Understanding the link between discrimination and juvenile delinquency among Chinese migrant children

Spencer D. Li

University of Macau, spencerli@umac.mo

Prior research has identified discrimination as a cause of delinquency among migrant children. Few studies, however, have examined how discrimination is related to delinquency. The current research aims at bringing more understanding to this issue. Based on the general strain theory, this study posits that discrimination gives rise to delinquency because it generates negative emotions and erodes social bonds. The positive relationship between discrimination and delinquency, however, is not unconditional. Despite discrimination, migrant children who receive adequate social support can develop positive mental affects and strong social bonds that protect them from delinquency. To test these hypotheses, this study collected survey data from a probability sample of 1,497 students who attended secondary schools designated for migrant children in one of the largest cities in China. Structural equation modeling analysis was conducted to test the direct and indirect effects of discrimination on delinquency when simultaneously assessing the influences of social support. The results show that perceived discrimination reported by the students was positively related to delinquency through mental health problems and weakened social bonds. The findings also suggest that social support might mitigate the negative impact of discrimination on delinquency by improving mental health and increasing social bonds. Theoretical and policy implications of these findings are discussed.


Prof. Spencer D. Li is Chair of the Department of Sociology at University of Macau. He also serves as President of the Asian Association for Substance Abuse Research. Before joining University of Macau, Prof. Li worked as a statistician at the U.S. Department of Justice. Previously, he held academic positions in criminology and criminal justice at University of Maryland and Florida State University. Dr. Li has served as principal investigator on a number of publicly and privately funded projects related to juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, and corrections. His publications have appeared in several major criminological journals.