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Accounting for Racial Disparities in the Nature of Violent Victimization

Abstract

Objectives

Prior research suggests racial differences in violent victimization reflect differences in severity and not frequency. The current study proposes and tests hypotheses regarding the sources of racial variation in the nature of violent victimization.

Methods

A person-incident data file is employed to examine theoretical mechanisms that purportedly explain the effects of race on the nature of violent victimization. Data are analyzed with multinomial logistic regression models. Mediation processes are examined using a decomposition model that simultaneously adjusts for parameter rescaling and confounding.

Results

Descriptive statistics reveal larger proportions of black males compared to whites experience gun violence, yet higher percentages of white males suffer unarmed violence. Differential exposure variables explain a larger quantity of racial differences in the likelihood of gun versus unarmed violence compared to behavioral attributes variables. Still, race remains a robust predictor of firearm victimization controlling for the full array of study variables.

Conclusions

It appears that black males are more likely than whites to suffer serious forms of violence and not minor forms due more to their exposure to risky settings than to their behavioral characteristics. Nonetheless, there is some evidence that stereotypes also partially account for the higher rates of gun victimization among black males. This study advances research on race and interpersonal violence. Moreover, the study demonstrates the importance of specifying the proper dependent variable when testing theories of interpersonal violence and victimization.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    For the present purposes severity refers to violent victimization involving weapons of increasing lethality.

  2. 2.

    The NCVS defines simple assault as “attacks without a weapon” whereas aggravated assaults are defined as “attacks or attempted attack with a weapon and attacks involving injury without weapons” (BJS 2008, Methodology Appendix).

  3. 3.

    Multivariate research on the NCVS also finds that blacks are no more likely and, in certain model specifications, less likely than whites to be victims of violence (Lauritsen 2001); furthermore, studies conducted on community-based datasets also find no evidence of racial differences in victimization risk (see, Taylor et al. 2008). However, it is important to clarify the fact that existing research typically does not specify a dependent variable that distinguishes severity (i.e., weapon use, or type of weapon displayed); the DVs are composites of violent incidents that vary from rather minor to more severe in nature, although there are exceptions. For example, Schreck et al. (2007) observed that black adolescents are more likely to be victims of violence net of control measures; three of the four items in their dependent variable capture relatively severe types of incidents (e.g., pulled a knife or gun, shot at you, cut or stabbed); this finding likely reflects racial differences in victimization severity.

  4. 4.

    Note that Baumer et al. (2003) observed victim race effects in a gun vs. no weapon contrast model but only in robbery incidents.

  5. 5.

    Social psychological theories of violence acknowledge that tactical decisions regarding weaponry can either be planned before the encounter unfolds or made quickly in the spur of the moment; but irrespective of any time-duration, decisions about whether or not to use a weapon are affected by the adversary’s characteristics (Patchen 1993).

  6. 6.

    Providing some empirical basis for this assumption, studies of self-report data reveal that black males commit higher rates of serious violence compared to white males, which may be manifested in the situational or reputational component of the behavioral attributes hypothesis (Elliott and Ageton 1990; Farrington, Loeber and Stouthamer-Loeber 2003; Felson et al. 2008).

  7. 7.

    I know of no explicit statement from the routine activities/lifestyles theoretical framework on which to make predictions about racial differences in the nature of victimization. Perhaps the notion of target attractiveness is of some use because it refers to the “perceived inertia of a target against ill-treatment” (Cohen et al. 1981:508). Yet, even this assumption is of questionable utility to address this issue; indeed, Cohen et al. (1981) assert that they know of “no basis” to argue that race has a net relationship with target attractiveness (p. 512).

  8. 8.

    Prior research has found no evidence of selective attrition in the PYS with regard to several key demographic and behavioral variables. (Loeber et al. 2008).

  9. 9.

    Owing to administrative reasons a victimization assessment was not administered to members of the oldest cohort during the eleventh follow-up period.

  10. 10.

    I conducted additional analyses to determine if there are racial differences in the number of incidents reported on the survey and thus differences in incident recall. If respondents selectively recalled some incidents it would likely be those victims who report at least three incidents per wave; it is these victims who are bound by a cap on the number of possible incidents to recall and perhaps would select the most serious to report. I did not observe significant race differences in the number of three-incident victims based on a tubular comparison of the demographic characteristics of the “three incident” versus “non-three incident” victims.

  11. 11.

    Approximately 2.7 % of the sample reported missing data on the hyperactivity measure. I applied the sample mean values to the missing cases as part of an imputation procedure; the multinomial models were virtually the same based on the imputed and non-imputed measures.

  12. 12.

    Since respondents can only report the most serious incident for robbery and assault the maximum number of weapon incidents reported in a wave is two.

  13. 13.

    I conducted a supplementary analysis that included only percent black as a measure of neighborhood demographic composition; this measure yielded very similar results to the results reported with the disadvantage variable.

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Correspondence to Mark T. Berg.

Appendix

Appendix

See Table 5.

Table 5 Description and classification of theoretical variables

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Berg, M.T. Accounting for Racial Disparities in the Nature of Violent Victimization. J Quant Criminol 30, 629–650 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-014-9217-6

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Keywords

  • Violence
  • Criminological theory
  • Race
  • Violent victimization