Professor addresses the importance of teaching race, ethnicity and crime

November 23, 2020

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. – A seasoned professor and internationally known researcher, Shaun Gabbidon has been teaching about race, ethnicity, and crime for more than two decades. And though many of the basic principles have stayed the same, according to Gabbidon, the importance of teaching these topics has never been greater, especially for students studying criminal justice.

“Without any context, the natural inclination for some students is to believe that certain racial/ethnic groups are more inherently criminal than other groups,” he said. “This is particularly problematic for future criminal justice professionals headed into the field. You want to provide students the evidence to help dispel myths.” 

Gabbidon is a distinguished professor of criminal justice in Penn State Harrisburg’s School of Public Affairs and a nationally known criminologist whose research expertise covers race and crime; public opinion on race, crime, and justice; security administration; and criminology and criminal justice pedagogy. He is a teacher at heart, continuing to offer guidance on the complexity of teaching topics of race, ethnicity, and crime to different audiences. Notably, this past summer he was invited by SAGE Publications to conduct a webinar devoted to teaching a course on race, ethnicity, and crime. The webinar attracted more than 250 participants from across the country.

With current events shaping how the nation thinks about and discusses race, ethnicity and crime, Gabbidon says that how and what we are teaching students matters more now than ever. “Sadly, the same issues are still of concern – material I taught 25 years ago remains relevant,” he added. “The more society talks about these issues; I am hopeful that students understand the significance of learning about these topics.

Gabbidon stresses the importance of discussing with students’ what race is. “It is a social construct,” he said. “When we simply just talk about race, we have to make people understand that there is a diversity within these socially constructed racial categories. A Black person can have multiple different backgrounds.”

Using himself as an example, Gabbidon seeks to dispel the “myth of the racial monolith.” He was born in Wolverhampton, England to Jamaican parents, and raised in the U.S. in Brooklyn, New York and Baldwin, Long Island. 

Gabbidon also said that changes in the demographic makeup of students in a course alter how it is taught because students relate to issues differently. This has been proven in his own experiences teaching at a historically Black institution; Penn State Harrisburg, a predominantly white public university; and a predominantly white Ivy League institution.

“I started my career teaching at a historically Black college in one of the toughest parts of Baltimore where the residents and students were mostly Black,” he said. They were very animated in the course, largely because many of them or their family members had negative encounters with the criminal justice system. Despite these negative encounters, it was inspiring that so many of them wanted to enter careers in the system in the hope of being part of positive change -- The same reason I became a criminologist. It is more difficult to explain the material in places where few of the students have experienced or seen racial injustices up close.”

Gabbidon uses the socio-historical approach to teaching about race, ethnicity and crime that engages all sides of the issues because, he said, “students, like most American citizens, are woefully ill-informed of the topic.  Most students, for example, believe Blacks commit much of the serious crime in the United States.”

He added that the general public feels the same way. “A recent study found that the majority of whites, Blacks, and Hispanics felt that Blacks are arrested for the largest proportion of serious crime in the United States.” He said this belief is the starting point of the discussion. “Why is this the perception; why do you think what you think? We really have some initial heart-to-heart discussions on the issue,” he said.

Gabbidon

In his classroom, Gabbidon employs thought-provoking readings, honest discussion about racial disparities and racial discrimination, and teaching both sides of the debate. 

IMAGE: Penn State Harrisburg

Teaching resources that now include more diversity also help to dispel such misperceptions, according to Gabbidon.  “In the past, most materials focused heavily on comparisons of crime among Blacks to whites. Today, the books cover all racial/ethnic groups,” he said, “as it should be when we are studying race, ethnicity, and crime. Also, since whites commit most of the crime in the United States, their criminality is now being more prominently featured and unlike in the past, there are an abundance of books, texts, and research articles on the topic.” 

In his classroom, Gabbidon employs thought-provoking readings, honest discussion about racial disparities and racial discrimination, and teaching both sides of the debate. He also avoids solely discussing inner-city crime. “[The inner city] is not where all crime takes place. If we focus our efforts there, we do a disservice and students who come in with stereotypes are going to leave with stereotypes,” he said. He adds discussions on suburban crime, as well as school shootings, mass shootings, and Affluenza.

Teaching the international perspective

The May 2020 death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, while being arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit bill, prompted massive protests in the United States and around the world. In his teaching, Gabbidon emphasizes the international impact of race, ethnicity, and justice issues.

 “Sometimes we have tended to be American centered in our teaching of race, ethnicity and justice issues. I have tried to look at different countries, and we find a lot of the same things going on. Students are initially amazed at that, but now we see the protests in other countries are not just as a show of solidarity, but a realization that these issues are affecting other societies. It just so happens that other countries look to us [America] for direction. It is important for us to also look at what they are going through at times.”

Challenges and rewards

Gabbidon said that when he began teaching race, ethnicity, and crime, he thought it would be fun. What he quickly discovered among some elements of fun were several challenges, including the impact of demographics of both instructor and students -- age, race, gender. “When I talk to my Black woman colleagues teaching this course, there is a different tenor to the interactions they have with students,” he said. “There are presumptions about you based on stereotypes.” Other challenges include the social climate of the institution, as well as understanding the institution’s geographical location in the U.S. “There is not just one criminal justice system. There are 18,000 different policing agencies in the U.S. at the federal, state, and local levels. If you are teaching in a particular state, you should know what is going on in that state.”

Gabbidon reiterated that despite the challenges, teaching these topics comes with many rewards, including the emphasis placed on taking these courses as part of a student’s journey through the criminal justice program at Penn State Harrisburg. “The field increasingly has more programs requiring a course on race/ethnicity and crime. Our program has required this course as a Senior Seminar for more than 20 years. I am proud that we not only require a course on the topic but have a program-wide emphasis on issues pertaining to race, class, gender, and crime.”

Gabbidon’s goal is to have students come away with a deeper understanding of America’s history of racial injustice related to crime and justice. “I know that I have done my part to try to change the system by educating students on the historical injustices and the possibilities for change starting with each of them,” he said. “The United States has a history of racial injustices related to crime and justice. Despite this, there have been incremental improvements that can only continue with the infusion of well-informed and open-minded criminal justice professionals--our graduates.”

Last Updated April 15, 2021