The controversial issue of race and crime

by | Aug 16, 2017 | Opinion

By Alex R. Piquero

Professor of criminology and associate dean for graduate programs at UTD

This is not a column that is against Michael Vick’s participation in the Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship with the Kansas City Chiefs. Nor is it a column that supports Vick’s participation as a coaching intern under coach Andy Reid.

Instead, I’m writing about the complicated story underlying Vick’s crimes, his criminal justice punishment, his reinstatement into the NFL and his future as a citizen — whether that includes coaching high school, college or professional athletes, or working at Starbucks, selling life insurance or handling bags for a large airline.

There is no need to rehash Vick’s atrocious participation in animal cruelty. He served over a year and a half at a federal penitentiary followed by a three-year probation sentence. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell conditionally reinstated Vick, and he signed and played with the Eagles from 2009 to 2012 under Reid, then another year after Reid’s departure.

As a criminologist, I have long been interested in the very controversial issue of race and crime. I love the game of football, and I also happen to love dogs. I put those interests into a study published in Social Science Quarterly that I conducted with several colleagues in which we sought to examine attitudes toward Vick’s criminal justice punishment and his subsequent reinstatement.

During the fall of 2009, we collected data via a random-digit dial sample of 420 adults and asked them two straightforward questions: Did participants think “Michael Vick’s criminal punishment of serving 18 months in prison for running a dogfighting ring for years” was “too harsh,” “too soft” or “just right”? And did they “agree with the NFL commissioner’s decision to allow Vick to return to the NFL”? Response options were “disagree” and “agree.”

Initially, we found that only 12 percent of respondents thought his punishment was “too harsh,” with the remainder evenly split between “too soft” or “just right.” Respondents were also slightly more likely to agree with Goodell’s reinstatement decision. Yet when we considered whether there were race differences with respect to these responses, we were struck by the findings.

We found that 31 percent of non-whites thought the punishment was “too harsh,” but only 9 percent of whites felt the same way.

When it came to Vick’s return to the NFL, 71 percent of non-whites agreed with Vick’s reinstatement, compared to 53 percent of whites.

These findings say a lot about attitudes toward punishment, and they say even more about attitudes toward re-entry and the ability to earn a living. And echoing a lot of what we see today about people’s experiences with the criminal justice system more generally, it showcases the important divides in how people perceive the system punishing offenders and subsequently reintegrating them back into society.

Were those attitudes about Vick driven by race? Or were they driven by the image of dogs abused and slaughtered? Or were they driven by something else? That is hard to discern in a survey, of course, but it does raise a host of many interesting questions.

There is a memorable scene in Disney’s “The Lion King,” in which Rafiki tells Simba, “Oh yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.” Vick will never escape his past, one that he has acknowledged, served his sentence for, and returned to society by becoming involved in many ways to educate both the public and himself about his incomprehensible behavior.

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