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Racial Discrimination and Cultural Adaptations: An Evolutionary Developmental Approach

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Abstract

In this chapter, I examine the connections between interpersonal racial discrimination, cultural adaptations, including racial socialization, and crime. I focus on racialized experiences as risk factors for crime in the context of a racialized general theory of crime, the social schematic theory (SST), with a particular emphasis on the criminogenic effects of anti-Black interpersonal discrimination. I expound on the evolutionary developmental underpinnings of SST to elucidate both the nature and logic of allegedly ‘maladaptive’ adaptions to racism. Next, I extend this theoretical framework to fill gaps in undertheorized, yet salient, structure shapes culture arguments in criminology. My aim is to unite findings and reframe them within an approach that focuses on harsh, unpredictable environments and contextually appropriate adaptations with an underlying evolutionary developmental logic. The end result is a framework that links racial discrimination and “race-neutral” risk factors (profoundly shaped by racism) to psychosocial orientations that tend to increase the risk of street crime and other behaviors that can reinforce disadvantage through their consequences. I conclude by discussing the implications of this perspective drawing on scholarship that points to the need to ameliorate harsh, racist contexts of development as well as working with rather than against the strengths of stress-adapted individuals.
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In Advances in Criminological Theory Vol. 24: Building a Black Criminology: Race, Theory, and Crime
RACIAL DISCRIMINATION AND CULTURAL ADAPTATIONS:
An Evolutionary Developmental Approach
Callie H. Burt
Department of Sociology, University of Washington
Citation:
Burt, Callie H. 2018. Racial Discrimination and Cultural Adaptations: An Evolutionary Developmental
Approach. Advances in Criminological Theory: Building a Black Criminology. Vol. 24: 207-252.
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Racial Discrimination and Cultural Adaptations: An Evolutionary-Developmental Approach
Abstract
In this chapter, I examine the connections between interpersonal racial discrimination, cultural adaptations,
including racial socialization, and crime. I focus on racialized experiences as risk factors for crime in the context of
a racialized general theory of crime, the social schematic theory (SST), with a particular emphasis on the
criminogenic effects of anti-Black interpersonal discrimination. I expound on the evolutionary developmental
underpinnings of SST to elucidate both the nature and logic of allegedly ‘maladaptive’ adaptions to racism. Next, I
extend this theoretical framework to fill gaps in undertheorized, yet salient, structure shapes culture arguments in
criminology. My aim is to unite findings and reframe them within an approach that focuses on harsh,
unpredictable environments and contextually appropriate adaptations with an underlying evolutionary
developmental logic. The end result is a framework that links racial discrimination and “race-neutral” risk factors
(profoundly shaped by racism) to psychosocial orientations that tend to increase the risk of street crime and other
behaviors that can reinforce disadvantage through their consequences. I conclude by discussing the implications of
this perspective drawing on scholarship that points to the need to ameliorate harsh, racist contexts of development
as well as working with rather than against the strengths of stress-adapted individuals.
!
In her incisive critique, Russell (1992) spotlighted criminology’s “failure to provide a well-developed, vibrant and
cohesive subfield that seeks to explain crime committed by blacks,” which she termed a ‘Black criminology.’1
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Establishing her argument, Russell emphasized the paucity of theoretical research on (and the dearth of
criminologists devoting their attention to) the racecrime relationship despite its significance. In her call for the
development of such a subfield, Russell urged criminologists to move beyond the “simple observation…. that blacks
are disproportionately involved in crime…to the development of theory that seeks to explain black criminality” (pp.
667-668). Her article charted a path for the development of such a subfield, highlighting significant gaps in
knowledge and potential challenges.
Whether a response to her clarion call and/or a consequence of a broader shift in the sociopolitical winds,
the theoretical neglect of race and racism in criminology is no more. In the roughly 25 years surrounding and
subsequent to Russell’s (1992) challenge, theoretical research on racial disparities has burgeoned and greatly
enhanced our understanding of the racecrime relationship. Moreover, scholars and scholarship focused on issues
related to race, crime, and criminal justice have become organized into a rather cohesive subfield, with new
specialized journals, professional associations, and conferences focused on the very issues raised by Russell and
echoed by many others (e.g., Peterson, 2017; Peterson, Krivo, & Hagan, 2006; Phillips & Bowling, 2003).
Although significant strides have been made in our understanding of the racecrime relationship (and
these important contributions should be lauded), much more work remains to be done to enhance knowledge on
the causes of racial disparities in street crime. The grounds for a Black criminology remain compelling, and the
products of this labor valuable. This is especially the case as the sociopolitical winds around race and racism are
once again being whipped up by competing social developments, including the emboldening of white racists in
their defense of white supremacy and the ascendance of the Black Lives Matter movement (Sampson, Wilson, &
Katz, 2018). At this time of heightened awareness of racial disproportionalities and pervasive dissatisfaction with the
status quo in the CJS (Beckett, 2018; Gottschalk, 2015), profound change is a realistic possibility; thus, a Black
criminology is as important as ever.
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Importantly, Russell outlined two crises facing criminology; the other, related to the first, was the lack of Black scholars in the field. Although
out of the scope of this paper, it should be noted that although there certainly remains room for improvement, over the past 25 years, there have
been significant increases in the number and prominence of Black criminologists (see Greene, Gabbidon, & Wilson, 2018; Peterson, 2017).
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In this chapter, I examine the connections between racial discrimination, cultural adaptations, including
racial socialization, and crime. I explicate the criminogenic effects of anti-Black racism through a racialized theory,
the social schematic theory of street crime (Simons & Burt, 2011; Burt, Lei, & Simons, 2017). I expound on the
evolutionary developmental underpinnings of the theory to elucidate the nature and logic of cultural adaptions,
aiming to fill a gap in heretofore undertheorized, yet salient, structure shapes culture arguments in criminology
(Sampson & Bean, 2006; Wilson, 2009). The aim is to unite findings and reframe them within an approach that
focuses on harsh, unpredictable environments and contextually-appropriate adaptations with an underlying
evolutionary developmental logic. The end result is a framework that links racial discrimination and “race-neutral”
risk factors (profoundly shaped by racism) to psychosocial orientations that tend to increase the risk of street crime
and other behaviors that can reinforce disadvantage through their consequences. Before moving to this racialized
theory, I first say a few words on a Black Criminology.
A Black Criminology
A Black criminology, most basically, involves incorporating a consideration of race (specifically of Blackness) as a
core dimension of stratification into criminological theorizing (Russell, 1992). This entails not only putting Blacks
and their contemporary lived experiences at the center of intellectual inquiry but also being sensitive to the
historical and social group dynamics of racial subordination (Hawkins, 1983; Unnever & Gabbidon, 2011). Like a
feminist criminology, a Black criminology is not a monolithic worldview or a theory; instead it encompasses a
diverse set of approaches that collectively share general assumptions about race and racism. Communal
assumptions include, but are not limited to the following: (1) That race is not a natural (biological) fact, but a fluid,
complex social, historical, and cultural creation; (2) That ours is a racialized social system2
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, and race orders social
life (along with other ascribed statuses such as sex/gender and age); (3) That racial relations and racial groupings
are not symmetrical but are based on an organizing principle of white supremacy; (ours is not a “value-free system
of racial classification” Covington, 1995, p. 548), and (4) That contemporary racism has a material and ideological
foundation; (racism is not only a matter of ideas but has a structural foundation).3
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In terms of its explanatory foci, a Black criminology addresses three broad themes: (1) Racialized or racially-
specific contexts, conditions, or experiences as risk factors for crime; (2) The criminalization of Blackness, which
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“This term refers to societies in which economic, political, social, and ideological levels are partially structured by the placement of actors in
racial categories or races” (Bonilla-Silva 1997, 469).
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This list is modeled on Daly & Chesney-Lind’s (1988) list for feminist criminology, and the latter point is indebted to Bonilla-Silva’s theorizing.
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highlights white privilege/power/racism in the making of criminal definitions such that definitions of crime
(legislation) are racialized; and (3) Racialized law enforcement (from policing, to the courts, to penal punishments)
generating a racially-biased CJS. The racially-specific or racialized risk factors that fall under the first theme
comprise etiological factors shaping racial differences in offending, while the factors falling into the second and
third categories produce racial disparities in penal control, net of differences in behavior (although these factors
can and do become racialized risk factors as involvement in the CJS tends to increase the likelihood of later crime).
Altogether, these three intertwining processes undergird racial disparities in street crimes and CJS responses,
which amplify initial differences (e.g., associations between race and racially-invariant risk factors), thereby
increasing the risk of crime and CJS involvement among Blacks. This, in turn, reifies problematic stereotypes about
Blackness and crime, including “that there is something about black skin that represents deviance and criminality”
(Russell-Brown, 2009, p. 34).
As one piece of this effort to further the development of Black criminology (both as part of this volume and
the larger efforts), this chapter addresses the first theme: racialized experiences as risk factors for offending
(underlying differences in behavior). In so doing, however, I do not mean to downplay the other racially-specific or
racialized factors, thereby “[minimizing] a consideration of the extent to which the criminal justice system operates
as a mechanism of individual and group social control and subordination” (Hawkins 1995:11). Relatedly, my
attention is explicitly on racialized risk factors shaping disparities in street crime. Although the concept of street
crime is somewhat imprecise, it generally includes those crimes such as murder, robbery, rape, aggravated assault,
burglary, and theft (LaFree, 1998). I am neither exploring nor assuming racial disparities in “crime” (as in the
universe of all illegal acts, including white collar crimes or suite crimes), nor am I treating “street crime” as a
measure of general misconduct or harmful acts. Instead, I focus on street crime as a subset of all crimes and a
subset of harmful acts and ask how and why racialized experiences may contribute to observed racial disparities in
offending and victimization among African Americans (compared to Whites). In short, I seek to contribute to
knowledge on the racialized factors contributing to the higher incidence of “street crime,” among African
Americans without implying that either “crime” or the larger subset of “harmful behaviors” is higher among Blacks
than Whites.
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In the absence of measures of the incidence and prevalence of all forms of crimes, especially those committed by the powerful and absent any
measurement protocol for “harmful acts” or their impact, whether the likelihood of crime or the prevalence of harmful acts is higher among
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Developing a Racialized Theory
In this chapter, I explore racialized experiences as risk factors for crime in the context of a racialized general theory
of crime, the social schematic theory (SST). I use the term racialized in the sense of “to put in a racial context,”
namely that of our racialized social system.
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I focus on interpersonal racial discrimination as a minority-specific risk
factor for crime and racial socialization as a cultural source of resilience among Blacks. Although some scholars
have cogently argued that the inimitable experiences of Blacks require a unique theory of crime (e.g., Unnever &
Gabbidon, 2011), while respecting this argument and recognizing that African Americans have distinctively
pernicious experiences of racial subjugation in the U.S., I adopt a different (racialized) stance for several reasons.
First, in my reading, the accumulated evidence suggests prevailing similarity in the effects of (race-neutral)
risk factors and street crime at both the macro- and the micro-levels (e.g., Farrington, Loeber, & Stouthamer-Loeber,
2003; McNulty & Bellair, 2003; Peterson & Krivo, 2005; see Sampson, Wilson, & Katz, 2018). Although emphasizing
that Blacks face additional risk factors (i.e., interpersonal racial discrimination), I propose that the individual
mechanisms linking these experiences to offending are racially-invariant. In other words, racialized risk-factors
(e.g., interpersonal racial discrimination), like race-neutral risk factors (e.g., harsh parenting), influence general
psychosocial mechanisms that increase the risk of crime regardless of race. To be sure, I am not arguing that no
racial differences in psychosocial orientation or cultural frames exist; rather, I argue that the key proximal
(psychosocial) mechanisms linking race to crime are not racially-specific. In addition, despite being well-
entrenched, the “Black” vs. “White” dichotomy does not neatly capture monolithic racial categories identified by
common historical experiences. Americans who identify as Black come from diverse countries (e.g., African, South
American, Caribbean nations; Russell-Brown, 2009), and racial classifications remain ambiguous. Indeed, the racial
classification of the last U.S. president is unsettled among the U.S. public. (A recent Pew survey revealed that only a
minority of Americans described President Obama as “Black”; the majority classified him as “mixed-race”.)
Racially-specific theories thus necessarily reify bifurcations of race and racial group memberships that are
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Whites or Blacks is an unanswerable question. However, some scholars persuasively argue that, in part because they occur on a much larger scale
than interpersonal crimes, elite crimes (committed likely disproportionately by Whites) cause substantially more harm than street crimes
(committed disproportionately by Blacks; e.g., Reiman, 1979).
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The terms racialize and racialization have also been used in a critical sense to refer to the practice of imposing typologies on or cataloguing
differences in culture, temperaments, motivations, and behaviors by race (Covington, 1995; Webster, 1992). Here my focus is on racializing in
the sense of purposefully incorporating differential experiences that both flow from and embody racial status in explaining differences in
behavior.
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technically more fluid and contextually dependent. For these reasons, I propose a racialized theory that emphasizes
differences in degree.
In contrast to race-specific approaches as well as those that merely treat “race” as a control variable, the
racialized perspective I adopt occupies a middle ground that acknowledges similarities in risk factors, mechanisms,
and processes shaping criminal propensity and crime across racial groups while also emphasizing the need to
incorporate how the legacy of historical and contemporary racial discrimination shapes exposure to traditional
(race-neutral) risk factors as well as exposure to unique structural and cultural risk and protective factors. A guiding
assumption of this approach is that “race is not a direct cause of violence but rather a marker for the cluster of
social and material disadvantages that both follow from and constitute racial status in America” (Sampson, Wilson,
& Katz, 2018, p.5; see also Sampson, 2012). Before moving to the specifics of the racialized theory, I first briefly
review the research on race and crime in an admittedly broad-brush manner that is selective in emphasis out of
necessity.
Race and Street Crime
Although greatly magnified by biases in the CJS, official statistics, victimization studies, and, to a lesser extent, self-
report surveys reveal that Blacks disproportionately commit (and are victimized by) street crimes compared to
Whites. Explaining racial disparities in street crimes, and especially violence, has long been a focus of
criminological scholarship. Early social explanations centered on the existence of ostensibly unique aspects of
“ghetto-slum” (read: poor Black) culture that subvert conventional behavior and encourage crime and violence
(Curtis, 1975; Miller, 1958; Wolfgang & Ferracuti, 1967). Despite the fact that many of these unflattering depictions
were accompanied by declarations that structure shapes subcultural responses, the emphasis was explicitly on
describing the ostensibly pathological cultural elements.
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For better or worse, the (admittedly meager)
acknowledgements of the structural bedrocks of the “ghetto subculture” were largely ignored, and these
approaches were excoriated for blaming the victims and reinforcing the belief that poor inner-city residents are
responsible for their circumstances, including elevated rates of crime and poverty. Although dominating race and
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For example, Curtis (1975, p. 2) noted that he sought to “build a general interpretive framework in which culture is viewed as a variable
intervening between more basic structural determinants of poor black behaviors and violent criminal outcomes.” Moreover, in my reading,
Curtis seems to agree with significant criticisms levied by Black scholars (and others) against “maladaptive black subculture explanations” (e.g.,
Billingsly, 1968; Hill, 1972), noting, for example: “Thus, what many white scholars perceive in their value subjectivity as pathological
disorganization can from another posture be interpreted as functional responsiveness to environmental circumstances” (p.6; emphasis added). To be
sure, some works adopted an explicitly cultural determinist model to conclude that the poor (and Blacks) have only themselves to blame
(Banfield, 1970; Lewis, 1966; Mead,1986).
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crime scholarship for a number of years, this subcultural or “kinds-of-people” approach waned due in large part to
its inadequate explanatory scheme, particularly the neglect of structural influences and inattention to the origin of
subcultural adjustments and variation (e.g., Hawkins 2003; Sampson & Wilson 1995).
For a number of years after the demise of these cultural deficit explanations, the study of race and crime
was, as Sampson and Wilson (1995, p. 37) famously described it, “mired in an unproductive mix of controversy and
silence.” Beginning the in the 1980s and picking up steam into the 1990s, the classic works of Blau and Blau (1982),
Sampson (1987), and later Massey and Denton (1993) and Sampson and Wilson (1995), among others (Crutchfield
1989; Hawkins 1983) alongside Russell’s (1992) instigating Black criminology essay, reignited scholarly research on
racial disparities and crime and replaced the cultural (deficit) emphasis with a racialized structural approach.
Although differing in several important respects, these explanations all examined the study of race and crime from
contextual lenses, focusing on variations in crime rates across communities that vary in racial composition and
levels of inequality.
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Here, race is “a marker for the constellation of social contexts” in which individuals are
embedded (Sampson & Bean, 2006, p.8). These “kinds-of-places” perspectives emphasize racialized structural
forces, such as employing and housing discrimination, which converge to produce hypersegregated, economically
disadvantaged neighborhoods. The social isolation and concentrated disadvantage of these communities impair
social organization, which weakens community social control (e.g., collective efficacy), and is conducive to the
emergence of a deviant culture either tolerating or justifying criminal behavior (Massey & Denton, 1993; Sampson
& Wilson, 1995). Wilson (2009, p.147), for example, points to “cultural traits that emerge from patterns of intergroup
interaction in settings created by racial segregation and discrimination.” Elevated crime rates in areas with higher
concentrations of African American residents are the result.
Over the past several decades, there has been a veritable explosion in the research on race and crime
testing these racialized structural explanations (see Peterson & Krivo, 2005; Sampson, Wilson, & Katz, 2018). This
research shows that the structural influences of racial segregation and concentrated disadvantage play important
roles in explaining differences in crime rates across racialized space, and ethnographic studies of disadvantaged,
inner-city communities have identified and described the existence of cultural codes or cognitive landscapes
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Among these, Sampson and Wilson’s (1995) racialized theory, which has been labeled the thesis of “racial invariance” has received perhaps the
most scholarly attention. The theory is racialized through its incorporation of the pivotal role of historical and continuing racial discrimination in
the formation and perpetuation of segregated, disadvantaged inner-city neighborhoods. The thesis is deemed “racially invariant” due to its guiding
proposition of equivalence in the community-level sources of street crime.
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tolerating or justifying street crimes (ostensibly adaptations to structural disadvantages; Anderson, 1999; Berg et al.,
2016; Harding, 2010; Jones, 2010; Kirk & Papachristos, 2011; Miller, 2008; Oliver, 1994). However, a number of
questions remain unexplained, especially related to within-place variations in offending; after all, even in the most
highly disadvantaged neighborhoods, there is tremendous variation in offending (Rosenblatt, Edin, & Zhu, 2016).
In recent years, scholars have pointed to situational stratification and the need to compliment macro-level
explanations with a consideration of the way that racial stratification is instantiated in interactional processes (e.g.,
Bruce, Roscigno, & McCall 1998; Burt, Simons, & Gibbons, 2012; Unnever et al., 2009). Fully understanding the
effects of race on street crime requires that we go beyond macro-level social facts to address the practice and lived
reality of racism. Given their contextual lenses, macro-level explanations of racial disparities overlook a key
interactional risk factor associated with race: interpersonal racial discrimination (IRD)the blatant, subtle, and covert
actions, verbal messages, and signals that are supported by white racism and malign, mistreat, or otherwise harm
members of racial minorities (Essed, 1991; Feagin, 1991).
Interpersonal Racial Discrimination (IRD)
Although the notion that the contemporary U.S. is a colorblind/postracial society and that racism as well as its
manifestations in racially discriminatory interactions are a thing of the past gained traction among a segment of the
public during the years of the Obama presidency, such beliefs are unsound. A wealth of research on racial
minorities using a variety of techniques demonstrates not only that IRD persists, but that it is pervasive (see Ayres,
2002; Bobo & Charles, 2009; Feagin, 2010; Pager & Shepherd, 2008). Numerous surveys document African
Americans’ frequent experiences with IRD (as unfair, disparate treatment based on racial status) in everyday social
settings using a variety of perceived discrimination measures. (Perceptual measures ask respondents to report
whether they have experienced one or more negative acts because, from their perspective, they are Black or African
American or “because of [their] race or ethnicity”.) For example, in their study of Black adults, Klonoff and
Landrine (1999) found that 96% reported experiencing IRD in the past year, including discrimination from waiters
and store clerks (83%), being called a racist slur (50%), and being hit, shoved, harmed or threatened with physical
harm (~50%). Moreover, IRD is widely experienced not only by adults but also by Black adolescents and children
(Burt et al., 2012; Gibbons et al., 2004; Sellers et al., 2006). For example, in Sellers et al.’s (2006) study of Black youth,
20% reported experiencing all of the 17 measured racial hassles, and 93% reported at least 1 incident in the past year.
Although some incidents might be considered subtle or mundane, some are decidedly not. A community study of
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Black adolescents found that more than 14% reported experiencing threatened physical harm because of their race
in the past year (Burt et al., 2012). In short, African Americans perceive IRD in everyday life as “ubiquitous,
expected, [and] integrated into the subtleties of interaction” because it is (Essed, 1991, p. 108).
Importantly, evidence of the persistence and pervasiveness of IRD is not limited to perceptual measures but
is also found in experimental studies. For example, audit studies document compelling evidence of racial
discrimination in important life contexts, including car sales (Ayres & Seligman, 1995), insurance (Squires, 2003;
Wissoker, Zimmerman, & Galster, 1998), housing searches (Yinger, 1995), home mortgages (Rugh & Massey, 2010;
Bayer et al., 2014), employment (Agan & Starr, 2017; Pager, 2007), and medical care (Nelson, 2002; Schulman et al.,
1999). Evidence from field experiments confirms that racial discrimination exists even in such ordinary experiences
as hailing a taxi (Ridley et al., 1989). Moreover, studies of legal records from formal discrimination claims provide
detailed documentation of racial discrimination across a wide range of social domains (Harris, Henderson, &
Williams, 2005; Roscigno, 2007), and studies that interview “potential discriminators” (e.g., employers) document
the existence of racial preferences and biases in hiring along with the persistence of racial stereotypes in shaping
employment decisions (e.g., Holtzer, 1996; Kirschenman & Neckerman, 1991; Wilson, 1996). Finally, contrary to
claims that racial discrimination is decreasing, a recent meta-analysis showed no change in levels of racial
discrimination against African Americans since 1989 (Quillian et al., 2017). In sum, racial discrimination persists and
influences the life chances and routine situations of everyday life for African Americans.
Interpersonal Racial Discrimination and Street Crime
Although the idea that interpersonal racial discrimination was implicated in offending was presented as early as
1899 by Du Bois, for nearly a century the idea that IRD is criminogenic was largely neglected. Roughly 100 years
after Du Bois’s insights, McCord and Ensminger’s (1997; 2003, p. 322) landmark research on African Americans
identified “perceived racial discrimination as a form of victimization” and a risk factor for violence. Using a sample
of African Americans tracked from age 6 to age 32, they found that respondents who reported ever having been a
victim of at least one of six types of racial discrimination (80% males and 56% females had) were more likely to have
an official record for violence. McCord and Ensminger’s (2003, p. 329) research was the first to demonstrate
empirically that “in addition to the more traditionally acknowledged sources of violence, exposure to racial
discrimination is a risk factor.”
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McCord and Ensminger’s pioneering work alongside the resurgence of micro-level strain theory in
criminology spawned a new approach to racial disparities in offending investigating IRD as an adverse, stressful,
and criminogenic experience. Over the past two decades, more than 20 studies have linked IRD to increases in
street crime or similar behaviors, including self-reported violence (Caldwell et al., 2004; Simons et al., 2006; Stewart
& Simons, 2006), conduct problems or behavioral problems (Brody et al., 2006; DuBois et al., 2002; Nyborg & Curry,
2003; Simons et al., 2003; Unnever, Cullen, & Barnes, 2016), and delinquency (Burt et al., 2012; Martin et al., 2011;
Unnever et al., 2009; Unnever, Barnes, & Cullen, 2017), as well as official reports of arrest (McCord and Ensminger
1997, 2003). This work indicates that IRD is associated with increased offending whether examined cross-sectionally
or longitudinally, and among youth as well as adults.
Although two rich data sets have predominated in these studies (the FACHS and the PHDCN), nationally
representative surveys (e.g., the NSAL; Unnever, 2014) and other community-based surveys (e.g., Richmond Youth
Study; Unnever et al., 2009; Flint Adolescent Study; Caldwell et al., 2004; Maryland Adolescents in Context Study;
Wong et al. 2003) also indicate that IRD increases the risk of street crime. Furthermore, findings are robust to
variation in perceptual measures of IRD, including variegated prompts, item wording, and measured life domains
(e.g., in the school, community, and/or workplace). Given the high prevalence of IRD among African Americans,
most studies employ multiple-item instruments, which are summed or averaged to create a scale measuring
frequency of exposure to different types of IRD over some time period (usually 12 months; see, e.g., Burt et al., 2012;
Caldwell et al., 2004; DuBois et al., 2002; Unnever et al., 2017).
For illustration, a common IRD instrument, and one used in the FACHS (Family and Community Health
Study), is the Schedule of Racist Events (SRE; Landrine & Klonoff, 1996). In the FACHS, the SRE was revised in
response to feedback from African American focus groups to make the items designed for adults more relevant to
youth experiences (Brody et al., 2006). Respondents were presented with 11 questions about their experiences
following this prompt: “Racial discrimination occurs when someone is treated in a negative or unfair way just
because of their race or ethnic background. I want to ask you some questions about whether you have experienced
racial discrimination. For each statement, please tell me if this situation has happened to you never, once or twice, a
few times, or several times” over the past year. Assessed experiences include: “How often has someone said
something insulting to you because of your race or ethnic background?”; “How often has someone yelled a racial
slur or racial insult at you…?; and “How often has someone threatened to harm you physically…?” Consonant with
other racial discrimination surveys, this study found IRD to be pervasive among respondents; yet considerable
variation existed. For example, in wave 4, when the youths were aged 18-20, thirteen percent reported experiencing
none of the 11 racially discriminatory acts in the past year, and six percent reported experiencing all at least once.
The most common racially discriminatory event was having someone say something insulting to you just because
of your race or ethnic background (68% experienced at least once). The least prevalent experience was having
someone threaten to harm you physically; fourteen percent reported experiencing this at least once, and this was
significantly more common among males (see Burt & Simons 2015).
Importantly, given the perceptual nature of these measures, studies have investigated valid concerns about
the possibility of reverse or reciprocal causation. Specifically, researchers have probed findings in longitudinal
models to test whether individuals who have behavioral problems are more likely to attract, perceive, and/or be
victimized by later racial discrimination, and that this reverse causal process accounts for the relationship between
IRD and crime. In the first exploration of this idea, McCord and Ensminger (2003) noted that if being a victim of
racial discrimination was a response to a disruptive orientation, then disruptive children would report more
experiences with racial discrimination as adults. Contrary to this temporal sequence, they found no evidence that
disruptive behavior presaged reports of IRD. In a later study using cross-lagged models separated by two years,
Brody and colleagues (2006) showed that although a measure of problem behaviors was significantly associated
with later IRD, this effect size was dwarfed by the effects of earlier IRD on later problem behaviors. Subsequent
explorations using cross-lagged models and criminal outcomes revealed that discrimination influenced offending
outcomes, whereas earlier offending had weak, non-significant effects on later racial discrimination (e.g., Burt et al.,
2012; Burt et al., 2017). Thus, although some analyses suggest that problematic behavior is associated with later
experiences with racial discrimination, the evidence indicates that the bulk of the effect is from racial
discrimination to later problematic behavioral outcomes rather than the reverse.
Altogether the accumulated evidence is clear: IRD increases the risk of offending, influences within-race
variations in offending, and as a pernicious risk factor unique to racial minorities, contributes to racial disparities in
offending (Burt et al., 2012; Unnever & Gabbidon, 2011). Consequently, most recent scholarship has focused on
understanding the processes through which IRD increases the likelihood of street crime. The challenge is
explaining howthrough what psychosocial mechanismsdiscrimination augments the risk of general offending,
not limited to immediate backlash against the perpetrator(s). Addressing this challenge, scholars have developed
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both racially-specific (i.e., Unnever & Gabbidon, 2011) as well as racialized explanations (Burt et al., 2012; Kaufman
et al., 2008; Simons & Burt, 2011).
As noted, I link IRD to offending via a racialized theory, the social schematic theory (SST). In contrast to
some theories that have been racialized after their creation, SST was initially developed as a racialized theory and
utilized to explain variation in offending among a sample of African Americans (Simons & Burt, 2011). Thus, like
Sampson and Wilson’s thesis of racial invariance, the role of racial subordination was central to the genesis and
development of this theory. SST explicitly prioritizes the role of racist structural arrangementsespecially white
racism instantiated in discriminatory interactionsas a causal force setting in motion a developmental cascade
that may increase the likelihood of offending. As I elaborate below, this model identifies (non-conscious) cognitive
adaptations that promote survival, fitness, and/or “fitness proxies” in the face of harsh, unpredictable situations
such as IRD. Importantly, as a racialized theory, SST does not conceive of these cognitive adaptations as unique to
racial minorities. In other words, SST does not posit the existence of a unique Black psychology or distinct
personality traits resulting from racism. As I discuss, SST focuses on the development of criminogenic social
schemas that result from internalizing the lessons inherent in harsh, unpredictable social experiencesracist and
non-racist in origin (Burt, Lei, & Simons, 2017b).
The Social Schematic Theory of (Street) Crime
SST is a life-course, evolutionary developmental learning theory that elucidates the social psychological processes
through which exposures to social adversities and supports (patterned by social position) influence individual
differences in propensities to offend (criminality; Simons and Burt 2011)). SST starts from the assumption,
consistent with research on human morality, that individuals are born with innate capacities to be fair, cooperative,
and sympathetic, as well as to be egoistic, coercive, and sometimes aggressive (e.g., de Waal, 2006; Haidt 2007;
Hauser, 2006). Rather than being naturally good, bad, or empty vessels into which society pours its views of
morality, SST assumes that we are born with the wiring to adapt our orientations to the world to fit our
environments. Throughout our long phylogenetic history, we have evolved to survive in a variety of contexts,
which vary in the degree to which they are predictably supportive versus dangerous, unpredictable, and resource-
limited, and these different contexts require different competencies for survival and fitness (Del Giudice, 2009; Ellis
et al., 2012). For example, in high-risk environments (e.g., impoverished, high-crime neighborhoods) where
resources are scarce and future rewards are substantially more uncertain than immediate ones, a preference for
12
immediate rewards and enhanced abilities to shift attention (at the cost of inhibitory control) may allow individuals
to take advantage of fleeting opportunities and identify unpredictable threats (Ellis et al., 2017). Similarly, in
dangerous environments, where it is especially crucial to detect and predict threats, heightened attentional
vigilance and enhanced memory for threatening information (e.g., remembering individuals who pose a threat) can
enhance safety (Frankenhuis s & de Weerth, 2013). Thus, rather than assumingas most perspectives dothat
orientations and capacities that foster health and “success” in safe, supportive, predictable environments are
universally better or adaptive across all environments, this evolutionary developmental perspective recognizes that
competencies increasing developmental “success” in safe environments may actually be maladaptive in high-risk
contexts (and vice versa).
Furthermore, and central to this evolutionary developmental framework, contexts and circumstances can and do
change over the course of humanslong life spans. As Chisholm (1999) explains:
The perennial adaptive problem for any species, but especially our slowly developing, long-lived, highly
intelligent, and intensely social species, is that of environmental uncertainty. This is the problem of obtaining
sufficient information to make our way through complex social space in the face of virtually continuous
sociocultural change. No environment is free of uncertainty, but such uncertainty has been a chronic, defining
problem for our species because of an ultimate sort of environmental uncertainty that Plotkin (1994) calls the
‘uncertain futures problem’ (p.19).
The “uncertain futures problem” is rooted in the biological reality of “generational deadtime” (Plotkin, 1994).
Coined by Konrad Lorenz (1966), this term refers to the fact that we are born with a set of biological resources for
development (e.g., genes) that worked well (enough) for our ancestors’ survival and fitness. Yet, because contexts
and circumstances change across all levels of space (species-wide, community-level, individual-level), these
biological resources may no longer be a fit to the varying contexts of development we find ourselves. The essence of
the uncertain futures problem is that developmental ‘success’ (safety, resources and status, procurement of mates)
depends on an adaptive match between the organism and its environment, but genetic resources are received all at
once based on past conditions; development takes time; and the environment is changing and uncertain (Chisholm,
1999; West-Eberhard, 2003). Thus, we have evolved mechanisms facilitating adaptive developmental plasticity, or
environmentally-induced malleability.
8
This capacity includes both the ability to assess local context and relative
condition and to adapt (physical, psychological, and/or behavioral phenotypes) in response to these cues to
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8
Acknowledging the existence of phenotype plasticity in a social scientific context is akin to telling a dairy farmer that lactating cows can be
milked; however, my discussion of developmental plasticity is not aimed at the explaining the obvious reality of environmentally-induced
variation, but rather that such variation can be understood within an evolutionary framework.
13
optimize fitness or “proxies of fitness” (Chisholm, 1999; Mishra, 2014). Proxies of fitness include resources reliably
associated with survival and reproductive success, principally material resources, social status and respect, and
quality mates (Daly &Wilson, 2001). Notably, to optimize fitnessis not to create the best outcome imaginable, but
to create the best conditional match to the social environment given individuals’ relative state and resources (e.g.,
food, safety, physical strength, health; and so on; Ellis et al., 2012).
Importantly, although we are immensely social creatures with complex, technologically advanced
structures and cultures, this framework emphasizes that adaptations (learning, development) are still for survival
and reproduction (Chisholm, 1999; Daly & Wilson, 2001). Thus, phenotype plasticity did not evolve to promote
“success” in any Western cultural sense, but to facilitate continuance (Belsky, 2012; Ellis et al., 2012). Evolutionary
developmental frameworks thus shed light on allegedly dysfunctional cognitive biases and ostensibly pathological
behaviors (such as crime) in response to high risk environments by acknowledging their adaptive logic (underlying
fitness-relevant motivations) or contextually-appropriate rationale.
9
In other words, harsh, unpredictable
environments shape rather than exclusively impair development (Ellis & Del Giudice, 2014), as “individuals become
developmentally adapted (‘specialized’ and potentially enhanced) for solving problems that are ecologically
relevant in such environments(Ellis et al., 2017, p. 562; Frankenhuis & de Weerth, 2013). This view contrasts with
prevailing deficit approaches (e.g., Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; Mani et al., 2013; Shonkoff et al., 2012), which imply
that stress-adapted individuals are ill or broken and need to be treated or fixed (e.g., improved attention, delaying
gratification, following rules, and trusting others; Ellis et al., 2017). This is important because it suggests that rather
than being a result of individual, familial, or cultural failings, environmentally-induced compensations, such as
attentional shifting and hostile attribution biases, can be seen as specialized skills that maximize fitness and
minimize risks in harsh environments (Fawcett, McNamara, & Houston, 2012; Griskevicius et al., 2009).
SST adopts these developmental-evolutionary assumptions (supported by a wealth of research from
multiple species) that development is above all for survival and then reproduction; that phenotype plasticity
evolved to allow organisms to optimize fitness in response to social-environmental cues during development; and
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9
To say that a behavior is adaptive in an evolutionary sense is to suggest that it maximizes (or did maximize in ancestral environments) Darwinian
fitness. Given that not all environmentally-induced variation is strictly adaptive and rapid changes in society over the past several centuries
(invention and development of guns, cars, the internet) have altered features of our environments, this does not imply that all behaviors
necessarily maximize fitness in contemporary social environments; some enhance fitness proxies, which may not translate to actually fitness
advantages, and others may be by-products, side effects, or simply antiquated in current environments. However, the important point is that
plasticity exists with the function of differentially tailoring individuals to their social environments for the evolutionary goal of continuance (Ellis
et al., 2012; Pepper & Nettle, 2017).
14
that given the long generational deadtime and the ‘virtually continuous sociocultural change’ experienced by our
extremely social species, we have evolved a relatively expansive capacity for developmental plasticity. The idea is
that our minds, our moral sentiments, and our psychosocial characteristics are calibrated by cues about social-
environmental risk and uncertainty, and that in addition to other social behaviors that risk harm (often delayed) for
more immediate rewards
10
, street crimesoften characterized as offering immediate gratification at the expense of
delayed or uncertain punishmentsare made more likely by developmental adaptations to harsh, unpredictable
environments. Why this is the case requires a bit more explication.
A developmental-evolutionary approach views life as a knowledge-gaining process, with adaptations as
environmental information that has become embodied or represented in phenotypes (Plotkin, 1994). In this view,
learning itself is an adaptation for actively extracting information for the environment in order to develop mental
models of reality to predict the future (minimize risk and uncertainty) and facilitate optimal decision making
(Chisholm, 1999; Plotkin, 1994). As Chisholm (1999, p. 65) articulated, “Plasticity…. implies the contingent
development of various kinds of learning biases or predispositionswhich are evaluative or motivational
phenomena.” SST focuses on the internalization of the life lessons relevant to crime, and the enduring influence of
these lessons on meaning-making, decision-making, and behavioral trajectories in the form of social schemas. Also
referred to as cognitive schemas or more broadly as psychosocial orientations, social schemas are cognitive
representations of the patterns in social interaction that influence future behavior by specifying the import and
meaning of various social stimuli and the probable consequences of various lines of action (see Crick & Dodge,
1994; see also Bourdieu, 1990; Mead, 1934). Social schemas are integral to all social action as they allow us to move
more efficiently through lifeattending to relevant cues, interpreting these cues in light of past experience and
contextual information, and responding in ways that facilitate our aimsbased on prior experiences (themselves
shaped by our existing schemas). Through these invariably nonconscious processes, individuals develop
environmentally-calibrated heuristics composed lessons from past experiences that reflect a deep evolutionary
logic (Mishra, 2014).
Focusing on racial disparities, in our racialized social system, racial status patterns exposure to harsh,
dangerous, unpredictable environments. Due to the legacy of historical and ongoing IRD and institutional
discrimination, Blacks are more likely have lower SES and reside in segregated, disadvantaged contexts (e.g.,
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10
In recent work, Pepper and Nettle (2017) refer to such a class of shortsighted behaviors as a “behavioral constellation of deprivation”.
15
Reardon & Bischoff, 2011; Sampson, 2012; Sharkey, 2013). As Wilson (2016, p. 1452) averred, “residents in high jobless
inner-city black neighborhoods….live under constraints and face challenges that most people in the larger society
do not experience, or cannot even imagine(emphasis added). In short, being Black is, without question, associated
with increased risk of exposure to (“race-neutral”) harsh, unpredictable environments, including neighborhood
danger (crime/victimization); harsh parenting; low quality child care; bad housing conditions characterized by
noise, crowding, and violence; residential instability; peer and school difficulties; family disruption; resource
scarcity; morbidity-mortality; incarceration; adult joblessness; and the like (e.g., Conley, 1999; Duncan & Brooks-
Gunn, 2000; McLoyd, 1990; Sharkey, 2013). African Americans have the additional burden of IRDclearly
demonstrated to be a harsh, unpredictable experience (Clark et al., 1999; Harrell, 2000; Sellers et al., 2003). Indeed,
whether it’s driving while Black, shopping while Black, or walking while Black, simply being Black in the US is
dangerous and unpredictable (Russell-Brown, 2009), leading Gabbidon and Peterson (2006) to coin the phrase
“living while Black” to capture this stressful reality. Notably, experimental research on the phenomenology of
discrimination demonstrates that IRD is experienced as psycho-biologically threatening (activating our primal fight
or flight system), and because of its prevalence and severity, one must be on guard constantly (e.g., Essed, 1991;
Feagin, 1991).
SST proposes that harsh, unpredictable interactions and environments foster three key (“race-neutral)
lessons: that delayed rewards rarely or inequitably materialize; that the world is a hostile, unpredictable place; and
that social rules and punishments do not apply equally to everyone (Burt & Simons, 2015; Simons & Burt, 2011).
These lessons are stored as (and correspond to) three key criminogenic social schemas: present orientation (also called
immediate gratification or low self-control; e.g., Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990), hostile views of relationships (e.g.,
Anderson, 1999; Dodge, 2006), and disengagement from conventional norms (e.g., Akers, 1985; Hirschi, 1969).
Simons and Burt (2011) contend that these criminogenic schemas are rooted in the same set of social conditions
(harshness and unpredictability), which communicate similar lessons about the world, namely that the world is
unpredictably unfair, delaying gratification can result in the absence of gratification, and following social
conventions (e.g., keeping one’s word; respecting norms; eschewing violence) does not result in predictably (or
overall) better outcomes. Consequently, these three cognitive schemas coalesce into a higher-order mental model,
designated a criminogenic knowledge structure (CKS) that operates as dynamic unity in making situational definitions
compelling or legitimating crime more likely.
16
A wealth of research suggest that harsh, unpredictable, segregated environments increase immediate
gratification, insecure attachment, more reactive responses to threat, defensive hostility, and a here-and-now
attitude (e.g., Brezina, Tekin, & Topalli, 2009; Gardner, 1993; Griskevicius et al., 2009; Hill, Ross, & Low, 1997;
Sharkey & Sampson, 2015; Sharkey et al., 2012; Wilson & Daly, 1997). As Curtis (1975: 19) discerned some 40 years
ago, in neighborhoods where resources are scarce and unpredictable, “the choice is not necessarily seen as one
between immediate and deferred gratification, but probably more accurately as between immediate gratification
and no gratification at all.” Even more bluntly, Brezina et al.’s (2009, p. 1116) respondent “Blue Eyes”, proclaimed: “I
say fuck tomorrow. It’s all about today. Might not be a tomorrow. Might get shot. Might get hit by a bus. So get it
now. Now, now, now. Next week might as well be next century. Fuck next week. Fuck tomorrow (Blue Eyes, age
23).” Ethnographic studies of segregated, inner-city communities also document the cynicism and institutional
distrust engendered by harsh, racially-biased conditions: “Theirs is a cynical outlook, and trust of others is severely
lacking, even trust of those they are close to. Consistently, they tend to approach all persons and situations as part
of life’s obstacles, as things to subdue or even to ‘get over’” (Anderson 1999: 37; see also Goffman 2014; Hannerz 1969;
Oliver 1994, 2003). Similarly, Anderson (1999, p. 67) documented: “As a means of survival, [a child] often learns the
value of having a ‘name,’ a reputation for being willing and able to fight” (my emphasis).
Moreover, focusing explicitly on IRD, research, noted earlier, reveals that cumulative exposures to IRD
increase immediate gratification, hostile views, and disengagement from norms (e.g., Burt et al., 2012; 2017a;
Unnever et al., 2016; 2017). In short, a compelling body of research suggests that harsh, unpredictable conditions
and experiences, including IRD, produce more opportunistic, risky, and short-term worldviews or orientations to
life, consistent with the CKS in SST.
Notably, this framework is not merely a rational choice model cloaked in evolutionary reasoning and
ultimate aims; rather, these adaptationsmanifest in an individuals’ preferences, desires, and behaviorsare
usually made unconsciously and reflect a deep evolutionary logic (Chisholm, 1999; Ellis et al., 2012). Furthermore,
as is hopefully clear by now, despite increasing the risk of offending, these schemas are not viewed as pathological
or maladaptive, but rather as contextually appropriate. For example, all else equal, risky behaviors that can
enhance resources and status (and thus facilitate access to mates) in the present are objectively more valuable when
life expectancies are shorter, resources are scarce, and local status hierarchies are known and/or easily discernable
through symbolic displays (Anderson, 1999; Ellis et al., 2012). Similarly, when expected profits from safe choices are
17
negligible (e.g., low-wage, insecure employment), choosing high-risk, high-reward strategies (spending scarce funds
on lottery tickets; engaging in illicit activity such as drug trafficking) can be an optimal strategy (Griskevicius et al.,
2011). Likewise, enhanced ability in attention-shifting and working memory can promote the detection of threats
and fleeting opportunities in harsh, unpredictable environments, even as these enhanced skills may come at the
expense of impulse control (Mittal et al., 2015).
Conceptualizing interpersonal approaches as adaptations involves recognizing that in dangerous
environments heightened vigilance, hostile attribution biases, and lower levels of trust and cooperation can
enhance fitness and/or status, even if they impose significant costs on the individual and society. In other words,
individuals with those traits are (or were) more likely to avoid fitness-damaging outcomes (compared with non-
vigilant, trusting individuals in the same context), even if such psychological responses are unpleasant and
physiologically costly (Ellis et al., 2017; Griskevicius et al., 2009; Simpson & Belsky, 2008). For example, as Anderson
(1999) and others have documented, developing a reputation for violence is valuable for deterring predation or
attacks in contexts where legal authority is weak or unreliable (see also Cooney, 1998; Nisbett & Cohen, 1996). In
sum, this approach emphasizes that these temporal, interpersonal, and normative approaches to the world are not
irrational or reflections of individual deficits or dysfunctions; rather, animal and human research suggests that
these reflect ecological rationality (Pepper & Nettle, 2017; Ellis et al., 2012; 2017).
Extant Research on IRD from an SST Perspective
Although currently limited to studies utilizing the FACHS, research testing SST’s predictions about the effects of
IRD on street crime have been largely supportive. Cross sectional studies of Black adolescents indicate that IRD
increases street crime largely through the CKS (~ 80% of the effects of IRD on crime are mediated by the CKS),
including both violent and nonviolent crimes, and for both males and females; Burt et al., 2015). Notably, the effect
of IRD on the CKS is stronger for males than females, and IRD is more strongly linked to violent than non-violent
crimes (Burt et al., 2012; 2015). Importantly, analyses reveal that IRD increases all component schemas of the CKS
(immediate gratification, hostile views, and disengagement from norms) in a similar manner (Burt et al., 2017).
Research has also explored the effects of cumulative exposures to IRD in childhood and adolescence on
offending in emerging adulthood in a life-course model (Burt et al., 2017). Consistent with SST, this work revealed
that childhood experiences with IRD are associated with emerging adulthood offending in large part through the
CKS, which is maintained over time through processes of cumulative and interactional continuity. In other words,
18
both the cumulative negative consequences of a high CKS as well as the evocative responses to such worldviews,
individuals’ local ecologies and situational circumstances tend to remain relatively stable over time (e.g., Caspi,
Bem, & Elder, 1989; Sampson & Laub, 1993; Sharkey 2013). This life-course SST model conceptualizes a higher CKS
more broadly as ‘self-limiting social dispositions’ (Wilson, 2006) orsocioemotional capacities’ (Heckman, 2008),
which are rooted in structural circumstances and hinder success in conventional institutions and relationships
(schools, jobs, romantic relationships) in addition to increasing crime. This broader conceptualization not only
facilitates identifying a “behavioral constellation of deprivation” (behaviors reflecting more opportunistic, risky,
and short-term views of life; Pepper & Nettle, 2017) shaping life opportunities and outcomes but also enables
mapping the psychosocial pathways undergirding the persistence of inequalities. After all, hostile views,
impulsivity, and disengagement from conventional norms (e.g., resolving conflicts without violence, remaining
faithful to one’s partner; being on time) are not conducive to successful or positive experiences in the school, on the
job, or in one’s relationship. To this end, Burt et al. (2017) found that the criminogenic effects of childhood IRD were
maintained (or augmented) over time through the CKS and its interactional social effects (decreasing the likelihood
of satisfactory involvement in supportive institutions and relationships, specifically education, employment, and
romantic relationships). In the SST model, relationships and institutional involvements are theoretically significant
as they represent aggregates of situations that vary in predictability and support. These longitudinal findings are
consistent with research elucidating the perpetuation of inequality through socioemotional capacities shaped by
low-SES (‘high risk’) backgrounds (Hackman et al. 2014; Jones et al., 2015; Mani et al. 2013) as well as criminological
research using other samples that links IRD to crime through weakened attachment to conventional institutions
(the school; Unnever et al. 2016; 2017) as well as low self-control, anger, and increased substance use (Unnever,
2014). Finally, this life-course SST model also consonant with research indicating that harsh, unpredictable
environments (shaped by racial inequality, e.g., exposure to violent crime) decrease impulse control in the
classroom and impede academic achievement (Sharkey et al., 2012; Sharkey & Sampson, 2015). Altogether, this work
suggests that by shaping social schemas, IRD in concert with other harsh, unpredictable environments patterned
by racial status decrease the likelihood of success in conventional domains, with consequences that accumulate and
amplify initial disadvantages.
Importantly in longitudinal tests of SST where IRD predicts offending several years later, not all of racial
discrimination’s effects on street crime are mediated by the CKS. Instead, as Simons et al. (2014) found in their test
19
of SST (focusing on cumulative continuity through selection into criminogenic contexts and risky activities), IRD
has a direct effect on criminogenic situational definitions. Contrary to this finding, SST predicts that the effects of
harsh, unpredictable developmental environments on criminogenic situational definitions should be mediated by
the CKS. At this point, we can only speculate why IRD, unlike other measured harsh, unpredictable experiences,
such as harsh parenting and community crime, has a direct effect on criminogenic situational definitions. Whether
these findings are due to inherent limitations in using longitudinal surveys to capture complex cognitive processes
underlying decision making, or this remaining direct effect indicates that a general theory cannot fully capture the
effects of racial status and IRD and on crime, remains to be seen. Consonant with the latter view, Unnever and
colleagues (2009; 2015; Unnever & Gabbidon, 2011) have argued that Whites’ systematic socio-political domination
can undermine Blacks’ bonds to historically white-dominated institutions, in general. And, more specifically,
pernicious racially-biased treatment by police and the justice system will foster unique criminogenic worldviews,
including cultural frames of legal cynicism, among Blacks. Although, as I have noted, I am hesitant to postulate the
existence of qualitative differences between Blacks and Whites in psychosocial orientations, I concur with Unnever
and Gabbidon’s (2011) argument that the historical and continuing legacy of racialized control and subordination
by the U.S. CJS has almost certainly fostered a shared cultural belief that the CJS is unjust and racially biased and
shaped perceptions of racist threats by the police among Blacks. However, our analyses with the FACHS youth
suggest that stronger agreement with a scale measuring racial biases in in the CJS does not mediate the remaining
direct effects of IRD on increased crime. In fact, this measure of CJS racial biases is not even related to criminal
offending among Black youth in the FACHS. This perhaps due to the fact that most Black youth believe that the
CJS is racially-biased (see Unnever & Gabbidon, 2011), and thus the effects of this shared cultural frame on
increased offending is only observed in between-group comparisons between Blacks and other racial groups. In
any case, the point remains that in longitudinal models, the CKS does not fully explain the effects of IRD on later
offending, and more research on this remaining direct effect is needed.
Altogether, research converges in demonstrating that IRD is a harsh (stressful, threatening), unpredictable
experience that increases criminogenic psychosocial schemas (immediate gratification, hostile views, and
disengagement from norms), which come together as a higher order CKS increasing crime and other purportedly
dysfunctional behaviors (substance use, risky sex). Of course, it is clear that despite being subject to considerable
adversity and unfair treatment, most African Americans manage to successfully negotiate the deleterious
20
consequences of IRD and avoid sustained, serious involvement in street crime. To better understand how most
African Americans manage not only to survive but also to generate meaningful lives in the face of extraordinarily
harsh, racially-oppressive conditions not of their own making (Billingsley, 1988; Hill, 1972; Miller & MacIntosh,
1999), scholars have focused on a salient source of resilience among African American culturesracial
socialization.
Before moving on to resilience, however, I want to briefly address a significant theoretical question, noted
above, that remains undertheorized: How does structure shape culture and influence individual offending, given
that structural aggregates do not commit street crime. In my view, the ease of equating cultural “pathologies” or
“lifestyles” with innate deficits and moral decadence is rooted in the collective failure to clearly explain how these
cultural traits represent adaptations to structural inequalities. I propose an evolutionary developmental framework
can shed light on the structure-culture link. Specifically, such a framework can elucidate how humans’ universally-
shared evolutionary goals (survival and continuance) can produce quite divergent psychosocial orientations in
response to (sometimes ‘unimaginably’) different ecological contexts and social conditions.
Structural-Cultural Mechanisms: A Theoretical Lacuna
As noted above, most current macro-level research on race and crime theorizes culture as an adaptation to
structural circumstances (e.g., Massey & Denton, 1993; Sampson & Wilson, 1995). Culture is thus endogenous to
structure, “a mediating mechanism that shapes individuals’ subjective experiences and responses” to their
conditions of existence (Sampson & Bean, 2006, p. 22). In general, these models assume a consensus view of culture
(that of mainstream “prosocial” culture) and propose that structural disadvantages exacerbated by social isolation
foster cultural attenuation as weakened adherence to societal values (Kornhauser, 1978; Sampson & Wilson, 1995).
In these conditions, individuals may learn that in some situations it is expedient or necessary to engage in violence,
drug use and selling, and other street crimes as “ecologically structured tolerances” of deviance (Sampson &
Wilson, 1995). These tolerances are passed along to children through role modeling and operant conditioning, and
the acceptance of violence and street crime becomes part of the cognitive landscape of everyday life (Sampson &
Bean, 2006; Sampson & Wilson, 1995; Wilson, 2006). Importantly, although the proximal cause of crime is cultural
attenuation, the causal emphasis of these theories is on the role of racialized structural forces (high unemployment,
concentrated poverty, housing discrimination, and concomitant family disruption), with the implication that
21
reducing structural inequality would change culture (reduce cultural attenuation; Sampson & Wilson, 1995; Wilson
2006, 2009).
Despite the clear theoretical linkages between structure and culture and thick ethnographic descriptions of
cultural conditions in these underclass neighborhoods (Anderson, 1978; 1999; Fader, 2013; Hannerz, 1969; Harding,
2010; Goffman, 2014; Jones, 2010; Young, 2006), how structure shapes cultural adaptations is not well-understood
theoretically (Sampson & Bean, 2006; Wilson, 2006).
11
11 For example, Wilson (2006) noted: “Patterns of behavior in
the inner city often represent particular cultural adaptations to the systemic blockage of opportunities in the
environment of the inner city and the society as a whole. These adaptations are reflected in the habits, skills, styles,
and attitudes that are shaped over time.” But, how? Through what psychosocial mechanisms do structural
conditions shape individual attitudes, habits, styles, and skills (hereafter cultural traits)?
12
Addressing this gap, I submit that SST provides mechanistic insights into how structure shapes cultural
adaptations and propose the CKS as a conceptual (social-psychological) bridge linking the two. Moreover, the
depiction of these cultural traits as dysfunctional or counterproductive is countered with a contextually-
appropriate evolutionary characterization. But first, a caveat is in order; what I offer is a preliminary consideration
to integrate bodies of literature and competing analytical approaches to fill gaps in explanatory models into a more
general theoretical whole. This is an ambitious approach, in that I try to cover a lot of important ground in a short
space; if the grounds covered here seem fruitful, later work can add depth and tighten theoretical strands.
Structural Influences, Social Schemas, and Cultural Frames
13
Culture is an elusive concept; it is often left undefined or is simply described vaguely in terms of a groups values,
attitudes, and behavior, with the former often deduced from the latter. This lack of sophistication impedes our
understanding of within-group variations in cultural factors and confounds attempts to link structure to culture as
an intermediary mechanism (Lamont & Small, 2006). However, work by cultural sociologists has refined traditional
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11
A notable exception is William Oliver’s (2003, p. 291) body of research linking structure to “dysfunctional cultural adaptations” that influence
high levels of violent offending and victimization among Black males, including: “1) the lack of an affirming cultural agenda and 2) dysfunctional
definitions of manhood.” We build on Oliver’s insights, but recast them in a more general evolutionary-developmental model that links
inequality to more general psychological mechanisms and highlights their contextually-appropriate nature. Oliver’s (1984; 1994; 2003) insights
and theorizing about the “black compulsive masculinity alternative” is compatible with the SST model, even as the lens and emphases are distinct.
12
To be sure addressing these ostensibly perplexing adaptations is intricate, not only because these adaptations seem from a conventional
perspective to be anything but adaptive (in the sense that they seem to be antithetical to health and “success,” as defined mainstream terms;
Wilson, 2006), but also because a focus on these mechanisms risks losing sight of their structural foundation (and thus blaming the victim).
Ultimately, however, the validity of these structural-cultural theories hinges on the central supposition that culture is, in fact, endogenous to
structure, such that changing structural conditions (reducing racial inequality) is the causal key to the problem of street crime (racial disparities in
offending). Therefore, understanding how structure shapes culture is paramount.
13
My discussion of culture in this paper owes a great deal to Sampson and Bean (2006) and Lamont and Small (2006).
22
conceptions of culture facilitating the incorporation of cultural concepts in a richer, more heterogeneous manner.
These refined approaches discard misguided assumptions that social groups have inherent cultural traits (such as
‘Jewish frugality’ or ‘Asian work ethic’) and thereby avoid tautological reasoning that shirks explanation while
reifying cultural stereotypes (see Lamont & Small, 2006; Patterson, 2014; Young, 2004).
Drawing on this rich cultural array, I adopt a broad relational definition of culture as a shared mental
reality that is place- and position-based and which includes habits, skills, styles, outlooks, meanings, and the like
(Hannerz, 1969; Wilson, 2005; Swidler, 1986). Culture is shared because it is both communicated between
individuals in processes of communication and grounded in navigating similar conditions of experience (e.g.,
Cohen, 1955; Liebow, 1967).
14
Culture can be conceived as communal informationideas, knowledge, skillsabout
the world and about addressing recurrent problems of existence; information that is embodied in human brains.
15
In this approach, “[i]stead of having a culture, individuals exist in the midst of, respond to, use and create cultural
symbols” (Lamont & Small, 2006, p. 79).
The social-developmental processes by which such “cultural traits” may develop is more complicated than
the canonical model of social learning via intergenerational transmission (Cohen, 1955; Kirk & Papachristos, 2011).
Instead, there are two theoretically distinct, yet practically overlapping, modes of cultural learning, producing two
prototypical cultural traits: transmitted and evoked. Transmitted cultural traits refer to those that are rooted in
socialization practices and involve the transmission of social knowledge from one mind to another via modeling or
teaching. For example, many Americans are taught at an early age that green means go while red means stop;
pumpkins signify Halloween and candy; and sticks with tiny bristles plus paste are used to clean teeth (and clean
teeth are desirable). In contrast, evoked cultural traits are cultural factors engendered by shared conditions of
existence. In other words, given that we have evolved to optimize fitness in various conditions, shared exposure to
such conditions produces similar patterns of adaptation. In my view, earlier conceptions of culture were of limited
utility in part because the focus was almost solely on transmitted culture (with an emphasis on values); transmitted
culture is only a small part of the story, and maybe not even the most important part.
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Importantly, this conception of culture does not imply place-based homogeneity in values, skills, frames, or ideas, due to the fact that even
within the most highly segregated neighborhoods there exists considerable variation in ecological exposures and situational experiences (e.g.,
neighborhood, school, peer groups, family, media exposures), all of which influence social schemas.
15
In addition to being shared, culture is also relational in several senses. Cultural processes exist in relations between individuals (Lamont &
Small, 2006); social-environmental knowledge that becomes embodied in shared cognitive schemas can be said to represent the relation between
individuals and their social environment; and cultural schemas relate the past to the future through their effects on perception and evaluation of
alternative courses of action (decision-making).
A long legacy of sociological scholarship on culture and crime has explored and described cultural
properties observed in impoverished, segregated inner-city neighborhoods (previously referred to as “culture of
poverty”, “black poverty subculture”, “delinquent subculture”, see Curtis, 1975; Oliver, 2003; Young, 2004 for
reviews). Even though these (especially early) works tend to misguidedly assume subcultural consensus with a
limited focus on values, patterns identified among low-income individuals (usually minority men) in “ghetto-
slums” are insightful. In particular, several cultural leitmotifs emerge from these urban ethnographies, including
themes of present-orientation, low motivation or persistence in conventional domains of school and work, a
heightened propensity to violence, sexual promiscuity, thrill seeking or change versus sameness or routines, verbal
ability, shrewdness or street smarts, and among men an emphasis on toughness and sexual conquest (e.g.,
Anderson, 1978; 1999; Cohen, 1955; Curtis, 1975, Fader, 2013, Hannerz, 1969; Miller, 1958; Rainwater, 1970; Oliver, 1994;
Patterson, 2016).
16
These vivid accounts of the everyday lives of low income men suggest that such cultural traits,
which are sometimes derogatorily referred to as “poor lifestylesor a “culture of poverty”, are present and palpable
in certain ‘ghetto slumareas. But why and how? Why do some of the most disadvantaged people in society who
face challenging life circumstances often respond with attitudes and behaviors that seem to exacerbate their
situations? As discussed at length above, when people lack the social and material resources required to hold
danger and uncertainty at bay, they are evolutionarily predisposed to develop in ways that prioritize immediate
survival and reproduction, including adopting a present and opportunistic orientation as well as a cautious,
mistrusting view of others (Chisholm, 1999; Ellis et al., 2009; 2012). Among these responses are “traits” or social
schemas related to time perspective, views of relationships and attachment styles, and beliefs about fairness and
the wisdom and value of following social rules, as evocative responses to the conditions of existence. Although
often worsening situations from a Western mainstream cultural perspective, which is the wrong metric to adjudge
the success of these adaptations, these traits can foster (or did foster) survival and fitness.
17
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
!
16
It is no wonder that such scholarship has traditionally been precarious in the US context; invoking cultural explanations entails identifying
“deficient” or “maladaptive” characteristics, which can be harmful and racist if unmoored from the structural conditions of existence and applied
monolithically. One might also note that every social group or milieu contains unflattering cultural properties that would be discerned in an in-
depth study.
17
In a penetrating discussion, Jeremy Freese (2017) recently acknowledged that academics should be more aware of the “perch” from which they
observe behaviors, noting: “In truth, wenot poor peopleare the weird ones. From an evolutionary perspective, many commonplace high-
SES behaviors in developed societies from long-delayed first pregnancy to voluntary low fertility to regular recreational exercise to deliberately
abstemious diets, are downright peculiar” (p.26).
24
The implications of this perspective for bridging the structure-culture divide are hopefully clear. Given that
social schemasas mental models of reality and ways of approaching the worldare rooted in similar conditions
of experience, insofar as these are shared among a group or community experiencing the same conditions, these
schemas are cultural (see also Patterson, 2014).
18
I propose that by virtue of their grounding in shared conditions of
experience based in both place (highly disadvantaged, dangerous) and position (racial minority, low SES), the
“criminogenic social schemas” identified in SST are to some extent communal among members of ‘ghetto-slum’
neighborhoods, providing a bedrock on which other cultural traits, more specific frames, and culturally-
transmitted information are configured. In other words, these structurally-evoked cultural schemas, as mental
models of the world shaping perception, meaning-making, and decision-making, are crucially implicated not only
in behavior but also in attitudes, motivations, and priorities as well (Bourdieu, 1990; Wilson, 2009; Young, 2004).
Previously, (avowedly inchoate) scholarly efforts to bridge the structure-culture divide at the social
psychological level pointed to “self-limiting social dispositions” fostered by social isolation among the highly
disadvantaged underclass (Wilson, 1987; 2006). For example, Wilson (2009: 147-148) argued that structure shapes
“cultural traits that are embodied in the micro-level processes of meaning making and decision makingthat is,
the way that individuals in segregated communities develop an understanding of how the world works and make
decisions and choices that reflect that understanding.” Similarly, scholarship focused on racial disparities in
educational achievement highlights the salient role of individual “socioemotional characteristics,” alternatively
called “soft skills” or “character” in shaping individuals abilities to succeed in conventional domains (Heckman et
al., 2014; Heckman, 2008). I submit that widely documented shared experiences among residents of ‘ghetto-slum’
neighborhoodsincluding community crime, low collective efficacy, residential instability, resource scarcity, poor
child care, high unemployment and low-wage employmentfoster a higher CKS as “socioemotional capacities,”
which serve as “self-limiting social dispositions” (self-limiting from a mainstream (low-risk) perspective)
influencing life-chances and thus so-called “lifestyles” through their effects on decision-making. In concert with the
structural constraints and hardships that engender their development, these criminogenic social schemas influence
the reproduction of inequality through their effects. As noted, consonant with this idea, a recent study showed that
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
!
18
Notably, cognitive cultural traits can be highly specific to certain situations (e.g., cultural frames shaping perceptions and action responses
involving police encounters among minority males in “ghetto areas”; Goffman, 2015; Stuart, 2016), more broadly applied to specific places (e.g.,
shaping presentation of self and responses to others out on the street; e.g., Anderson, 1999; Young, 2004); or most generally the perceptual lens
with which one views and interprets the world at large. Although several important works have focused on cultural habits, styles, and skills in
specific situations and places, the focus of SST and its relevance for bridging the structureculture divide concerns the latter broad worldviews.
a higher CKS (shaped by cumulative exposures to IRD in childhood) not only increased the likelihood of crime in
adulthood but also decreases the likelihood of success in conventional domains, and thereby fostered the social
conditions that served to perpetuate a higher CKS (Burt et al., 2017).
In sum, I propose that SST, with its developmental-evolutionary assumptions, provides mechanistic
insights into the effects of racialized structural influences on cultural adaptations shaping offending as well as a
host of other outcomes as a “behavioral constellation of disadvantage”. In so doing SST sheds light on the
evolutionary logic of seemingly “maladaptive” cultural traits, conceptualizing individuals’ minds and behaviors as
adaptations to local contexts. IRD as well as the different ecological distributions of “race neutral” harsh,
unpredictable conditions by race pattern social schemas, as cultural mechanisms, that serve to reinforce structural
disadvantages. Of course, a feature of this approach is a recognition of within-group and within-place variations in
cultural traits qua adaptations, which includes a recognition of other influencesfrom family and school to peers
and random experiences (e.g., natural disasters, random victimizations, fantastic inspiring teacher). To be clear, this
focus on social schemas as contextually-appropriate responses undergirding shared worldviews and orientations
does not constitute “culture” writ large nor imply homogeneity among individuals in segregated communities (as a
‘culture of poverty’).
19
Other cultural elements interact with and are built upon these psychosocial orientations.
These includes transmitted culture, such as “cultural framing designed to fend off insults that promotes strong
feelings of racial pride within the community” (Wilson, 2009, p. 56). To a consideration of another cultural element,
salient among African American families, I now turn.
Racial Socialization
Prominent cultural analysts have highlighted the way individuals use culture to navigate their social worlds “not by
providing the ultimate values toward which action is oriented but by shaping a repertoire or ‘tool kit’ of habits,
skills, and styles from which people construct ‘strategies of action’(Swindler, 1986, p. 273; Hannerz, 1969; Lamont &
Small, 2006). Recognizing the strength of Black communities in the face of racial hostilities and tacitly adopting this
conception of culture, research identifies racial socialization“the process through which children come to
understand their own and others’ identities, roles, and positions vis-a`-vis race in various contexts, and how race
will function in their lives” (Winkler, 2010, p. 274)as a salient transmitted cultural practice that fosters resilience
to anti-Black racial discrimination (e.g., Bowman & Howard, 1985; Essed, 1991; Hughes et al., 2006). Racial
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
!
19
As Patterson and Fosse (2016:4) note: “The simple truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as the culture of poverty. Poor people all
over America and the world adapt to their socioeconomic, physical, and political environments in a wide variety of ways.” (emphasis in original).
26
socialization includes verbal, nonverbal, deliberate, and unintended racial messages and lessons (Thornton, et al.
1990). Although youth receive racial socialization messages from numerous sources (e.g., peers, media, school
agents), scholarship identifies familial racial socialization as a key cultural resource equipping minority youth with
competencies (e.g., skills and scripts) for navigating our racialized social system in ways that mitigate the harms of
racism and promote well-being (e.g., Bowman & Howard, 1985; Hughes et al., 2006; Stevenson, 2003).
Although most African American caregivers engage in racial socialization with their children (e.g., Hughes
et al., 2006), and many report that it is an important component of their parenting (Peters, 1985), both the content
and the frequency of these messages vary (Hughes et al., 2006; Peters, 1985; Thompson, 1994). Scholars have
developed specific typologies representing different racial socialization content messages that racial minority
parents transmit to their children (see Coard & Sellers, 2005; Hughes et al., 2006). Two forms of racial socialization
have been identified as particularly salient among Black families in fostering resilience: preparation for bias, defined
as the various actions by which adults warn youth about and discuss discrimination and provide skills and
strategies (“tools”) for coping with and overcoming racial barriers (Hughes et al., 2006), and cultural socialization,
which includes messages and practices that emphasize racial heritage and promote cultural customs and traditions
and thereby nurture youths’ racial pride and sense of belonging (Stevenson, 1995). Research reveals the beneficial
role of racial socialization in nurturing positive youth development through tacit and explicit messages that foster,
among other things, the ability to maintain self-esteem and racial pride in the face of racial hostilities, to attribute
race-based maltreatment appropriately to external sources, and to cope with and overcome racism in healthy ways
(see Hughes et al., 2006; Peters, 1985). Through these practices, Black youth learn to place specific social
occurrences in a general context of race relations and develop strategies to resist racism (Essed, 1991; Peters, 1985).
A growing body of research highlights the resilience effects of preparation for bias and cultural
socialization on psychological well-being, racial identity, self-esteem, and academic outcomes (Bynum, Burton, &
Best, 2007; Fischer & Shaw, 1999; Harris-Britt et al., 2007; Neblett et al., 2008; Stevenson et al., 1997; see reviews in
Hughes et al., 2006; Unnever & Gabbidon, 2011). Moreover, several recent studies show that these two forms of
racial socialization provide resilience to the criminogenic effects of racial discrimination by compensating for and
buffering the effects of IRD on offending (Burt et al. 2012; 2015). Specifically, research adopting the SST model
suggests that racial socialization compensates for the effects of IRD on the CKS and buffers the effects of IRD on
the CKS in contemporaneous assessments (Burt & Simons, 2015; 2017b). Moreover, consistent with the
27
conceptualization of racial socialization as a cultural practice that provides resources for constructing strategies of
action to solve recurring problems is the idea that these cultural tools shape behavior over time, especially if they
are effective. Consistent with this idea, Burt et al. (2017a) found that familial racial socialization provided enduring
resilience to the deleterious effects of childhood racial discrimination on adult crime. Specifically, racial
socialization not only compensated for and buffered the effects of racial discrimination on the CKS in childhood,
but also reduced the effect of IRD’s deleterious effects on involvement in supportive social fields (and thus crime)
in emerging adulthood. Altogether, these studies of racial socialization contravene earlier misguided ideas about
“cultural deficiencies” or “maladaptive cultures,” demonstrating adaptive transmitted cultural practices contribute
to a variety of domains that influence life satisfaction and well-being, including reducing the criminogenic effects of
racial discrimination and attenuating discrimination’s negative effects on socioemotional capacities conducive to
success in ‘mainstream’ institutions.
Discussion
In this chapter, I have addressed the role of anti-Black racism and cultural adaptations in theorizing about racial
disparities in street crime. In so doing, I have adopted a racialized perspective, which points to African Americans
increased exposure to race-neutral risk factors (due to the legacy of and continued racism and institutional
discrimination) as well as a race-specific risk factor (IRD), and links these racialized criminogenic risk factors to an
increased risk of street crime through race-neutral processes. I have expounded on the evolutionary underpinnings
of SST, arguing, following others, that it elucidates why certain seemingly irrational or counterproductive attitudes
and behaviors persist under harsh, unpredictable conditions (e.g., Ellis et al., 2012; Pepper & Nettle, 2017). I have
explicated how criminogenic social schemas (higher CKS’s) represent a contextually-appropriate response to
structural constraints and harsh experiences rather than a pathology, deficit, or failure of willpower.
At first glance, using evolutionary and cultural ideas to shed light on racial disparities in offending and a
broader behavioral constellation of disadvantage may seem like the worst idea ever. Most evolutionary and cultural
explanations for racial disparities have been excoriated for their racist and blaming-the-victimovertones.
However, drawing on recent elaborations of an evolutionary developmental perspective, which emphasizes that
individuals’ minds and psychosocial orientations are environmentally calibrated, and linking these to an emergent
(structurally-induced) cultural landscape, avoids the misguided (and racist) trappings of earlier approaches while
uniting structural hardships to cultural adaptations. Overlaid and interwoven with these evoked environmental
28
adaptations are familial racial socialization practices, which are transmitted cultural practices fostering skills,
scripts, and even frames dealing with and overcoming anti-Black racism. The end result is a framework that links
harsh, unpredictable environments profoundly shaped by racism to social schemas that tend to increase the risk of
street crime and other behaviors that can perpetuate disadvantage through their consequences. These psychosocial
orientations are contextually-appropriate in the sense that they, however imperfectly, evolved to make the best of a
bad situation for fitness outcomes (including fitness proxies of status and resources). Thus, seemingly inexplicable
and counterproductive behaviors and attitudes (from the perspective of low-risk environments) are united and
imbued with ultimate (fitness) logic.
Here I have only sketched the broad contours of this model, as I have tried to cover main themes in a
relatively short space, but a few additional features deserve mention. First, although evidence does suggest that we
have an expansive capacity for adaptive developmental plasticity, we are not, of course, infinitely malleable in
response to social-environmental conditions. Complicating matters further, individuals vary in the extent to which
they are susceptible to environmental influences; in other words, developmental plasticity is itself a trait that varies
between individuals (see Belsky et al., 2007; Ellis et al., 2011). Given this, SSTlike all other social scientific
modelsonly identifies a pattern. Individuals reared in harsh, unpredictable environments tend to develop higher
CKS’s, all else equal. However, we know all else is not equal, and environments are complex and multilayered;
thus, when speaking in cultural terms about these traits, we should consider these as ‘sociocultural configurations,
recognizing considerable heterogeneity in culture even among relatively small seemingly homogenous groups
(Patterson 2014).
Additionally, this model of evoked culture is but one piece of the expansive array of the cultural ensemble.
Although we view this facet of culture as particularly influential given its elementary role in perception, decision
making, and response, other features of culture can mold these unconscious, foundational tendencies into different
configurations (e.g., religious beliefs and practices). Finally, it should be noted that in addition to recognizing the
life-long malleability of the human mind (even as sensitive periods in childhood and adolescence have been
identified), this framework can also incorporate human agency and change (or indeterminism). As Dupre (2001, p.
158) has noted, “causal order is everywhere partial and incomplete…the significance of recognizing indeterminism
is not at all to show that human actions are unreliable or random. It is rather to show that….humans, are,
sometimes causally efficacious in the world around them.” In short, humans are not simply cultural or structural
29
dupes programmed to act without any modicum of causal efficacy. This is true in the boardroom and in the ‘ghetto
slum’ and everywhere in between.
Implications
In addition to deepening our theoretical understanding of the processes through which racial and socioeconomic
inequalities shape psychosocial adaptations and cognitive landscapes and can become amplified and embedded,
this framework also has implications for policies, programs, and practices to reduce harm and suffering (including
crime and victimization) for the benefit of Black communities and the wider society (regardless of the evolutionary
adaptiveness of the behavior). Importantly, despite the current focus on contextual appropriateness, it is the case
that harsh conditions do injure individuals and some adaptations to “make the best of a bad situation” increase
behaviors (including crime) that are harmful for everyone. Perhaps the most obvious implication from this model is
that criminogenic social schemas are not fixed but instead are plastic responses that reflect environmental
experiences rooted in structural inequalities. To be sure, the broad implications of this model are in many ways
similar to that of other frameworks: to effect serious and sustained change it is necessary to improve environmental
conditions and life experiences, ideally eradicating the edifice of white supremacy and providing a basic living
wage, high quality child care, social cushions for those who are experiencing hardships so they do not face
degrading, unpredictable, dangerous realities of isolated, impoverished neighborhoods (e.g., Wilson, 2009).
In some sense, it is difficult to believe that policies to dismantle the edifice white supremacy will ever gain
any traction on the mainstream agenda, as white privilege has remained militantly resistant to
subversion. However, the ability to challenge dominant narratives and mainstream ideologies has been facilitated
by recent technological advances, especially social networking capacities. With online networking and
communication, personal and local struggles and assaults (e.g., police killings) can now be connected with ease to
build more public awareness of violent racist realities and unite those who endeavor to challenge the racist social
order. We are currently witnessing the most overt, sustained critique of white supremacy and structural racism in
over a generation. African Americans and allies are engaging in an avalanche of protests and collective actions to
shift the political narrative and marshal agency for change under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Even so, it is unlikely that that racism and racial material inequalities will substantially diminish in the near
future, and efforts to identify, challenge, and dismantle white privilege and ongoing white racism (the harsh,
unpredictable racial edifice) will no doubt meet resistance. As these struggles continue, efforts to target the
30
distinctive challenges faced by youth in impoverished, segregated communities working with rather than against
environmentally-induced adaptations may help support without denigrating stress-adapted individuals (Ellis et al.,
2012; 2017). More than just a culturally-sensitive approach (but it should be culturally-sensitive), this implies a
reformulation of our institutionalized racist and classist methods of training and interventions as well as a re-
evaluation of the mainstream hierarchy of human socioemotional capacities, which privileges skills and capacities
fostered in in low-risk environments. In other words, interventions can work with the strengths of stress-adapted
children (Ellis et al., 2012; 2017). For example, the environment of the classroom (quiet, predictable, emphasizing
certain skills) might be varied. After all, the classroom is an artificial environment, and one that does not match the
reality of most jobs. Allegedly maladaptive stress compensations that enhance the ability to facility switch between
tasks, to readily identify threats and make quick decisions, and operate calmly in high pressure situation are, in
reality, quite valuable skills across many occupational domains. Harnessing such skills and providing opportunities
for movement up the socioeconomic ladder and into more predictably supportive environments should provide the
means to effect sustained change. Although research on the enhanced skills and abilities that are ecologically
relevant in harsh, unpredictable environments is still in early stages, initial findings are promising (Mittal et al.,
2015; Young et al., 2018). Better understanding the “hidden talents” of stress-adapted individuals while supporting
them in a culturally-sensitive manner might enable the design of classroom environments, community centers, job
training, and employment opportunities (that pay a living, respectable wage) that draw upon the capacities of
stress-adapted individuals while providing them with supportive, predictable contexts to hone further skills and
effect greater change (see Ellis et al., 2017 for excellent, detailed examples of interventions).
Conclusions
In the end, we believe that careful consideration of the ways that exposure to racialized risks shapes individual
differences not from a deficit model but from a contextually-appropriate racialized framework is theoretically
valuable (Ellis et al., 2012; Pepper & Nettle 2017). Even so, as we have emphasized, adaptive compensations to harsh,
unpredictable environments can still be costly to the individual, their groups, and society. Black Americans have
been incredibly disadvantaged and injured by anti-Black racism and its institutional and interpersonal
manifestations, including higher rates of crime, victimization, and racially-biased CJS responses. The remedy to
this situation will not be found in asking or supporting individuals to make conscious changes in their culture or
“better” decisions. We are all products of our social environments, trying to make the best of our situations while
31
acting and interacting with unconscious evolved motives that we did not choose and that are resistant to change
(without environmental change).
At the same time, acknowledging that structure shapes culture and “structure trumps culture,” does not
imply that we can simply ignore cultural mechanisms as insignificant epiphenomena (Wilson, 2009). This is true
not only because “cultural mechanisms are embedded in reinforcing cycles of structural disadvantaged,” but also
because we would neglect “the role of cultural mechanisms that operate among non-poor and that serve to
perpetuate poverty” (Sampson 2016: p. 205, 226). Thus, transcending the misguided, harmful cultural deficit frame
posited by Lewis with a contextually-appropriate structural-cultural model can both enhance explanations of the
persistence of racial disparities while offering new insights for policies and interventions (without blaming victims).
The harms our racialized system have perpetrated on Black Americansincluding elevated rates of offending and
victimizationare too severe and the possibilities for change too great to settle for partial, fragmentary
understandings (Patterson 2016).
Notes
1. Importantly, Russell outlined two crises facing criminology; the other, related to the first, was the lack of Black
scholars in the field. Although out of the scope of this paper, it should be noted that although there certainly
remains room for improvement, over the past 25 years, there have been significant increases in the number and
prominence of Black criminologists (see Greene, Gabbidon, & Wilson, 2018; Peterson, 2017).
2. “This term refers to societies in which economic, political, social, and ideological levels are partially structured by
the placement of actors in racial categories or races” (Bonilla-Silva, 1997: 469).
3. This list is modeled on Daly and Chesney-Lind’s (1988) list for feminist criminology, and the latter point is
indebted to Bonilla-Silva’s (1997) theorizing.
4. In the absence of measures of the incidence and prevalence of all forms of crimes, especially those committed by
the powerful and absent any measurement protocol for “harmful acts” or their impact, whether the likelihood of
crime or the prevalence of harmful acts is higher among Whites or Blacks is an unanswerable question. However,
some scholars persuasively argue that, in part because they occur on a much larger scale than interpersonal crimes,
elite crimes (committed likely disproportionately by Whites) cause substantially more harm than street crimes
(committed disproportionately by Blacks; e.g., Reiman, 1979).
5. The terms racialize and racialization have also been used in a critical sense to refer to the practice of imposing
typologies on or cataloguing differences in culture, temperaments, motivations, and behaviors by race (Covington,
1995; Webster, 1992). Here my focus is on racializing in the sense of purposefully incorporating differential
experiences that both flow from and embody racial status in explaining differences in behavior.
6. For example, Curtis (1975: 2) noted that he sought to “build a general interpretive framework in which culture is
viewed as a variable intervening between more basic structural determinants of poor black behaviors and violent
criminal outcomes.” Moreover, in my reading, Curtis seems to agree with significant criticisms levied by Black
scholars (and others) against “maladaptive black subculture explanations” (e.g., Billingsly, 1968; Hill, 1972), noting,
for example: “Thus, what many white scholars perceive in their value subjectivity as pathological disorganization
can from another posture be interpreted as functional responsiveness to environmental circumstances” (p.6; emphasis
added). To be sure, some works adopted an explicitly cultural determinist model to conclude that the poor (and
Blacks) have only themselves to blame (Banfield, 1970; Lewis, 1966; Mead, 1986).
7. Among these, Sampson and Wilson’s (1995) racialized theory, which has been labeled the thesis of “racial
invariance” has received perhaps the most scholarly attention. The theory is racialized through its incorporation of
the pivotal role of historical and continuing racial discrimination in the formation and perpetuation of segregated,
disadvantaged inner-city neighborhoods. The thesis is deemed “racially invariant” due to its guiding proposition of
equivalence in the community-level sources of street crime.
8. Acknowledging the existence of phenotype plasticity in a social scientific context is akin to telling a dairy farmer
that lactating cows can be milked; however, my discussion of developmental plasticity is not aimed at the
explaining the obvious reality of environmentally-induced variation, but rather that such variation can be
understood within an evolutionary framework.
9. To say that a behavior is adaptive in an evolutionary sense is to suggest that it maximizes (or did maximize in
ancestral environments) Darwinian fitness. Given that not all environmentally-induced variation is strictly adaptive
and rapid changes in society over the past several centuries (invention and development of guns, cars, the internet)
have altered features of our environments, this does not imply that all behaviors necessarily maximize fitness in
contemporary social environments; some enhance fitness proxies, which may not translate to actually fitness
advantages, and others may be by-products, side effects, or simply antiquated in current environments. However,
the important point is that plasticity exists with the function of differentially tailoring individuals to their social
environments for the evolutionary goal of continuance (Ellis et al., 2012; Pepper & Nettle, 2017).
33
10. In recent work, Pepper and Nettle (2017) refer to such a class of shortsighted behaviors as a “behavioral
constellation of deprivation”.
11. A notable exception is William Oliver’s (2003, p. 291) body of research linking structure to “dysfunctional cultural
adaptations” that influence high levels of violent offending and victimization among Black males, including: “1) the
lack of an affirming cultural agenda and 2) dysfunctional definitions of manhood.” We build on Oliver’s insights,
but recast them in a more general evolutionary-developmental model that links inequality to more general
psychological mechanisms and highlights their contextually-appropriate nature. Oliver’s (1984; 1994; 2003) insights
and theorizing about the “black compulsive masculinity alternative” is compatible with the SST model, even as the
lens and emphases are distinct.
12. To be sure addressing these ostensibly perplexing adaptations is intricate, not only because these adaptations
seem from a conventional perspective to be anything but adaptive (in the sense that they seem to be antithetical to
health and “success,” as defined mainstream terms; Wilson, 2006), but also because a focus on these mechanisms
risks losing sight of their structural foundation (and thus ‘blaming the victim’). Ultimately, however, the validity of
these structural-cultural theories hinges on the central supposition that culture is, in fact, endogenous to structure,
such that changing structural conditions (reducing racial inequality) is the causal key to the problem of street crime
(racial disparities in offending). Therefore, understanding how structure shapes culture is paramount.
13. Importantly, this conception of culture does not imply place-based homogeneity in values, skills, frames, or
ideas, due to the fact that even within the most highly segregated neighborhoods there exists considerable variation
in ecological exposures and situational experiences (e.g., neighborhood, school, peer groups, family, media
exposures), all of which influence social schemas.
14. In addition to being shared, culture is also relational in several senses. Cultural processes exist in relations
between individuals (Lamont & Small, 2006); social-environmental knowledge that becomes embodied in shared
cognitive schemas can be said to represent the relation between individuals and their social environment; and
cultural schemas relate the past to the future through their effects on perception and evaluation of alternative
courses of action (decision-making).
15. It is no wonder that such scholarship has traditionally been precarious in the US context; invoking cultural
explanations entails identifying “deficient” or “maladaptive” characteristics, which can be harmful and racist if
unmoored from the structural conditions of existence and applied monolithically. One might also note that every
social group or milieu contains unflattering cultural properties that would be discerned in an in-depth study.
16. In a penetrating discussion, Jeremy Freese (2017) recently acknowledged that academics should be more aware
of the “perch” from which they observe behaviors, noting: “In truth, wenot poor peopleare the weird ones.
From an evolutionary perspective, many commonplace high-SES behaviors in developed societies from long-
delayed first pregnancy to voluntary low fertility to regular recreational exercise to deliberately abstemious diets,
are downright peculiar” (p.26).
17. Notably, cognitive cultural traits can be highly specific to certain situations (e.g., cultural frames shaping
perceptions and action responses involving police encounters among minority males in “ghetto areas”; Goffman,
2015; Stuart, 2016), more broadly applied to specific places (e.g., shaping presentation of self and responses to others
out on the street; e.g., Anderson, 1999; Young, 2004); or most generally the perceptual lens with which one views
and interprets the world at large. Although several important works have focused on cultural habits, styles, and
skills in specific situations and places, the focus of SST and its relevance for bridging the structureculture divide
concerns the latter broad worldviews.
18. As Patterson and Fosse (2016:4) note: “The simple truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as the culture
of poverty. Poor people all over America and the world adapt to their socioeconomic, physical, and political
environments in a wide variety of ways.” (emphasis in original).
34
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