In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Racial Threat Hypothesis

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Macro-Level Studies of Racial Threat
  • Micro-Level Studies of Racial Threat
  • Other State-Based Social Control
  • Informal Social Control
  • Punitive Attitudes and Fear of Crime
  • Conceptual and Methodological Issues
  • Extending Racial Threat to Ethnic Threat and Immigrant Threat

Criminology Racial Threat Hypothesis
Xia Wang, Natalie Todak
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0204


Situated within the conflict perspective, the racial threat hypothesis argues that members of the majority group—in this case, whites—perceive the relative size of and increases in the black population as threatening and in turn take actions to reduce this perceived threat. This hypothesis has been extended to other threatening minority populations, such as ethnic minorities and immigrant populations. Most research assessing the racial threat hypothesis has specifically examined blacks as a perceived threat. In particular, much research in the field of criminology and criminal justice has tested the effect of racial threat on criminal justice outcomes. Since the outset, research in this area has typically employed a “proxy” measure of racial threat, such as the percentage of the population in a given area that is black. In recent years, the measure of racial threat has been expanded to include perceptual measures of threat, by asking individuals, for example, to report their level of agreement with statements that describe blacks as threats to public order and safety. This hypothesis has also provided useful insights into the ways in which other formal measures of social control (e.g., the welfare system) and informal social control (e.g., hate crimes and racialized violence) are used to minimize racial threat. The purpose of the present work is to direct readers to key sources for further exploration, critique, and advancement of the racial threat hypothesis and its extensions.

General Overviews

The racial threat hypothesis originated in Blalock 1967, which argued as the relative size of racial and ethnic minority group increases, members of the majority group perceive a growing threat. Blalock 1967 contends that this perceived threat can take on two different forms. The first is economic threat. That is, as increased numbers of blacks compete for jobs, housing, and other economic resources, whites increasingly feel their economic well-being and dominance are threatened. The second is political threat which occurs as blacks enhance their political power, causing whites to feel their political hegemony is threatened. Researchers have since extended Blalock’s original propositions to include criminal threat—that is, a larger black population fosters fear of crime. In response to any form of minority threat, it is hypothesized that whites will demand intensified social control to maintain dominant standing. In addition, Blalock maintained that the relationship between racial threat and social control would be nonlinear, and the nature of the nonlinear relationship is different in contexts of political versus economic threat. In particular, under conditions of economic threat, efforts geared toward maintaining economic dominance will increase with a decelerating rate. Under conditions of political threat, however, controls aimed at maintaining political power will increase with an accelerating rate. Finally, Blalock contended that racial segregation may operate as an effective way to reduce racial threat and a particular form of control imposed on minorities. The logic of Blalock’s racial threat arguments has been extended by other scholars. For example, Horowitz 1985 suggests in contexts where the black population outnumbers or reaches equivalence with the white population, use of social control against blacks should be more difficult because blacks are able to mobilize resources and political power. Liska 1992 provides an important theoretical integration of key studies testing the racial threat hypothesis.

  • Blalock, H. M. 1967. Toward a theory of minority-group relations. New York: Wiley.

    A must-read for those interested in the racial threat hypothesis. In this book, Blalock presented general theoretical propositions in the field of minority-group relations, and he focused primarily on competition, status, and economic factors that relate to discrimination.

  • Horowitz, D. L. 1985. Ethnic groups in conflict. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

    A book that modifies and extends Blalock’s racial threat hypothesis to explain ethnic conflict. Horowitz argues that membership in an ethnic group satisfies an inherent psychological need to belong, and ethnic conflict may occur when this need is threatened by another group or by someone within the group.

  • Liska, A. E. 1992. Social threat and social control. Albany, NY: SUNY.

    An edited volume that contains several insightful chapters testing the effects of racial threat on various measures of social control. A must-read for those interested in theoretical applications of the racial threat hypothesis.

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