Emily Gollub


There is an extensive history of racial disparity in the criminal justice system that has influenced the issue of racial bias in policing which continues to be a prominent issue even up to this day. The Sentencing Project (2008) explains that racial disparity “exists when the proportion of a racial or ethnic group within the control of the system is greater than the proportion of such groups in the general population” (1). It is important to note that there is a difference between the modern use of “disparity” and the historic subjugation and control. Back in the 1600s to the 1900s, Black people were put under control by laws whereas today, they suffer an unjust disparity. Starting with slavery in the 1600s to Jim Crow laws in the 1800s to disproportionately targeting minority communities in today’s policing, it is evident that there is a long and ongoing issue of racial disparity. This racial disparity is so prevalent that several scholars have asserted that “the whole criminal justice system has historically been used to maintain racial hierarchies” (Soto, 2018, 2; Alexander, 2010). To better understand why systemic racial injustice occurs it would be beneficial to draw upon the ethnic competition theory.

The ethnic competition theory is helpful for understanding why systemic racial injustice occurs because it provides an explanation for intergroup conflict. Cunningham (2012) explains that the “ethnic competition theory builds on Barth’s (1969) emphasis on the socially constructed boundaries through which ethnic groups ascribe difference” (3). Cunningham (2012) goes on to share, “Competition, stemming from overlap in the economic or political activities of multiple 5 ethnic groups, becomes a key mechanism through which particular boundaries are reinforced. This enhanced salience of ethnic divisions, in turn, can contribute to the emergence of ethnic conflict” (3). Keeping the framework of the ethnic competition theory in mind will help make sense of the history that will be discussed in this paper. Davenport, Soule and Armstrong II (2011) explains that it is valuable to understand the historical context of racial disparity in the criminal justice system to see how history has shaped today’s policing practices. The purpose of this paper is to outline the history of racial disparity in the criminal justice system and how it has influenced today’s policing practices.

Publication Date


Document Type

Master's Project

Student Type


Degree Name

Criminal Justice (MS)

Department, Program, or Center

Department of Criminal Justice (CLA)


Jason Scott


RIT – Main Campus