A Greek Philosopher once made a distinction between appearance and reality. An appearance is just an imperfect form of the reality and that the reality is superior to appearance. For the Labeling Theorists, however, appearance is the reality. How a person appears and is perceived by the society plays a crucial role in how he sees himself, how he behaves and makes decisions and how he will become in the future.
Labeling Theorists claim that the only reality is the reality that is socially constructed by individuals and institutions. It does not matter who or what a person really is as what matters most is how one is labeled by the society. For example, all people are law-breakers and habitually engage in deviant behavior. In truth, many people have tried drinking and driving at the same time. Some people have tried drugs. Some people have engaged in violent behavior. Some have stolen money either from parents, friends or his company. Yet, not all persons are labeled as convicts, drug addicts, or robbers and only some are punished. It follows that only those who are caught are labeled as criminals or law-breakers and carry the shame of being labeled as such. Thus, Howard Becker (1963) is right in saying that deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an offender.
Once labeled as a criminal everything changes for the individual. According to Labeling Theorists, the labels that society attaches to the individuals exert significant influence on the individuals to the point that these individuals unconsciously live up to these labels. In effect, by labeling a particular individual as a criminal or as the law-breaker, the individual ends up even promoting more deviant and criminal behavior. Edwin Lemert (1951) calls this secondary deviance or the process that occurs when a person who has been labeled a deviant reacts to this labeling and accepts the new identity and continues the deviant behavior.
For example, there is a perception that majority of the crimes are being committed by Latinos and African-Americans based on the proportion of Latinos and African-Americans in jails. Consequently, Latinos and African-Americans are immediately labeled as delinquents and law-breakers. Police officers respond to these acts of labeling by engaging in racial profiling and indiscriminately arresting these Latinos and African-Americans for flimsy reasons. As a result, Latinos and African-Americans are most likely to be arrested and charged for various offenses. Because police officers, teachers, and the public tend to see them as law-breakers they are most likely to behave towards delinquent behavior.
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