Robert J. Sampson, chairman of the Department of Sociology, speaks last
night on the effects of race and immigration on city crime rates.
In a discussion of his research last night, Sociology Department Chair
Robert J. Sampson proposed explanations for what he called the
“black-white gap in violence,” arguing that much of such a gap is based
on the environment in which an individual is raised rather than on
Sampson’s study of the determinants of crime in Chicago and
Boston, which he presented at the Kennedy School of Government’s
Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, concluded that, even though
black youths’ rates of violent acts are, on average, about 85 percent
higher than those of whites and Latinos, environmental factors account
for more than 60 percent of this gap.
Sampson, who is also Ford Professor of Social Sciences, said
these environmental factors are the marital status of the youths’
parents, their immigrant generation, and the socioeconomic makeup of
Over the years, explanations proposed for the black-white gap
have ranged from socioeconomic status and prevalence of single-mother
households to varying levels of impulsiveness in different racial
Sampson’s findings confound some stereotypes about race and violence.
“In our data, immigration is associated with lower violence, not higher,” said Sampson.
He jokingly proposed an “America effect” that raised crime
rates, commenting on the fact that “the longer the amount of time spent
in the United States, the higher the rate of violence.”
Sampson’s study found that people’s perceptions of disorder in
their neighborhoods were affected by the prevalence of minorities.
“There’s a cultural stereotype [not only among whites] that
violence and disorder is associated with minority groups,” said
Sampson. He added that this perception bias complicates the process of
addressing real differences in rates of violence.
“People are acting on beliefs that reinforce the patterns that exist,” he said.
His data for Chicago also showed that Latinos committed violent
acts at a rate 10 percent lower than whites. However, when their
surroundings were taken into account, the gap disappeared.
The discussion last night, attended by about 60 people, was
not limited to purely academic concerns. J. Larry Mayes, the Chief of
Human Services for the City of Boston, weighed in, with a practical
perspective, on working with immigrant communities in Boston.
Mayes anecdotally addressed the problems some immigrants from
the West African island nation of Cape Verde encounter when they arrive
in the Boston area. He suggested that cultural problems of integration
contributed to recent violence in Boston’s Cape Verdean community.
“They didn’t have the filters to deal with the advent of pop culture, especially thug culture,” Mayes said.
Sampson said he is cautiously optimistic about trends of
lowered violent crimes in recent years. Commenting on the broad-based
international decline in crime rates, he said, “there could be some
sort of cultural shift going on in advanced industrialized countries.”
Audience members responded favorably to the forum.
“It’s nice that community leaders get to interact and have an
exchange of ideas with researchers,” said Reanne Frank, a postdoctoral
student at the Harvard School of Public Health.