Some people are led to believe that the reason the majority of United States inmates are poor African Americans is simply because poor African Americans commit more crimes, but this is a rudimentary assumption. In the book The New Jim Crow, author Michelle Alexander attempts to discover the true cause for the mass incarceration of African Americans. In this essay I intend to use Alexander’s analysis to explain that the mass incarceration of poor African Americans is not simply a race issue, nor is it just an economic issue, but rather a combination of the two. When combine, they create a vicious cycle which often turns poor black youth into criminals.
Before explaining the cycle, let’s first examine some statistics and facts. According to the article “Poverty,” there is a huge difference between the percent of African American youth and white youth living in poverty throughout America. The article states, “45.8 percent of young black children (under age 6) live in poverty, compared to 14.5 percent of white children” (Poverty). The NAACP website states, “African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population” (Criminal Justice). These facts should be enough to make us stop, take notice, and wonder what connection exists between the high percent of poor African American youth, and the high number of African American inmates—There is, indeed, a correlation.
The cycle begins at a young age. Regardless of a person’s race, the way they are raised has a huge impact on who they become later in life. In the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, he explains a parenting philosophy coined by sociologist Annette Lareau. This parenting philosophy is called “accomplishment of natural growth” and was often found to be used among lower income families. In the case of this parenting philosophy, parents see themselves as responsible for their children, but allow their children to mature and learn with little assistance (Gladwell, 2008). Why is this parenting philosophy so common in lower class households? The New Jim Crow answers this question in regards to poor African Americans.
Alexander explains that, “one in eight black men in their twenties are locked up on any given day” (Alexander, 2011). One in eight. For the men that have children, their sons and daughters are about to lose a key player in the shaping of their development. Even if the father wants to be involved in their child’s life, years behind bars can make this difficult if not impossible. Perhaps the children have mothers who also want to be more involved in their lives, but being poor can again make this difficult as the mothers do their best to help their families survive a life of poverty. It is not so unbelievable to think that lower class African American parents use the philosophy “accomplishment of natural growth,” not because they want to, but because they have to. And of course, this has a huge impact on their children.
By the time these children enter their teen years they have grown up with little guidance and, due to their economic status, few opportunities. While other middle and upper class children are playing on sports teams and learning how to play instruments, poor African Americans are denied these opportunities. Not only are these activities expensive, but also, with parents using the philosophy “accomplishment of natural growth,” the children are not pushed to pursue them. Instead, many poor African American youth find their after school “extra-curricular” wrapped up in the world of drugs. Why do the African American youth get involved in drug related activities? Again, The New Jim Crow has the answer.
Whether an African American has been incarcerated or not they are treated like felons. Poor African American youth can be well behaved, well-educated and truly trying to work toward a more successful life than that of their parents, but if they are constantly told by society that they are criminals then eventually they start to embody the label. Alexander explains, “[p]ractically from cradle to grave, black males in urban ghettos are treated like current or future criminals” (Alexander, 2011). For this reason, it is not surprising that African American youth turn to a life of crime.
At this point you may be thinking that the above is too big of a stretch to make, but this would not be the first time that simply telling a child that they are or are not a certain way has had very significant outcomes. In Jonah Lehrer’s article “The truth about grit,” he explains an experiment done by psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck’s experiment involved having fifth-graders from schools around New York take age-appropriate IQ tests. Once the test finished some of the children were, “praised for their intelligence—‘You must be smart at this,’… while the other group was praised for their effort and told they ‘must have worked really hard’” (Lehrer, 2009). The children were then given a more difficult IQ test. Those who were labeled “smart” gave up after a little bit of time while the children who were labeled “hard workers” persevered. Now imagine the African American youth being told over and over again as they grow up that they are criminals. Is it still such a far stretch to imagine that they would begin to embody their label—criminal?
If you still don’t believe that being treated like a criminal is enough to turn a person into one, then let’s consider another contributing factor. Emily Badger explains in her article “Black Poverty Differs From White Poverty,” how the combination of race and low economic status can lead African American youth toward a life of crime. Badger states, “The poverty that poor African Americans experience is often different from the poverty of poor whites. It’s more isolating and concentrated. It extends out the door of a family’s home and occupies the entire neighborhood around it” (Badger, 2015). Throughout these isolated neighborhoods there are a disproportionate number of men—fathers—locked away in prison. Poor African American children with no father figure are surrounded by other families in similar circumstances. Badger refers to this phenomenon as the “double burden” of poverty. This “burden” is the idea that African Americans in these circumstances are not only poor, but they are also living around other people going through the same thing. Compare this to a poor white family. If asked to name a poor black neighborhood in any major city most could point to at least one, but when asked to name a poor white neighborhood, would it be so easy? Probably not. That is because designated poor white neighborhoods do not exist. When a white person moves below the poverty line, they are still surrounded by people of well economic standing.
Consider the influence the “double burden” must have on African American youth. While many poor white children still have the luxury of maintaining employed and educated role models—despite their families economic situation—the African American children living in poor neighborhoods have significantly fewer adults to look up to. Their role models are the men in prison, the men they call “Daddy.” If all of the children in a given neighborhood are looking up to their parents who are involved in crime, then becoming a criminal simply becomes the norm.
Eventually many of the poor African American youth are arrested for drug crimes. This happens because—yes—the African American youth are doing drugs, but also because police officers target them. Alexander explains that, “[o]fficers learn, among other things, how to use a minor traffic violation as a pretext to stop someone, [and] how to lengthen a routine traffic stop and leverage it into a search for drugs…” (Alexander, 2011). Officers are also allowed to stop and search anyone provided they have “reasonable doubt” that the person is carrying drugs and has the persons consent.
The “reasonable doubt” can be acquired, simply if a person fits a specific profile. Characteristics of this profile include “traveling with luggage, traveling without luggage, driving an expensive car, driving a car that needs repairs…” (Alexander, 2011) and a number of other inconsistent profile designators that can be directed at virtually anyone the officer so chooses to impose them upon. The officer gains consent simply by asking if they can do or look at something and if the person does not say “no” then, by law, consent has been given. One issue, among many others, with this is that “[p]eople are easily intimidated when the police confront them, hands on their revolver, and most have no idea the question can be answered, ‘No’” (Alexander, 2011). Consider the African American youth that have been raised on the parenting philosophy “accomplishment of natural growth.” In Outliers, Lareau explains that this parenting philosophy does not lend itself to giving children a feeling of entitlement. If a child raised under these circumstances is questioned by an authority figure they “would be quiet and submissive, with eyes turned away” (Gladwell, 2008). How can a child raised to fear authority figures be expected to say “no” to an armed police officer?
It could be argued that these tactics are used on all suspected criminals, but this can be quickly countered. First, “law enforcement methods… have been employed almost exclusively in poor communities of color…” (Alexander, 2011). Second, African Americans, as mentioned above, are already considered felons which make them more likely to be stopped by the police.
Once arrested, the cases often don’t go to trial. Instead they are handled through a plea bargain. Alexander explains, “[w]hen prosecutors offer ‘only’ three years in prison when the penalties defendant could receive if they took their case to trial would be five, ten, twenty years—or life imprisonment—[for a drug crime] only extremely courageous (or foolish) defendants turn the offer down” (Alexander, 2011). What is astonishing, though, is that those who accept the plea bargain are not always guilty. It seems crazy for an innocent person to not take their case to trial, and yet, of those in prison, “2 percent to 5 percent” (Alexander, 2011) are innocent African Americans who accepted plea bargains.
Perhaps accepting the plea bargain is not so crazy, though. Growing up poor and black does not usually lend itself to very concrete circumstances. If a person has spent their whole life not knowing how permanent their family is going to stay intact, how often they will have enough to eat, etc. then they will most likely never develop the skill of “delayed gratification.” David Brooks states in his article “Marshmallows and Public Policy,” that “[t]he ability to delay gratification, like most skills correlates with socioeconomic status… Children from poorer homes do much worse on delayed gratification tests…” (Brooks, 2006). It is no surprise that those being presented with a plea bargain accept it. “They think in the short term because there is no predictable long term” (Brooks, 2006). In other words, the situation they are currently presented with could potentially get drastically worse so they accept the plea bargain.
For those who do take their case to trial—whether guilty or innocent—find themselves facing a new obstacle. “Approximately 80 percent of criminal defendants are indigent and thus unable to hire lawyers” (Alexander, 2011). Those who find themselves standing before a court are expected to be their own defendant when they most likely never developed the skill of “practical intelligence.” Gladwell explains psychologist Robert Stemberg’s term as “knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect” (Gladwell, 2008). This goes back to Lareau’s parenting philosophy. Gladwell explains that children brought up with parents who use the philosophy “accomplishment of natural growth” are less likely to develop the skill of “practical intelligence.” Gladwell says, in regards to Lareau’s findings, that children raised with the “accomplishment of natural growth” parenting philosophy don’t, “know how to get their way, and ‘customize’—using Lareau’s wonderful term—whatever environment they [are] in, for their best purpose” (Gladwell, 2008). If poor African Americans never learns how to “customize” the situations they encounter, then how can they be expected to develop the skill of “practical intelligence?” Furthermore, without developing the skill of “practical intelligence,” how can they be expected to confidently defend themselves at trial?
They can’t. And so, they find themselves in prison, joining the many other poor African Americans who suffered the same fate. Possibly before being incarcerated they had children of their own and the cycle started over again. Their child will grow up in a poor area with parents who are forced to use the parenting philosophy “accomplishment of natural growth.” The child may try to avoid drug related activities, but find themselves involved despite their efforts. Maybe they will get arrested and take a plea bargain or if they “are foolish” they will take their case to trial. Maybe it is an endless cycle.
- Alexander, M. (2011).The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. N.p.: Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference.
- Badger, E. (2015, August 12). Black poverty differs from white poverty. Retrieved June 01, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/08/12/black-poverty-differs-from-white-poverty/
- Brooks, D. (2006, May 06). Marshmallows and Public Policy. Retrieved June 01, 2017, from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/07/opinion/07brooks.html
- Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved June 01, 2017, from http://www.naacp.org/criminal-justice-fact-sheet/
- Gladwell, M. (2008).Outliers: The story of success
- Lehrer, J. (2009, August 02). The truth about grit. Retrieved June 01, 2017, from http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/08/02/the_truth_about_grit/
- (n.d.). Retrieved June 01, 2017, from http://stateofworkingamerica.org/fact-sheets/poverty/