Introduction: The Laws of Race, Ethnicity and Law

Mathieu Deflem

This is a copy of the introduction to Race, Ethnicity and Law, edited by Mathieu Deflem. Bingley, UK: Emerald, 2016.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2017. "Introduction: The Laws of Race, Ethnicity and Law." In Race, Ethnicity and Law, edited by Mathieu Deflem. Bingley, UK: Emerald.

Even in the most recent era of our modern world, which has on more than one occasion been idealistically described as post-racial or multi-cultural, it is clear that race and ethnicity remain important markers of our daily lives and, additionally, provide a critical demarcation upon which both structural possibilities as well as inequities are built. It is all the more remarkable that racial and ethnic injustices continue to exist precisely in the area of law, the regulatory environment which we all too routinely associate with fairness, equality, and justice. One of the central sociological ironies of law, in other words, is and remains that equality before the law exists primarily as a construct of law itself, while law is unable to always provide for such equality as an accomplished sociologically observable reality, least of all in terms of race and ethnicity. Simply put, equality before the law does not accurately describe the actual workings of law (Black, 2010), least of all for underrepresented and historically oppressed groups.

The racial and ethnic dimensions of law, whereby law can be broadly understood to refer to the rules and practices associated with formally proclaimed norms in a variety of jurisdictions (Deflem, 2008), manifest themselves in many different ways, which should and can not be described a priori, but which, instead, should follow as the informed conclusions from meticulous, theoretically informed empirical research. Subjective opinions and speculations neither serve normative nor social-scientific objectives. Moreover, while the study of law has made important gains in terms of recognizing the structures and processes of the racial and ethnic inequities at work in law, not least of all because of an increasing diversification of law itself, more work needs to be done. Contemporary social realities of law in matters of race and ethnicity are likewise such that our academic efforts in this area remain urgently needed.

This book seeks to offer a broad and indeed diverse overview and discussion of a variety of issues of race and ethnicity in multiple areas of law. The fifteen chapters in this volume are divided over three parts. In Part I, issues of law in the context of the experience of African-American lives in the United States are tackled head on. It is wholly unnecessary to argue for the continued relevance of law in terms of the black experience in the United States. But a careful analysis of these conditions remains more than necessary. In the first chapter, Marvin Free offers an examination of racial as well as gender disparities in wrongful conviction rates. Free finds that witness error is a critical variable in explaining why African Americans are overrepresented in wrongful convictions. Next, Xuan Santos and Christopher Bickel analyze the racial implications of gang injunctions and argue that these injunctions operate in ways similar to slave codes. Sherrise Truesdale-Moore likewise argues that the days of slavery are an essential part of American history (not merely its past) that remain with consequences until this day by showing that trans-generational adaptations continue to affect the assessment and counseling of African American offenders. In the following chapter, James Burnett and co-authors Alvin and Eryn Killough offer a fascinating inside story by proving an auto-ethnographic heuristic perspective of the possibilities and strains associated with prisoner re-entry, especially from the viewpoint of black life. Kaimipono David Wenger discusses central dynamics of law for African Americans by reviewing the claims made for reparations from a legal point of view.

Part II of this volume addresses a variety of disparities of a racial or ethnic nature that affect sentencing and punishment. Sociologist Celesta Albonetti offers a review of various theories of race/ethnicity variations in sentencing outcomes and suggests overlapping mechanisms to account for observed disparities. Next, Lori Ellis examines the effects of defendants’ race and sex on judicial decision-making in felony drug cases to find that black male defendants tend to be less likely to receive lesser charges. Chenelle Jones and Renita Seabrook engage in an intersectional examination to show that race, class, and gender interact to negatively influence black women’s options for maternity under conditions of mass incarceration. In the following chapter, Meggan Lee and Nick Rochin add to the literature on the disparate effects of sentencing for drug crimes by focusing on the problematic disparities for blacks with respect to the effects of drug offenses. Gennifer Furst broadens our understanding of race and punishment by examining multi-racial incarcerated males who, remarkably, manage to maintain their identity despite being ascribed a mono-racial label.

In Part III, finally, attention goes to a variety of systems and mechanisms of racial and ethnic inequality in a number of areas of law. Nicholas Chagnon relies of feminist perspectives concerning rape culture to formulate a concept of racialized victim blaming as a construct of state-legitimated violence. Amada Armenta and Irene Vega turn to the reality Latino immigrants face in being confronted with a combined system of criminal and immigration law, resulting in a so-called crimmigration with important implications for assimilation. Next, Brian Smith argues that the juvenile justice system in the United States in important respects violates basic tenets of Western conceptions of justice. Again demonstrating important inequities, Jeanette Covington finds that whites and blacks in the United States experience different punitive realities in terms of drug offenses on the basis of race, with blacks facing more intense punishment. Finally, Michael Leiber and Maude Beaudry-Cyr apply logistic regression analysis to find that intersections of race, gender, and prior violations have a problematic effect on decision-making in juvenile justice. Taking the chapters in this book as a whole, it is clear that race and ethnicity continue to matter greatly in many areas of law. The research presented here, it is hoped, can collectively contribute to examine and understand the laws of the behavior of law with respect to race and ethnicity.


Black, Donald. (2010). How law behaves: An interview with Donald Black. International Journal of Law Crime and Justice, 38(1), 37-47.

Deflem, M. (2008). Sociology of law: Visions of a scholarly tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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