white communities. While the white community voiced outrage over the activities of Vick and his involvement in such an activity the same outrage is not evidenced on a daily basis as hundreds of black young adults are murdered on America’s streets on a daily basis. This dichotomy in thinking is what concerns and raises the ire of the black community (Chiricos, 2004). White Americans expressed more concern for injured and dead dogs than they ever did for dead black teenagers.
Research studies such as the one conducted by these three University of Texas professors have their value but truly accurate results are not possible until such time as the impact of one’s race, parental involvement, socio-economic background, and available opportunities can be factored into the results. The fact that there was a large dichotomy in the attitudes in the white community toward Vick’s involvement in dog fighting and the non-white community’s response is not surprising given our society’s cultural history regarding racial attitudes.
Vick’s involvement in dog fighting was clearly a bad choice and merited punishment but it also indicates how far our society still must adapt in its attitude toward crime, race, and punishment. Differences still exist between how white and non-whites view certain forms of activities that are classified as criminal. In Vick’s case, his greatest crime may have been that he was viewed as a successful black taking part in an activity that the white community viewed as reprehensible inherently but more so because of his position in society. If he were a poor black man living in the ghetto taking part in the same activity, his actions would have elicited far less attention and likely less outrage. The white community expected far more from Vick because of his popularity as a successful athlete and failed to consider his cultural upbringing in assessing the nature of his behavior. The non-white community was far more sympathetic and understanding. The Vick matter exemplifies the work that still must be done to equalize race and punishment in American society.
Chiricos, T.and Kelly Welch, Marc Gertz. (2004). Racial Typification of Crime and Support for Punitive Measures. Criminology, 358-390.
Laucella, P.C. (2010). Michael Vick: An Analysis of Press Coverage on Federal Dogfighting Cases. Journal of Sports Media, 35-76.
Peffley, M. (2002). The Racial Components of “Race-Neutral” Crime Policy Attitudes. Political Psychology, 59-75.
Piquero, A.and Nicole L. Piquero, Marc G. Gertz. (2011). Race, Punishment, and the Michael Vick Experience. Social Science Quarterly, 535-551.
Race, Punishment and the Mike Vick Experience
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