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The Color of Crime


Katheryn K. Russell, (New York: University Press, 1988)   $25.00

A Red Feather Review


Postmodern Criminology

A Review by Patrick Mulkerrin
                    Department of Criminal Justice
                    Northeastern Illinois University
                    Chicago, Illinois 60625


     Crime, criminality, and social policy are very diverse
topics.  Equally diverse are the answers one might receive when
one is asked their opinions on these topics.  Race, gender, and
ethnicity are all involved, some more readily observable than
others, here.  Katheryn K. Russell, the author of The Color of
Crime, puts crime, race, gender, and ethnicity under the
microscope to expose the problems that result from the way our
current criminal justice system deals with these issues. 

     In this review, the areas addressed in The color of Crime
will be applied in terms of Lacanian semiotics.  The point of
using Lacanian psychoanalytic semiotics is to further expose
racist ideologies that exist in the legal system, show how
current policies should be changed, and how future policies
should be imposed to ensure fairness and equal protection of the
citizens it governs.

     The Color of Crime, consists of eight chapters.  The first
chapter is entitled "The Color of Crime: External and Internal
Images".  In this chapter, the contradictory images of Blackness
as it is portrayed in the media is addressed, as well as how
Black men interpret the way the public views them, and their own
view of the criminal justice system.  While more African
Americans in the media are portrayed in an acceptable light, age
old stereotypes still persist. 

     Chapter two focuses on a historical measurement of racial
equity in criminal justice.  This chapter explores the history of
race in American criminal law in conjunction with slave codes,
Black codes, and Jim Crow legislation.  The title of chapter
three is "Racial Discrimination or Disproportionate Offending".
This chapter gives an overview of current research on racial
discrimination, outlines criticisms of current research, and
considers whether the most important informal stage- pre-arrest
contact with police- should be subject to official measurement. 

    "Are We Still Talking O.J.?" is the tittle of chapter four,
which deals with the way the public has received the verdict in
that case.  The chapter poses some new issues surrounding the
Simpson case and the aftermath of the verdict.  Also, it explores
the racial divisions that resulted from the verdict and whether
or not the media accurately reported the gap. 

     Chapter five focuses on what Russell call racial hoaxes.  In
this troubling chapter, she explains how in some instances a
White person who has committed a crime may try to use a Black
person as a scapegoat because the criminal justice system finds
Blacks to be more criminally inclined than they do White people.

     Chapter six deals with science, scientific racism, and the
ethical imperative.  Her main point here is that because race and
crime fascinate academics as well as the general public, it is
especially important to provide accurate information on these
issues because unsubstantiated racial hypothesis have the
potential to cause great harm.  Russell explains the factoid that
White crime far surpasses Black crime in numbers and how half
facts distort our understanding of the relationship between race
and crime.

     In the eighth and final chapter, Russell deals with
affirmative race law.  Affirmative Race Law is a term given to
legislation that seeks to address overt and convert racial
subordination and discrimination.  Failing to adopt more
affirmative race law will likely produce an even wider range of
negative consequences in the future.

     With the main concepts addressed in The Color of Crime now
established, the focus here will be to apply Lacanian
psychoanalytic semiotics to a few relevant areas.  To begin one
should take into account the ideology of our current legal
system.  Briefly, an ideology is a belief system or stable set of
ideas.  In reading Russell's book it becomes clear that the
ideology of our current legal system is a racist one. 

     In chapter three, Russell introduces the notion of the
unbreakable cycle.  The unbreakable cycle is a concept in which
racial stereotypes may motivate police to arrest Blacks more
frequently.  What a White person may perceive as good police work
a Black person may see as harassment and racism that dominates
current legal ideologies.  When police, and other law enforcement
agencies, treat Whites as if their rights are worth more than a
Black person, that Black person will likely feel pas toute (left

The fact that arrests are motivated by racial
stereotypes only leads to more arrests.  This, in turn, validates
the ideology that all Blacks are criminally inclined, at least in
the eyes of the law.  For the cycle to be broken, the Black voice
needs to find embodiment in the criminal justice system.  This is
currently next to impossible because linguistically, the system
is based on the phallocentric symbolic order. 

The phallocentricsymbolic order privileges not only the male voice,
but the White male voice.  This leaves no room for a person of non-White
descent to speak within the current linguistic coordinate  system of the criminal justice
system and forgets the non-White female voice completely.  This
belief system strengthens the links in the cycle that deems it
unbreakable.  There is a need here for alternative discourses
that are sensitive to racial diversity that give Black people and
other minority groups a voice (polyvocality) with in the system.

(For a discussion of Lacan and linguistic co-ordinate systems, see Dragan
Dueling Paradigms: Modernist v. Postmodernist Thought )

  Russell also introduces the notion of the "criminalblackman". 

The three words, criminal-black-man, are linked together because
they are seen, especially in the eyes of Whites, as one in the same. 

The news is full of criminal images of Black men. 
While a White criminal is seen as the exception,
the Black criminal is seen as the rule.  Following this logic,
when a White person, for example, sees a Black person they are
never a speaking subject.  Rather they are a spoken subject, one
who is defined by the "criminalblackman" stereotype. 

     Again, this can lead to feelings of pas toute, feeling
incomplete or left out, producing a gap in being that needs to be
sutured so jouissance can be achieved.  To clarify, suturing is
the process of filling gaps in being in order to achieve
jouissance, meaning joy or jubilation, according to Lacan.  The
inability to suture the gap can lead to the individual to become
angry and project this anger outwardly towards others.  In this
case a Black person projecting his/her anger toward White people.

All things considered, it becomes extremely difficult for any
Black person to achieve jouissance in a race/gender biased
symbolic orde

     One of the most interesting topics Russell develops in her
book that can be applied to Lacanian psychoanalytic semiotics is
the notion of micro and macroaggressions.   Microaggression is a
term used to describe racial assaults that are subtle, stunning,
often automatic and non-verbal exchanges by Whites that are put
downs of Blacks.  Macroaggressions are similar to
microaggressions in some respects but differ in that they are
directed not at the individual, but at Blacks in general.  Stated
differently, the term means that Blacks are inferior.

     Microagressions can have interpellative effects that can
produce a circumscribed speaking subject, or a subject who is
narrowly defined.  An example of a microaggression could be a
Black man walking into a courthouse wearing a new suit where a
White person might see him and assume that he is a criminal
defendant.  The White person in this example fails to take into
consideration that the Black man could also be a judge or a

     Microaggressions of this nature can have very negative
interpellative effects.  Interpellation is the process by which
ideology gives the individual the feeling that they are a fully
integrated, coherent, and centered self.  Ideology interpolates
the concrete individual and transforms them into a concrete
subject.  For example, a person is walking down the street when
another person calls out to, or "hails", them by using a racial
slur.  In turning to see who or what is hailing them, the
individual grants reality to the ideology, accepts its fiction,
and becomes subject to it.

     Gaps in being are being created by this interpellation that
become very difficult to suture by any acceptable means.  When
Whites act out these microaggressions against Blacks, the steps
they take to suture those gaps can be very harmful to their self
image.  Here a Black man faces a micro or macroaggression,
because he is unable to suture the gap in his being he becomes
angry and breaks a window.  Where this behavior is observed by
Whites, micro and macroaggressions can be reinforced.  Here,
Blacks are narrowly defined as criminals, illiterates, or
intellectual inferiors.

     All in all, this book is an important one.  This book not
only deals with the more overt aspects of racism, but more
importantly, she examines the more subtle forms of racism that
exist and thrive in the subconscious of many White people. For
example, Black crime is stated as Black crime, where White crime
is masked by terms like rural crime.  The words "White" and
"crime" simply do not fit together in our society, yet the notion
of the "criminalblackman" thrives.  The only criticism of this
book that I have is that Russell could do a little more to
explain and indicate the existence the Lacanian concepts that
exist in her writing.  To an average person, Lacan and Lacanian
concepts can be difficult to understand. 

     Because Lacanian concepts exist in Russell's book, citing
Lacan more could encourage readers to examine his writing.  In
doing so, one might be able to gain greater insight as to the
link between race biased language and law in an otherwise clear,
concise, and informative book.  The Color of Crime is an
invaluable resource for anyone who is concerned with the current
state of affairs regarding racism.  This book can be a source of
reliable information for White people whose perception of the
Black community is derived from the distorted and unsubstantiated
images of Black people in the media.

     To conclude, many of the images the public receives about
the Black community are, at best, distorted.  In a society that
regularly perpetuates Blacks as criminally inclined and
under emphasizes White crime, racial equality in the criminal
justice system will not be easily attained.  More and more, White
people are becoming desensitized to and accepting of racial
inequality.  The most important thing this book does is it makes
a person think critically.  The Color of Crime illustrates the
need for current social policies to be re-evaluated and changed
to better serve the racially diverse public who are subject to