The Invisible Black Victim: How American Federalism Perpetuates Racial Inequality in Criminal Justice


  • The original version of this article was presented at the “Paradoxes of Race, Law, and Inequality” symposium at the University of California, Irvine in May 2008. I am indebted to the participants at that event for their invaluable feedback and also to the later anonymous reviewers whose critiques immeasurably improved the focus and clarity of the main argument. Please address correspondence to Lisa L. Miller, Rutgers University, Department of Political Science, 89 George Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901; e-mail:


The promise of civil rights is the promise of inclusion; yet the vast disparity in incarceration rates between blacks, Latinos, and whites stands as an ugly reminder of the nation's long history of race-based exclusionary practices. In this article, I argue that an important aspect of understanding race and the law in the twenty-first century is an appreciation of the American federal system that structures legal authority, political mobilization, and policy solutions and serves as an important and overlooked obstacle to more complete and sustained racial equality in crime and punishment in the United States. In contrast to the conventional wisdom about the role of the national government in protecting the rights of minorities and other disadvantaged groups, I suggest that crime and justice are arenas where the nationalization of issues has left the most important constituents behind. In fact, local crime politics provides a space where there is regular and ongoing articulation of the inclusionary goals of the civil rights agenda and sustained efforts to move forward in realizing that agenda through meaningful community involvement in promoting public safety, economic development, and social justice. This article explores these themes and offers a discussion of the linkages between federalism, racial inequality and crime, victimization and punishment.