Social Inequality: Race and the Criminal Legal System


Download this resource to see full details
Inequality is a broad concept that is central to the discipline of sociology and can be understood in a number of different contexts. Inequality is not simply a disparity in outcomes, such as educational attainment or income, but it is a systematic unequal distribution of rewards or life chances for different individuals within a group or groups within society. This can translate to differential access to resources like wealth, or different levels of social power which can affect one’s ability to receive financial services or the treatment by the judicial system. As such, structural inequality is not a natural occurrence, but rather something that is largely created and maintained by social institutions. The police controversies that have arisen over the past few years have illustrated how we are currently at a tumultuous juncture with respect to the public’s perception of the criminal legal system. Moreover, criminal justice outcomes are often not discussed in terms of inequality, at least not in the same way that we tend to discuss earnings and achievement gaps, despite the fact that disparities in incarceration are unmatched by other social indicators that are typically analyzed as evidence of social inequality. For instance, the black-white incarceration disparity of 8 to 1 surpasses black-white disparities in unemployment (2 to 1), infant mortality (2 to 1), and wealth (1 to 5). Due to the dearth of classroom discussions that highlight these disparities as indicators of social inequality, this activity frames law enforcement disparities as a fundamental form of social inequality.


Resource Type(s):
Class Activity 
Nick Rochin, University of Illinois at Chicago 
Date Published:
Subject Area:
Introduction to Sociology/Social Problems 
Class Level:
Class Size:

Usage Notes:

Download this resource to see full details
TIME: 30-45 Minutes This exercise can be used in courses on race, stratification, social problems, or for any discussion of inequality and the criminal legal system. Follow the hyperlinks in the source section after each table to access the pdf. Although this activity can be used in a number of ways,...

Learning Goals and Assessments:

Download this resource to see full details
Goal 1:
Students will learn that sociology as a discipline is data driven.
Assessment 1:
Students will be asked discuss every question in this activity in terms of the data provided.
Goal 2:
Students will learn how to be perceptive data consumers.
Assessment 2:
Students’ ability to consume and analyze data will be assessed through discussion questions in small groups and as a whole.
Goal 3:
Students will gain a fairly comprehensive understanding of how the criminal legal apparatus interacts with communities differently on the basis of race, and the amount of data that is required to make well-informed inferences.
Assessment 3:
Students’ ability to synthesize the various data and articulate how race affects law enforcement outcomes will be assessed in the discussion with the class as a whole.

Files for Download:

Right-click and choose "Save As..." to save file.
Social Inequality - Race and the Criminal Legal System.docx