What We Mean by Disproportionality and Disparity

Although the terms disproportionality and disparity often are used interchangeably, there is an important distinction between these two concepts. We have found it useful to distinguish between racial inequities that result from differential crime commission rates and racial inequities that result from practices or policies. In this Report, we use disproportionality to refer to a discrepancy between reference groups' representation in the general population and in criminal justice institutions. In contrast, we use disparity when similarly situated groups of individuals are treated differently within those institutions, or to refer to overrepresentation of particular groups in the criminal justice system that stems from criminal justice practices or policies.

What We Mean by Imprisonment and Incarceration

Imprisonment refers to being held in state prisons. Incarceration refers to being held in state prisons or local jails. Many local jails do not collect and report on ethnicity, i.e., whether someone is Latino or of Hispanic origin.

What We Mean by Rate and Ratio

When discussing incarceration or imprisonment (as well as other aspects of the criminal justice system), we often discuss the rate of incarceration or imprisonment in comparison to a particular population. Thus, the white incarceration rate is measured by taking the number of whites incarcerated, dividing it by the number of whites in the general population, and then multiplying by 100,000 to determine the number of whites incarcerated per 100,000 whites in the general population. To compare black and white incarceration, we take the black incarceration rate and divide it by the white incarceration rate--a ratio that provides a useful measure of comparison.

What We Mean by Race and Ethnicity

An inherent problem with race is that not many understand what race means. Widely accepted understandings of race focus on biology, invariably pointing to physical differences among humans that are used to define, in genetic terms, different racial groups. The distinctions that we employ today to categorize humans, such as black, white, and Latino, date back only a few centuries or less. These labels do not signal genetically separate branches of humankind, for there is only one human race; no other biological race of humanity exists. Racial distinctions are largely social constructs based upon perception and history.

Not only are these distinctions socially constructed, but they are also in constant flux and under perpetual siege by those who dispute the arbitrary lines that they draw. The problem is compounded by the fact that different institutions use the terms differently. This lack of common nomenclature makes some comparisons difficult. When a term like Asian may encompass over two billion individuals, its ability to precisely and accurately describe an individual, much less a group of individuals, becomes challenging. Similar difficulties imperil the classifications of Hispanic and Latino, which are used to describe not only Dominicans whose descendants may be from Africa, but also Argentines whose ancestry may be traced to Italy, and Peruvians whose forefathers may have emigrated from Japan. Additionally, these traditional categories have come under increasing strain because one in seven marriages within the United States is now interracial or interethnic, rendering single labels less accurate.

In this Report, we use race to refer to groups of people loosely bound together by history, ancestry, and socially significant elements of their physical appearance. For instance, when using the term Latina/o--which we will use where possible rather than Hispanic--we mean to describe those individuals whose ancestry is traced back to Latin America, Spain, and Portugal. This definition contemplates race and ethnicity as social phenomena, wherein certain characteristics (i.e., history and morphology) are given meanings by society. In this way, race and ethnicity are not objective observations rooted in biology, but rather self-reinforcing processes rooted in the daily decisions we make as individuals and as institutions. Although socially constructed and enacted, race and ethnicity have important consequences for people's lived experiences.

What We Mean by Structural Racism

A structurally racist system can be understood best as a system in which a society's institutions are embedded with a network of policies and practices that, overtly or subtly, advantage one racial group over another, thereby facilitating racially disparate outcomes. Within such systems, notions and stereotypes about race and ethnicity shape actors' identities, beliefs, attitudes, and value orientations. In turn, individuals interact and behave in ways that reinforce these stereotypes. Thus, even with facially race-neutral policies, implementation decisions are informed by actors' understandings (or lack thereof) about race and ethnicity, often leading to disparities in treatment of people of color. As a consequence, structural racism produces cumulative and persistent racial and ethnic inequalities.

Racism should not be viewed as an ideology or an orientation toward a certain group but instead as a system: [A]fter a society becomes racialized, racialization develops a life of its own. Although it interacts with class and gender structurations in the social system, it becomes an organizing principle of social relations The persistent inequality experienced by blacks and other people of color in America is, in part, the result of this racial structure. The contemporary racial structure is distinct from that of the past in that it is covert, is embedded within the regular practices of institutions, does not rely on a racial vocabulary, and is invisible to most whites.