Explaining Away Crime: The Race Narrative in American Sociology and Ethical Theory

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Appiah, Black crime, Black rage, excuses, Strawson

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Rates of crime for Blacks in the United States in the post-slavery era have always been high relative to Whites. But explaining, or minimizing, this fact faces a major problem: individual excuses for bad acts point to deficiencies, in the agent, which are perhaps forgivable, such as mental deficiency or a deprived childhood, but at the price of treating the agent as less than a full member of the moral community. Collectivizing excuses risks implying group inferiority. The history of attempts to provide an explanation of crime that mitigates blame without undermining full participation to the moral community is long and convoluted, leading to the presently widespread claim that crime is itself a product of victimization through pervasive racism. Three basic strategies – rejection of comparison, attribution to racially invariant causes and explanation by reference to uniquely Black conditions, such as subculture or extreme stigmatization – are identified and their ethical implications distinguished.

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European Journal of Social Theory, v. 24, issue 3, p. 356-373