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Historical Book Review | The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study

Published onApr 01, 2013
Historical Book Review | The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study

W. E. B. DuBois. The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1899/1996; 520 pp.; ISBN: 9780812215731.

Criminology’s Forgotten Genesis?

Crime is a phenomenon of organized social life, and is the open rebellion of an individual against his social environment. Naturally then, if men are suddenly transported from one environment to another, the result is lack of harmony with the new conditions; lack of harmony with the new physical surroundings leading to disease and death or modification of physique; lack of harmony with social surroundings leading to crime. (DuBois, p. 235)

Seeking to understand criminological thought at the undergraduate, masters, and doctoral levels, the discipline’s paradigmatic indoctrination excluded this citation at the ideological behest of the commonly espoused foundational theorists: Cesare Beccaria with his seminal work On Crimes and Punishment, along with Jeremy Bentham and his notion of the panoptican. Arguably, the most dominant paradigm since the early 1900s, has remained contextualized by sociological explanations of crime with the works of the Chicago School of Sociology in the early part of the 20th century including Robert E. Parks and Ernest Burgess and their concentric zone research. Later, it was the work of Henry McKay and Clifford R. Shaw and their interest in the delinquent class created by the rise in urbanization that ushered in the idea of crime being the result of social-ecological realities, which increased the likelihood of the socio-structural dismantling of the traditionally held buffers. Edwin Sutherland introduced the notion that crime resulted from learned behavior and was contingent upon their degree and extent of socialization. Since those days, most theories have been derivatives of the work put forth by the Chicago School of Sociology and the belief that this school spearheaded the contemporary criminological movement.

Interestingly, prior to the work put forth by those most often credited as the foundation of criminological thought, there lies a work yet to receive due credit: The Philadelphia Negro (1899). Never mentioned in any of my criminology courses, I was introduced to this text by an African American Studies professor I was working with on a research project. To my surprise, DuBois’s work was a classic piece devoted to examining the impact of urbanization on Philadelphia’s Black community. As a first of its kind to use what was considered sound methodological rigor in that day, The Philadelphia Negro is a seminal exploration that put forth theoretical explanation, which have remained outside the purview of the traditional criminological paradigm and our somewhat blind devotion to the Chicago School of Sociology.

Arguably, the first American criminologist, DuBois compiled  crime  rates for African Americans living in Philadelphia, all the while, examining the gender, age, race, and ethnic differentials in The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study. DuBois’ research demonstrated that Black crime was (1) a result of poverty and (2) an unintended consequence of slavery, mass migration North, and institutionalized racism. He concluded that any examination of crime within the Black community that did not control for these factors would lead to gross under-examinations of the most significant contributors of crime.

Years before the findings of the Chicago School and their theory of social disorganization, DuBois noted in The Philadelphia Negro that crime resulted from a “lack of harmony with social surroundings” (p.235). Primarily, this work can be seen as a rebuttal to the governing ideology of that day, which held that crime was a result of the interaction between biological predispositions and the socio-economic environment in which minorities reside in conflict with the dominant White majority. DuBois’ research  demonstrated that African Americans were at a greater likelihood of being processed through the criminal justice system. He found racial disproportionalities in terms of police focus, arrest, crime types, prison population, and length of sentence. For example, despite only representing less than one-fourteenth the population, Black Philadelphians were responsible for at least one-third of all serious crime in the city. This realization would later be referred to by many researchers as a racial disproportionality. In attempting to explain the deeper social and individual explanations of the Black criminal element, DuBois noted that the criminal justice system had been used as a litmus test of their behavior, of which he noted:

The immense influence of the peculiar environment on the black Philadelphian; the influence of homes badly situated and badly managed, with parents untrained for their responsibilities; the influence of social surroundings which by poor laws and inefficient administration leave the bad to be made worse; the influence of economic exclusion which admits negroes only to those parts of the economic world where it is hardest to retain ambition and self-respect; and finally that indefinable but real and mighty moral influence that causes men to have a real sense of manhood or leads them to lose aspiration and self-respect. (DuBois, p. 285)

Despite its contributions, The Philadelphia Negro is not without due criticism, primarily a result of hindsight. If judged by today’s standards and consistent with most social science research of that period, The Philadelphia Negro falls victim to non-validated survey instruments and ambiguous sampling frames. Often times, the text refers to participants in a manner which would be considered unethical in contemporary times (i.e., ignorant). Despite such criticism, coupled with the social order of the day, it is no surprise that The Philadelphia Negro remains outside the purview of traditional criminological thought. A seminal criminological piece, this text was a bold rebuttal to the prevailing criminological geneticists and those who refused to recognize the significance of the African American socio-political reality and its influence on criminal activity.

In summary, The Philadelphia Negro’s findings remain ever more pertinent in 2013, some 114 years after its initial publication. Coincidentally, in 2000, the National Institute of Justice created a DuBois fellowship program that seeks to provide an opportunity for junior faculty to research racial/ethnic disproportionalities in criminal justice. Unfortunately, this level of criminological recognition has yet to be reciprocated within mainstream criminology.


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