Racial and ethnic minorities are often victimized by the groups in power. Social inequality is reflected in all spheres of daily life and is often institutionalized, with prominent social institutions legitimizing and perpetuating unequal treatment of different groups. This tendency is particularly evident in law enforcement, with racial profiling and other types of discrimination presenting a significant issue. Thus, such constructs as “typical criminal” and “symbolic assailants” are often utilized in law enforcement to describe persons viewed as threats to society.
Prejudice and discrimination stem primarily from misunderstandings between different groups in society. According to McNamara and Burns (2021), all people portray themselves in a certain way, conveying symbolic messages through words, facial expressions, and body language. However, those messages can be misinterpreted by others, leading to misunderstandings. Furthermore, prejudice and bias can manifest due to a “limited understanding of the values, attitudes, and beliefs of the members of different groups” (McNamara & Burns, 2021, p. 62). Thus, misinterpretation of a message can lead to conflict if allowed to escalate. This is particularly dangerous when interactions between law enforcement officers and civilians occur. In such exchanges, the members of one group have more power bestowed on them than the members of the others. Furthermore, misunderstandings can lead to conflict and the projection of misinterpreted behaviors or qualities onto the other representatives of the marginalized group. Overall, due to a lack of understanding of the values, norms, and behaviors common to a specific social group, the whole group can be adversely affected.
Lack of understanding can lead to biases and prejudices being artificially structured to promote discrimination of specific groups. McNamara and Burns (2021) state that the “typical criminal” is a constructed image representing criminals as street thugs. Thus, the “typical criminal” image includes offenders involved exclusively in street crime, with other offenders, such as persons involved in tax fraud and other economic crimes, excluded from the construct. The focus on street crime, perpetrated by government policies and media, leads members of society to believe that these crimes are the most severe and that an excessive number of crimes are committed by one specific group. According to McNamara and Burns (2021), the image of a “typical criminal” is often understood as a young, urban, poor African American male. Therefore, if a person accused of a crime fits within the “typical criminal” model, they are more likely to be found guilty when innocent based on their appearance (McNamara & Burns, 2021). Thus, the concept dictates what crimes should be viewed as severe and the members of what group are most likely responsible.
The concept of a “symbolic assailant” is similar to that of a “typical criminal.” A “symbolic assailant” is a term used to describe individuals viewed as potential sources of violence by the police force (McNamara & Burns, 2021). Such characteristics as the choice of clothing, behavior, gestures, language, and even body art are considered when assigning the label of “symbolic assailants” (McNamara & Burns, 2021). If a person’s behaviors or clothing seems to be out of place and do not fit the behavior and clothing of the majority of people in a neighborhood, they are more likely to be viewed as a potential assailant. Specifically, African American males and immigrants from various ethnic backgrounds are often perceived as “symbolic assailants” (Jiang & Erez, 2018). It can be argued that the “typical criminal” and “symbolic assailant” constructs share the similarity of being artificially created. In addition, both concepts seem to focus on presenting African American community members and ethnic minorities as potential offenders. Moreover, it can be asserted that the notion of a “symbolic assailant,” similarly to that of a “typical criminal,” focuses on the potentiality of street crimes being committed.
The use of demographic profiles, “typical criminal,” and “symbolic assailant” concepts should be avoided in law enforcement as it is not an effective practice. When law enforcement focuses on the race and ethnicity of persons and characteristics, such as clothing and behavior, that set people apart, they risk missing actual suspicious behavior. The “typical criminal” and “symbolic assailant” concepts focus on subjective factors to categorize people as potentially dangerous. Therefore, the exclusive emphasis on subjectively questionable behaviors can deter attention from objectively suspicious and threatening ones. The constant subjection to subjective profiling can destroy the relationship between the community and law enforcement, preventing the latter from performing its duties and putting the former in jeopardy.
Furthermore, engagement in such practices cannot be described as fair. The “typical criminal” and “symbolic assailant” constructs perpetuate negative societal stereotypes. Besides eroding the relationship between law enforcement as a vital institution and profiled social groups, it can also damage relationships between different groups. In addition, it marginalizes the groups, the members of which are viewed by the police force as typical or potential criminals. Such treatment by law enforcement can adversely affect the mental health and well-being of the members of minority groups.
In summary, “typical criminal” and “symbolic assailant” are damaging concepts created artificially and based on subjective factors and the misunderstanding of the norms and values of different social groups. Focus on subjective characteristics can contribute to actual suspicious and dangerous behaviors being missed. Thus, law enforcement officers should avoid demographic and racial profiling to foster a better relationship with the community and protect all its members, regardless of their racial or ethnic characteristics.
Jiang, J., & Erez, E. (2018). Immigrants as symbolic assailants. International Criminal Justice Review, 28(1), 5–24. Web.
McNamara, R., & Burns, R. (2021). Multiculturalism, crime, and criminal justice (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.