Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Annual Roger Hood Lecture: The Pains of Racism in Criminal Justice and Criminology

Race and Sentencing: Professor Roger Hood’s Legacy

Professor Phillips remarked on Professor Hood’s generosity and commended him for his work that advocated for the abolition of capital punishment. She also reflected on his valuable contribution to the subfield of race, crime, and criminalisation, drawing upon his landmark study on race and sentencing. In this study, Professor Hood analysed the decision to imprison. He found that 25% of sentencing outcomes could not be explained by legally relevant factors, identifying race as a predictor of adverse sentencing outcomes. By accounting for many variables to understand the key elements of sentencing decision making and the degree to which they accorded with legally relevant variables, Professor Hood achieved positivist certainty. Professor Phillips argued that such precision eliminated many of the methodological weaknesses of existing research, allowing Professor Hood to show that court decision-making was influenced by the social language of race.


Time to read

4 Minutes

Beyond positivist regression

Whilst commending Professor Hood for foregrounding the independent effect of race within criminal justice outcomes, Professor Phillips shared Jock Young’s suspicion of quantitative criminology. Arguing that such methods divorce human behaviours from their politicised context, she suggested that criminologists should not seek a single positivist answer - particularly in the context of race. Professor Phillips argued that this approach assumes racism operates in a singular form that can only be definitively identified using statistical techniques. She contended that this positivist neutralisation fails to consider the complex and often subtle manifestations of race within crime and crime control.

Revisiting Hood’s study reminded Professor Phillips of many unanswered questions such as why ethnic minority defendants are less likely to enter a guilty plea and whether racism is implicated in offence choices. To answer such questions, she argued that we ought to go beyond a positivist lens of quantification when interrogating the implications of race. The epistemological assumption that racism can only be pinned down by sophisticated statistical techniques fails to consider the structural and historically specific context of racialised processes and the social relations informing them. Thus, Professor Phillips suggested that Criminology could be complicit in bias-laundering routines as it often relies upon faulty binaries of legal and extra-legal factors and objective certainty.

Beyond disproportionality

Continuing this process of disciplinary reflexivity, Professor Phillips critiqued the intellectual focus on statistical overrepresentation when searching for race in Criminology. She argued that simply providing numerical evidence of racial disproportionality shows a reluctance to name racism as something intrinsic to the Criminal Justice System (CJS) and fails to examine the different dimensions and levels of interaction and intersection within and beyond the CJS.

For Professor Phillips, contending with race only at the margins – for example, by eliding race and class to explain racial disproportionality - is evidence of criminology ‘turning away’ from race and fails to explain why racial disparities still exist when other factors such as socioeconomic background are controlled for.

Explaining race, crime, and criminal justice

To build on Professor Hood’s work and explain the relationship between race, crime, and criminalisation in the twenty-first century, Professor Phillips stressed that we must explore the mechanisms and interactive process through which race and racism are reproduced at the micro, meso and macro level.


Professor Phillips argued that it is imperative to examine the micro-dimensions of race, both within and outside of criminal justice settings. She deemed it important to focus on race in a phenomenological sense, looking at lived subjective experiences to understand the impact of race on interpersonal interactions.

Race at the level of affect and emotion

Focusing on the social language of the skin and how it operates in initiate interpersonal settings, Professor Phillips highlighted the skins’ ability to provoke emotions – particularly those associated with fear. Drawing on her research to demonstrate this, she presented a quote from a black Probation Officer who had been misidentified as a defendant and a black man who described how white and Asian people would grip their bags tightly in his presence. According to Professor Phillips, such micro analysis points to invisible traces of race and how people possess egalitarian ideals alongside anti-black emotions of fear, distrust, and hostility.


At the meso level, Professor Phillips shifted her focus towards institutional processes, policies, and practices. She drew attention to the role of political and media discourse in shaping racialised processes, the institutional settings in which race research is produced, and the way race operates at the level of culture. She attributed great value to this middle-range theorising of race, suggesting that without it we limit our understanding of race and racism to a structure-agency binary.

Race at the level of epistemology

Considering how the academic institution shapes the epistemological outcomes of criminological research, Professor Phillips argued that universities have been complicit in preserving racial hierarchies by neglecting the impact of colonialism and seldom paying attention to societies outside the West. She then discussed the resistance from student campaigns such as ‘decolonise the curriculum’ and Southern Criminologists who challenge the disciplines geopolitical hierarchy. Professor Phillips saw this as a positive shift that forces us to reflect on the nature of criminological knowledge production.

Race at the level of positionality

Considering race at the level of positionality, Professor Phillips discussed some of the challenges faced by ethnic minority academics. She described the difficult experience of hearing articulations of racial injustice and how this pain is aggravated by processes of ‘gaslighting’ and dismissal of racial injustice as anecdotal bias. Presenting an additional strain, she argued that the disciplinary focus on objectivity means that race research is often considered ‘emotional’ and therefore intellectually inferior. With few scholars doing race research, ethnic minority academics also experience the frustration of encountering new research outputs that pathologise non-white populations or fail to acknowledge race entirely.

Race at the level of culture

When searching for racism, Professor Phillips argued that we ought to acknowledge the cultural domination of whiteness, asking whose culture constitutes the structures that inform our lives and racialised experiences. However, she also proposed that analysing race at the level of internal culture has epistemological value. She suggested that doing so will allow us to explore the role of individual culture in responses and adaptations to racism. For Professor Phillips, this middle-range theorising resists the structural determinism that suggests minority groups are propelled towards criminality by economic and political forces alone.

Race at the level of institutional policy and practice

Professor Phillips highlighted the importance of considering the racial implications of institutional policy and practices. She gave the example of the non-criminal cultural artefacts and racialised signifiers that are used to construct guilt in ‘joint enterprise’ trials - perhaps an example of how the cultural domination of whiteness might manifest into discriminatory practices. According to Professor Phillips, meso level theorising can therefore show how policy and practice formulate the epistemological idea of ‘who belongs’.

Thinking creatively about how policies discriminate, Professor Phillips also drew attention to the fact that sentencing decisions operate with the assumptions that all ethnic groups have the same life expectancy, foregrounding a subtle manifestation of racism within sentencing.

Race at the level of politics

To explain race, crime and criminalisation, Professor Phillips argued that we should consider political constructions of race and crime. She adopted the example of depictions of knife crime and gangs, and how they are accompanied by racialised tropes within political and media discourse. She also highlighted the role of racialised dog-whistle and popular politics in upholding political legitimacy, making it imperative to consider how this might manifest in crime control and criminalisation.


At the macro level, Professor Phillips suggested that we turn our attention toward the structural features of society that frame or intersect institutional processes. To fully consider how race operates, she argued that we must acknowledge the impact of historical and contemporary racial organisation, as well as the globalised forces that shape economic production and the unequal distribution of wealth. She argued that such macro processes shape political, economic, and social relations, meaning that we should consider how individual actions and institutional processes are enabled or constrained by structural features.

Race at the level of global political activism

To end, Professor Phillips drew our attention to current discussions around prison and police abolitionism, catalysed by global anti-racist political movements. Acknowledging that it can be tough to stay positive within the battle against racism, Professor Phillips asked us to remember that ‘resistance is never futile’.