This Again? Homogenizing Racism, Dismissing Structure, and Adding Biology: A Response to Walsh & Yun (2017)

This, my second, blog post is my response to the recent Walsh and Yun (2017) paper “Examining the race, poverty, and crime nexus adding Asian Americans and biosocial processes” forthcoming in the Journal of Criminal Justice. No one asked me to write this, but I have things I want to say in response to this piece, which is, in my view, misguided and disjointed at best. In their article, WY repeat the tired, familiar trope of Asian Americans as the “model minority” to undergird their argument that African American cultural deficiencies and lifestyle choices are the source of elevated rates of black poverty and crime. In addition to dismissing significant differences in the historical experiences of Asian Americans and African Americans, WY sweepingly discount, if not dismiss, the existence of contemporary anti-black racism in the USA with feeble assertions about the success of some black Americans (we had a black president elected twice!; we have a holiday for MLK, Jr. “the only individual of any race so honored”!), as sufficient evidence to prove that we live in a post-racial world. In the second half of their paper, WY point to biosocial science (as others have done before) as a more scientific approach offering way out of this murky, biased social scientific haze. This section, which echoes many calls made by other ‘biosocial criminologists’, largely summarizes research on various biological pathways, seemingly oblivious to the contextual nature of the familial “abuses” they identify as causal triggers.

Despite the problems of this article, and there are many, this effort, which “[ignores] criminological orthodoxy” in attempt to “spoil the politically correct mantra that black crime results from white racism,” can be a useful reminder that the established, empirically supported models that frame scholarship on race and crime are neither universally accepted or understood, even among criminologists. Responding to pieces that challenge the orthodoxy (albeit while ignoring key facts and important scholarship) provides an opportunity for clarification. As a scholar of race and crime, this is my contribution to such a clarification. As a busy and important person, (okay, just busy), I am allowing myself 3 hours to devote to this response (so if anyone actually reads this, judge it on its terms) because I want to and I can. In this case, I believe a hasty response is better than no response at all.

This post is organized as follows (and, as usual with my writing will probably be longer than necessary to make the point). First, I will summarize my interpretation of the Walsh and Yun (2017; hereafter WY) piece. This is followed by a more detailed, critical look at some of the points WY make to support their claims, particularly those that I believe are essential to their claims and/or are deficient in particularly significant ways. Finally, I conclude as briefly as my writing allows.

I. Summarizing WY’s piece:

In my interpretation, WY seek two ends in this paper: a) debunking the notion that “[elevated] black crime [compared to whites] results from white racism,” pointing instead to culture and individual choices, and b) then (curiously) suggesting that the biosocial approach offers a way forward. If you find yourself perplexed at the two different aims and how they work together (agency and biological forces?), you are not alone. I found both the logic and flow of the arguments in this paper to be a bit disjointed and, in some cases, contradictory, especially the linkages between the sections of the paper. I discuss each in turn.

Part 1: It can’t be racism:

1) Mainstream explanations for African American crime—don’t forget choice!!: In this first section, WY make several critical claims about mainstream explanations for black-white racial disparities in crime, narrowly emphasizing Unnever and Gabbidon’s (2011) theory of African American offending (as if it is the only theoretical explanation of racism and crime). Reinterpreting Unnever & Gabbidon’s theory “through a different lens,” WY argue that the “criminalblackman” stereotype is grounded in the reality of higher “violence” among African Americans (pointing to racial disparities in homicide). They maintain that the allegedly causal linkages between experiencing racial discrimination and higher rates of offending are instead the result of African American’s “stultifying surrender to the cult of victimhood that sabotages self-reliance and excuses failure” (citing McWhorter 2000). Next, and without transition, WY link the “criminalblackman label” (Russell’s (2009/1998) theoretical concept) to the idea that being a “bad-ass” is actually valued by inner city young men (citing Anderson 1999), implicating culture.

WY conclude this section a bit abruptly, in my view, but here is what I think they are trying to say: scholarship shies away from cultural arguments because such explanations are a seen as “blaming the victim.” Instead, structural arguments are proffered, but such explanations “do not explain why these behaviors [crime] are structural rather than the products of human choice” (p.2). Uniquely citing Robert Sampson as “the dean of social ecology theory,” WY emphasize that we should not ignore human agency and individual choice, citing one of Sampson’s[i] statements that culture and structure are mutual creations. WY maintain culture and structure create each other, and human agency cannot be ignored, thus structure cannot determine culture (and crime) because we are free agents who make choices. How this all works together isn’t particularly clear, but as we shall see later, that is fine because the agency argument is inconsistent with the biosocial one.

2) The lower rate of offending among Asian Americans debunks the racial discrimination—higher crime thesis (this is presented as if this was a new idea![ii] or perhaps one that had not been given enough attention. Neither are true.). According to WY, Asian Americans have experienced discrimination, negative stereotypes, and hyper-ghettoization and have lower rates of crime than whites. Their misguided homogenization of the oppressive experiences of Asian and African Americans (themselves composed of groups and individuals with a multitude of diverse experiences) is used to minimize the role that racism plays in life chances, and, thus, falsify theories that link racial discrimination to increased offending and/or hyper-ghettoization to increased offending.

3) Racism is pretty much a thing of the past. Seriously, that is the point of this section, with powerful (sarcasm) statements such as: “Of course, anti-black racism is by no means dead, but we have a national holiday celebrating Martin Luther King, the only individual of any race so honored, and blacks win mayoral races across the U.S. in cities where they are a minority of candidates (Thernstrom & Thernstrom 2009)” (emphasis added). WY plainly argue that anti-black racism is (basically) a relic of an earlier age, and they dismiss scholarship documenting ongoing racism as output from “those with a vested interest in keeping racism alive.”

Following several paragraphs that can be ignored without missing a beat, WY conclude by arguing that based on the interracial official crime statistics for rape, robbery, homicide, and assault, Feagin’s oft-quoted statement about the prevalence of anti-black actions should be changed to the following:

“Being white in U.S. society means always having to be prepared for antiwhite actions by blacks” (p.3).

And, there you have it folks. Their “different lens.” I don’t think anything needs to be added to that. They conclude this section writing: “We cannot soberly and honestly assess racial crime differences as long as academics continue to make patently false, wildly exaggerated, and incendiary statements.” I concur; the irony is astounding.

4) It’s not poverty, its culture: Here WY argue, again falsely conflating anti-Asian racism with anti-black racism, it’s not poverty causing crime, it’s culture because Asians also experience discrimination, and they aren’t poor. Using impeccable logic, WY assert that if discrimination caused differences in poverty levels, then we would have to conclude that whites favor Asians, “which of course no one would believe” (p.3-4).[iii] So, WY deduce: it’s black culture and lifestyle choices that cause black poverty and black crime.

5) Education and poverty: WY dogmatically assert that black culture devalues education (selectively citing passages from prominent African American scholars Elijah Anderson and Orlando Patterson in decontextualized ways), and this cultural devaluation produces lower/worse educational outcomes among black Americans compared to whites. Conversely, Asian Americans value education highly and have better STEM outcomes that whites.

No effort is made to link this to any explanation of crime; rather, this section was just to further cement the notion of a deficient black culture with decontextualized facts and citations. WY thus further blame blacks for their position in society by juxtaposing black educational outcomes with those of Asian Americans, as if all else was equal.

Part 2: “Biosocial Lens”

6) In a quite disjointed fashion, WY shift to a biosocial lens arguing: “Theories that rely on social class and poverty to explain crime cannot explain variance in criminal behavior within social class” (p.4)—as if no theories have been offered to explain within-class variations in offending. They continue by noting that structural and cultural effects are not invariant; therefore: “Clearly, we have to go beyond raw demographics to explain why some people become criminal while other demographically similarly situated people do not.” WY fully ignore social theories of within-group differences in offending that seek to explain individual differences (e.g., Burt et al. 2012; Kaufman et al. 2008; Simons et al. 2003; Simons & Burt 2011; Unnever et al. 2009; Unnever & Gabbidon 2011) because why spoil a politically incorrect story?

In this section, WY continue a biosocial criminology tradition of highlighting “the” biosocial approach’s gift to the social sciences: the techniques of the “more robust natural science.” Notably, in this half of the paper, the emphasis on human agency disappears. Human choice is apparently only relevant when talking about structural effects. This is replaced with compilations (largely summaries, but informative ones) of research pointing to potential or recently empirically-validated biological pathways from exposure to childhood abuse, neglect, toxic exposures to various outcomes (some related to crime). WY aver: “Growing up in our inner cities often exposes black children to single parenthood, violence, parental abuse, neglect, and substance abuse. These children bear no blame for the conditions in which they find themselves, but as a result of cultural transmission and biological changes to the HPA axis and the ANS wrought by these conditions, grow up to perpetuate them” (emphasis added). Unfortunately, WY previously dismissed social-structural theories of these “tangle of pathologies” that explain how and why social arrangements shape contexts and pressures that increase the risk of black children’s exposure to these adverse conditions and experiences. Given this, they leave themselves in a peculiar position of pointing to culture and human agency as causes of (deterministic) biological processes. That is a first, I think.

Although, I should note that if their second section on biological processes is reframed as an explication of how structural-cultural processes get under the skin to have lasting effects on development, including criminal behaviors, elucidating how “human agency” and “lifestyle choices” are misguided explanations for racial disparities in social behavior and demographic outcomes, then this section, as a summary of what is out there (albeit a bit oversimplified), might be valuable. Obviously, such was not the intent of WY.

II. My Specific Critiques of WY paper

As should be manifest by now, even though I have done little but summary, I think this paper suffers from a host of problems in the way of evidence and logic. Rather than quibble with every point, which I want to but that would not be efficient or effective, I highlight four main ways this paper nosedives, which were suggested in the above.

1. Racial discrimination persists. I honestly cannot believe that in this day, post-Trump election, that a serious scholar could question the existence of anti-black racism in American today. One might conclude that either they are not serious scholars, or they are not serious. (Are we being punk’d?) To argue that racism is a relic of the past, WY dismiss a wealth of diverse sociological research on the topic of “white racism,” at both the interpersonal and the structural level (as a racialized social system; Bonilla-Silva 1996). WY downplay (really basically ignore) the significance of the structured nature of white advantages rooted in historical (material and ideological) struggles. Their broad brush depiction of white racism as practice of the past, with contemporary forms as being invented by “those with a vested interest in keeping racism talk alive,” is not only ignorant and fallacious, but offensive. This section is basically a farce and becomes even more so in the end when WY reverse Feagin’s claim about the prevalence of antiblack actions by whites. I don’t have the time to say more, but for some (of many) excellent discussions of racism and our racialized social system see: Bonilla-Silva 2001; 2017; Essed 1991; Feagin 1991; 2014; Omi & Winant 1986.

2. Racial discrimination/racism is not uniform across racial-ethnic minority groups. Despite WY’s claims (echoing others over the years), racism against Asian Americans is not tantamount to that against African Americans. To be fair, WY mention that “unlike blacks the Chinese came to the United States voluntarily,” but summarily downplay that stark difference by noting that the employment conditions of the Chinese “often amounted to what Kitano and Daniels (1995:22) called a ‘new system of slavery.’”

The repeated false conflation of the Asian and African American experience of oppression, which includes the overworn trope of the “model minority” in contradistinction to black Americans, is neither novel nor productive, and WY’s brief discussion of this is banefully ignorant of social scientific scholarship in this area. As Wu documents in her (excellent) book The Color of Success (2014) before the 1940s and 1950s, whites considered Asian Americans as unfit for citizenship and unassimilable, “marking them as definitively not-white, and systematically shutting them out of civic participation…” (p.2; emphasis in original). However, Wu documents how, in seemingly an astonishing public transformation, the “model minority” narrative was invented in response to geopolitical dilemmas, among them the Cold War and civil rights movement:

“A host of stakeholders resolved this dilemma by the mid-1960s with the invention of a new stereotype of Asian Americans as the model minority—a racial group distinct from the white majority, but lauded as well assimilated, upwardly mobile, politically non-threatening, and definitively not-black.” (p.2, emphasis in original).

To be sure, like Wu, I do not wish to diminish the efforts of Asian Americans, but focusing narrowly on their actions is but one (and some argue small) piece of their story of upward mobility. Instead of a shift in “lifestyle choices,” socio-historical scholarship suggests that it was a transformation in the public image of Asian Americans from disgusting and unassimilable (not white) to law-abiding, hard-working, compliant, and the like (not black) that opened doors for Asian Americans to climb the social ladder. Thus, while WY credit this shift to hard work and a cultural emphasis on education among Asian Americans, research suggests that the upward mobility observed among Asian Americans between 1950 to the 1970s was due to this shift in treatment that this change in public image fostered: a decline in racism against Asian Americans (Hilger 2016).

To be sure, this social scholarship was available to WY, but it didn’t fit their politically and (factually) incorrect story that the experiences of Asian and African Americans are, for all intents and purposes, tantamount. This undergirds “their alternative view” that at the root of racial disparities in offending is not white racism/structure but black culture and poor lifestyle choices.

Futhermore, clearly misunderstanding (or forgetting) the tenets of labeling theory and excellent criminological and historical work on the criminalization of blackness, as a means of racial control,  and the roots of the “criminalblackman” stereotype in white racism (e.g., Alexander 2010; Russell-Brown 2009; Muhammad 2010), WY note: “Despite these hardships and negative stereotypes, the Chinese have never had a reputation for being criminally inclined” (p.2). That is, in part, exactly the point. Labeling theory, generally, and research on racial threat and criminal justice control, which focuses on the criminalization of blackness and the equating of blackness with criminality, specifically, theorize that this criminalblackman stereotype will increase crime and criminality, all else equal, and distort official rates of offending, due to the increased surveillance and greater punishment accorded to black law violators as a result of the belief that they pose a greater danger to society (Tonry 1995; Spohn 2015). There is so much to discuss here but so little time, so I will move on. Ultimately, and unfortunately, social scholarship documenting the ways in which powerful individuals/stakeholders can project various political agendas onto a socially-constructed cultural narratives is ignored, like much other relevant scholarship.

Additionally, WY attempt to debunk prominent macro-level theories that focus on the hyper-ghettoization of African Americans as a causal factor in elevated rates of offending, by noting that the hyper-ghettoization of Asian Americans has been used to explain their lower crime rates. Therefore, according to WY, hyper-ghettoization cannot explain crime. Viewed in isolation, that argument might be reasonable or persuasive, but only if it is removed from the entire theoretical apparatus in which it is situated, including historical and current struggles (such as the deterioration of community bonds to the high rates of incarceration of African American males and so on). These various issues/influences are all intertwined in complex ways, and the idea that voluminous amounts of social scientific research on race, racism, and crime can be swiftly dismissed by a cursory comparison of Asian Americans and African Americans is astonishing. WY must adhere to that same worldview as Wright and Morgan (2014) that most social scientists are so blinded by their liberal worldviews, hampered by their allegiance to the methods and assumptions of that inferior branch of social “science,” and fettered by their fear of being labeled racist, that the biased, “politically correct” knowledge they create can be dismissed with quick and weak arguments. Such sweeping dismissals of the “standard social science model” as well as dogmatic overreactions to findings ostensibly contradicting theoretical explanations is rather unproductive, and in this case, quite preposterous.

To be sure, I am not suggesting that the Asian American experience (historically or at present) has not involved considerable oppression and discrimination. It has, and that is not up for debate. Rather, I am stating clearly (following many others) that the Asian American experience and the African American experience are not interchangeable but are quite different in many significant ways due numerous factors, including the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the criminalization of black Americans, all of which shape structure, culture, and social behavior in profound and complex ways that must be considered when theorizing about criminal behavior.

3. “Biosocial Approach”: In the second half of the paper, as noted, WY present a “biosocial approach” as an alternative to mainstream social scientific criminology, one which “can lead to a criminology that is rooted more in science and empirical observations” and which can aid our understanding of within-class differences in criminal outcomes. In making their case, WY state: “Clearly, we have to go beyond raw demographics to explain why some people become criminal while other demographically similarly situated people do not” (p.4). No problem, here, but recourse to biological mechanisms is not necessary to explain differences in offending within various groups; many micro-level theories, some cited above, (especially combined with theories including resilience processes) explicate within-group differences in “positive” or “negative” outcomes.

Next WY state: “Too many black children are born into fatherless homes in neighborhoods riddled with violence and poverty for which the children bear no responsibility.” I concur, too many black children (and children of all races and ethnicities) are born into harsh, unpredictable conditions not of their own making that impede their health and life chances. (Although I will quibble that good evidence suggests that rather than needing a mother and father, children need a loving family (regardless of gender) who have the time, energy, and resources to provide warmth, nurturance, and predictability for healthy development, but that is just a queer digression.) Finally, WY conclude, more debatably, “and the conditions in which these children grow up require a biosocial analysis of how the environment penetrates the person down to the molecular level.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t follow their logic. To be sure, analyzing the biological mechanisms through which environmental exposures is one level of analysis that, in my view, has value. But, incorporating biological pathways at the current state of knowledge (and likely ever) is neither necessary nor sufficient to understand within-class differences in outcomes (or within-race differences). Rather it is one layer of information, but one that is certainly not more valuable than the socio-environmental layers. That a biosocial analysis (which focuses on biological pathways) is necessary to understand racial disparities (or more valuable than social explanations) seems particularly misguided, in my view, given the fact that social interventions to prevent or reduce minority groups’ exposures to harsh, noxious, and unpredictable environments seem preferable than pharmacological interventions (if possible at some future date) to undo or offset biological adaptations to such conditions. But, I am getting ahead of myself. I shall quickly look at a few ideas WY consider:

Epigenetic processes: WY focus on DNA methylation, which is the most well-understood and well-researched form of epigenetic regulation. As WY note, research reveals that the effect of methylation, especially when it occurs in the promoter region of a gene, is typically to reduce gene expression. In other words, DNA methylation serves as a dimmer switch for genes (by blocking DNA transcription enzymes; Ng & Bird 1999). Importantly, research suggests that DNA methylation patterns are dynamic and responsive to the environment, especially during sensitive periods, and can have long-term impacts on development (Meaney 2010; Slavich & Cole 2013). In other words, research suggests that DNA methylation is a key biological (genomic) mechanism mediating the effects of social conditions on development (e.g., Feinberg 2007; Hochberg et al. 2011).

Just to repeat clearly, because I am fond of repetition, DNA methylation has been identified as a key mechanism through which socio-environmental forces have enduring effects on development (McGowan & Roth 2015; Syzf & Bick 2013). In recent years, researchers have generated a small but steadily growing body of evidence connecting social adversity to DNA methylation patterns and adverse health outcomes, including depression, antisocial behavior, and the like (e.g., Beach et al. 2016; Essex et al. 2013; van der Knaap et al. 2015). Moreover research has also identified epigenetic markers of exposure to social disadvantage, including SES and racial discrimination (Essex et al. 2013; Simons et al. 2016).

Evidence over the past decade suggests that a social epigenetic approach will provide a new layer of information, not an alternative explanation to that offered by social theories. Importantly, some epigenetic marks appear to be intergenerationally transmitted (see Kuzawa and Sweet 2009 for a discussion involving race and health disparities), meaning that, for example, stressful experiences including those accompanying slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, and ongoing racial discrimination may induce epigenetic changes (adaptations) that are transferred to future generations, in ways that may influence biopsychosocial development.  Among humans, Kuzawa and Sweet (2009: 7) note:

   “Indirect evidence for maternal-fetal transfer of epigenetically based alterations in stress (HPA) reactivity has been documented in humans. In holocaust survivors, severity of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms—which influences maternal cortisol production during pregnancy—predict levels of cortisol excretion in postnatal offspring, and Manhattan women who were pregnant during the 9/11 attacks gave birth to offspring who show evidence for alterations in HPA activity in childhood (Yehuda and Bierer, 2008).”

Recent evidence accumulating over the past several years suggests that it is hardly a stretch expect that historical and contemporary traumatic racialized experiences, including ongoing vicariously experienced incidents involving police (and citizen) shootings of unarmed black men (Trayvon Martin and so many others), influence epigenetic alterations or patterns that influence development, such that at the present day individuals are “marked” (in potentially insignificant, but also potentially significant ways) by experiences of racial oppression (in the same manner that impoverished individuals may be shaped by harsh conditions accompanying low SES in the USA). Of course, this area of research is incredibly new and there is so much we still do not know[iv]; yet, all the new evidence emerging further underscores the fallacy of the (long dead in most circles) independent “culture of poverty and crime” explanations for racial disparities in social outcomes.[v]

Perhaps more importantly, across all of the biosocial factors WY examine, there is a need for social scientific models to elucidate the social factors that shape biological adaptations, such as DNA methylation. This is why recent calls from NIH and other scientific bodies have highlighted the need for social and genomic scientists to work together to develop holistic models linking various levels.

Summarizing the point of the above, WY’s focus on epigenetics, allostasis, telomere length, cortisol, sex hormones, and the like is both curious and explanatorily evasive because research on each of these points to the central role of environmental (including social, structural) influences. Rather than replacing a social scientific model linking our racialized social system to social behavior, a focus on such biological processes are more likely to provide evidence supporting it, including by identifying “hard” (biological) pathways for racism’s enduring effects. The more we learn, the more we see that human psychophysiological development is profoundly shaped by the social-environmental conditions of experience, and given the role of structural arrangements in shaping exposures to stressful, oppressive, and noxious conditions, the unique oppressive experiences of African Americans undoubtedly influence life chances through biological adaptations in a manifold of ways.

 4) Crime is a social construct: In discussions of race and demographic outcomes, scholarship invariably notes that race is a social construct (WY is an exception in this paper, but they have discussed this in earlier pieces). Yet, crime, including violence, is a social construction that involves not only arbitrariness and vagueness but also is, as we all know, itself shaped by structure (including racism) and historical context. I will make three points, none novel, but all worthy of remembering:

i) Crime is racialized; race (especially blackness) is criminalized. Approaching the race and crime question without serious consideration of this reality will distort any explanation.

ii) Crime is not a biologically-given construct. Any biosocial explanation of “crime” must recognize that what counts as “crime” or even “violence” is not given in nature. Physically and psychologically injurious acts (“violence”) can be lauded (in war, on football fields, in the boardroom), can be excused (“justified” killings by self-defense or official agents of government), or can be punished. There is no inner biological reflection or any clear phenotype of “illegal violence” or “crime” that does not rely on historical, situational, individual and other social influences. Hence, any “bio” explanation of “crime” must inherently be incomplete because crime is not bio; crime and illegal violence are not given in nature.

iii) Crime is invariably measured/theorized as “street crime” not the universe of illegal acts. Should we capture that universe (corporate crime, governmental crime), and the harm entailed, race and crime statistics probably look quite different.

Conclusion: The criminological study of race and crime over the past several decades has moved from an uneasy state of “controversy and silence” to a fertile terrain for new developments and considerable knowledge growth. Although much remains to be learned and much more (most) remains to be done, a complex, diverse set of studies has evidenced the manifold ways that white racism—from the structural level to its interpersonal instantiations—increases the risk of African American offending, in large part, through its associations with life chances (education, employment, health, and the like) and worldviews, including individual schemas and shared cognitive landscapes. Moreover, more recent years have seen the potential, and in some areas hard evidence, for biological pathways through which racism influences development, including physiological and psychosocial outcomes. We have also witnessed enhanced recognition amongst many social scholars of the potential for biopsychosocial work to advance knowledge on the lasting effects of living and developing in a racialized social system such as ours. Thus, at the present time with the current knowledge base, it is rather astonishing that a paper such as this would make its way to publication. On the other hand, as we all know science (and publication) does not exist a part from social context and political agendas but is itself part and parcel of this racialized social system.

(Really, I am concluding this, promise.) In this post, I have tried to make sense of WY’s paper, attempting to avoid the trappings of their one-sided agenda and dogmatic rejections of a diverse body of research documenting the complex relationship between race/ethnicity and crime, while resisting the almost paralyzing recourse to the “hard sciences” as a way out of a “period of controversy and silence” long past. Now, more than ever, we have the evidence, tools, and motivation to further explore the nuances of living in our racialized social system and, especially, the deleterious effects on oppressed groups. I will end by fully endorse WY’s concluding remarks with a few corrections:

“We agree with LaFree and Russell (1993. p. 279) who argue that the crime/race connection should be studied honestly and courageously because ‘no group has suffered more than African-Americans by our failure to understand and control street crime.’ The corollary of this is that no other group can benefit more from a candid examination of race and crime. This will not, and cannot begin to happen, until we stop misidentifying causes,” [exhuming long-buried arguments, such as the “culture of poverty” thesis and reiterating misguided notions about the “model minority”.]

Anti-black racism persists, and scientists are not immune.


References (not cited in WY’s article):

Alexander, Michelle.  2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press.

Beach, SRH, M-K Lei, GH Brody, S Kim, AW Barton, MV Dogan, & RA Philibert. 2016. Parenting, socioeconomic status risk, and later young adult health: Exploration of opposing indirect effects via DNA methylation. Child Development 87: 111-21.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2001. White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era. Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2017. Racism Without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America. Rowman & Littlefield.

Brody, Gene H., Yi-Fu Chen, Velma Murry, Xiaojia Ge, Ronald Simons, Frederick Gibbons, Meg Gerrard, and Carolyn Cutrona. 2006. Perceived Discrimination and the Adjustment of African American Youths: A Five-Year Longitudinal Analysis with Contextual Moderation Effects. Child Development 77:1170–89.

Burt, Callie H., Ronald L. Simons, and Frederick X. Gibbons. 2012. Racial Discrimination, Ethnic-Racial Socialization, and Crime: A Micro-Sociological Model of Risk and Resilience. American Sociological Review 77:648-677.

Essed, Philomena. 1991. Understanding Everyday Racism: An Interdisciplinary Theory. Sage.

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Feagin, Joe R. 1991. The continuing significance of race: Antiblack discrimination in public places.” American Sociological Review 56: 101-116.

Feagin, Joe R. 2014. Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. Routledge.

Feinberg, AP. 2007. Phenotype plasticity and the epigenetics of human disease. Nature 447: 433-40.

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Omi, Michael, & Howard Winant. 2014. Racial Formation in the United States. Routledge.

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Simons, Ronald L. and Callie Harbin Burt. 2011. Learning to Be Bad: Adverse Social Conditions, Social Schemas, and Crime. Criminology 49:553–98.

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Walsh, Anthony, & Ilhong Yun. 2017. Examining the race, poverty, and crime nexus adding Asian Americans and biosocial processes. Journal of Criminal Justice: advance online publication.

Wu, Ellen D. 2014. The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority. Princeton University Press.

Young, Vernetta. 2006. Demythologizing the ‘Criminalblackman’: The Carnival Mirror. Pp.54-66 in The Many Colors of Crime, edited by R.D. Peterson, L.J. Krivo, & J. Hagan. New York: New York University Press.



[i] Pointing to Sampson to support their claim about missing agency in the structural-cultural arguments about race and crime is super ironic (or ignorant) given that Sampson & Wilson (who they cited earlier) provided one of the seminal pieces linking racial stratification (structure) to cultural adaptations shaping black-white disparities in crime, often viewed as the piece that ended the “period of controversy and silence” around race and crime.

[ii] Notably, WY did not cite William Petersen, a UC Berkeley sociologists whose 1966 NYT piece encouraged comparisons between Japanese-Americans and African Americans and strengthened stereotypes of Asian Americans as the model minority in contrast to African Americans, nor any of the numerous responses to this comparison that have unmasked the hollowness of such comparisons in the more than 50 years since Petersen popularized this juxtaposition.

[iii] WY assert: “To be consistent with structural arguments for black crime, proponents of such views would have to attribute Asian successes to pro-Asian bias on the part of whites to their own detriment, or to return to cultural or genetic arguments to explain Asian advantage vis-a-vis whites and blacks. They are not likely to do so because that would entail group comparisons along these lines, which they find invidious.”

[iv] As WY note, the potential of the epigenetics field has not yet been matched by the reality of research given its complexities; yet, that is not reason to deny that epigenetic research provides a plausible biological mechanism linking racist and other social experiences to development in lasting and potentially reversible ways (with supportive preliminary evidence).

[v] To be clear, WY are not completely silent about the social inputs into the biological pathways on which they address. Rather, WY focus on parental abuse and neglect and its lasting effects. Given their earlier arguments, they seem to imply that such parental treatment—no fault of the child—they assure, is due to not only to culture and structure but to human agency. However, the very first epigenetic example they provide reveals, at least among rodents who clearly have less complex lives especially in the social realm, that female rat pups who were licked and groomed in early life go on to become licking and grooming mothers. As noted, cross-fostering studies show that this is not learned or genetically transmitted, rather the experience of licking and grooming in the early life of rat pups produces a cascade of epigenetic changes which shape development and later parenting, presumably for adaptive reasons. This implies, at least extrapolating from the simpler life of the rat pups, that parenting practices are powerfully shaped by familial experiences, and likely among humans, ongoing experiences in development that provide cues about the nature of the world and the people in it. This example completely undermines their arguments about culture and agency.


5 thoughts on “This Again? Homogenizing Racism, Dismissing Structure, and Adding Biology: A Response to Walsh & Yun (2017)

  1. Thank you so much for putting this out there! As you said, it’s very difficult to view this “research” outside of the context of an emboldened, angry, and obviously discriminatory (in the worse sense of the word) segment of the population. IMHO you do a great job of building a case by informing us what ideas/research they include, and how they used it vs. the ideas/research they exclude and how it would have undermined their views. Thanks again!


  2. Thank you for taking three hours out of your day to do this! I particularly love: (1) that I can hear your voice as I read this even though we’ve never met; (2) the left out citations–“Hey you forgot that ALL of this work was done that bears upon the BS you’re shoveling”; (3) the systematic way you go about dismantling this “research”; and (4) that you seemed to have given WY’s article a good faith effort at validation.

    I suppose for WY and many who are in agreement with them, history is mere ephemera. I’m reminded of the scene in the Lion King when Rafiki hits Simba on the head and then explains that his reasoning for hitting Simba doesn’t matter because it’s in the past. I wonder how WY would explain the ravages of chattel slavery by good Christian folk…


  3. This is a superior work! Even more if it’s the result of a few hours. I strongly recommend you seek to have this published in the JCJ or some other outlet – perhaps the Journal of Criminal Justice and Law.

    Liked by 1 person

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