University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee Campus


Fall 2023

Campus Magazine

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Building the case for a black criminology

James Unnever, PhD defends his work on racial injustices.

If James Unnever’s academic career ever came down to a defining moment, it might have happened in November during the 75th annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in San Francisco.

Unnever, a professor of criminology at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus, came to the conference to debate the central premise of his research during a session entitled “The Author Meets Critics: Building a Black Criminology: Race, Theory, and Crime.”

The event, billed as a critique of the book Unnever co-authored, “Building a Black Criminology: Race, Theory, and Crime,” turned out to be much more.

It also served as an examination of Unnever’s research and conclusions of the past four decades that racism is endemic in American society and contributes to disproportionate numbers of African Americans being incarcerated, justifying the need for a separate line of academic inquiry, a “black criminology.”

Joining him on the dais was one of his co-authors, Cecilia Chouhy. Opposite them were Ojmarrh Mitchell of Arizona State University (formerly of USF); Robert D. Crutchfield of the University of Washington and Robert J. Sampson of Harvard University. The session was chaired by Francis Cullen from the University of Cincinnati.

Sampson and Unnever had written about race and crime in academic journals for years, each from different theoretical perspectives. “It was probably one of the most diverse and well-attended sessions at the conference,” Unnever recalled.
Among the issues was Unnever’s contention that most criminological research doesn’t consider what it means to be black in a racially stratified society like the United States, and that America is not “color-blind” despite civil rights advances.

The debate concluded with a general acknowledgment by Sampson that, even though the two maintained different interpretations about the effects of racial stratification, they weren’t far apart in their conclusions.

For Unnever, the debate and conference left him with a sense of validation, that his work and arguments calling for a black criminology had withstood scrutiny and now merited greater respect within America’s criminological community.

The debate’s timing was appropriate, coming toward the end of the Unnever’s career and as the Black Lives Matter movement spotlights racism in America’s criminal justice system.

Even before the tragedies of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, George Floyd and other victims, Unnever and a few other researchers highlighted injustices, sifting through arrest and incarceration statistics and asking to what extent race contributed to the high numbers of blacks reflected in the data.

Unnever notes that race has largely remained on the periphery of theoretical criminology, so that when racial disparities are discussed the standard response is to argue that the statistical differences are due to mostly African Americans being exposed to the same risk factors as whites, just more of them.

However, as he points out, that approach doesn’t take into account the unique, racially specific conditions that only blacks experience.

“These conditions are rooted in historical racial oppression from segregated communities and racial socialization by parents to experience with racial discrimination and disproportionate involvement with the criminal justice system,” he says.

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About Sarasota-Manatee Campus Magazine

Momentum is published by USF Research and Innovation and the Office of University Communications and Marketing on the Sarasota-Manatee campus. The University of South Florida, a member of the Association of American Universities, is a high-impact research university with campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee.