The Legacy of Slavery and Contemporary Racial Disparities in Arrest Rates

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Social Science and Global Studies


Scholars seeking to understand the consequences of historical regimes of violence and social control frequently turn their attention to lynching and its legacy. More recently, however, a small but growing body of scholarship across the social sciences has expanded the scope of this work by additionally focusing on slavery and, most notably, its enduring negative consequences for African-Americans in the U.S. South. Despite providing a more robust understanding of slavery’s effects across numerous spheres, slavery’s legacy of social control—in particular, its link to modern law enforcement—remains a frontier in need of further investigation. Moreover, a central theoretical weakness of this historical racial violence and social control literature has been the absence of attention given to the mechanisms that are a part of slavery’s legacy. This article addresses these issues by using quantitative techniques to examine the relationship between prior slave dependence and contemporary Black-White disparities in arrest rates. In Southern counties where slave dependence was greater in the past, today there exists greater disparities in the Black-White arrest rate for drug and violent crime related offenses. While slavery exerts direct effects, its legacy also persists indirectly by shaping population distributions and local levels of interracial threat and structural disadvantages facing minority communities. This article establishes empirically the extent to which dehumanizing institutions like slavery continue to blight state-run social control apparatuses in the South—notably law enforcement—and develops theoretical explanations of the mechanisms that are a part of slavery’s legacy.

Publication Title

Sociology of Race and Ethnicity

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