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There is a disproportionate amount of African American males in prison when compared with their white counterparts. This paper addresses the problem from a sociological point of view. The basic theories underlining this approach are from the conflict perspective as well as the positivist viewpoint expressed by Merton and Cohen. Issues such as the construction of the family, educational opportunities and poverty are examined. Inconsistencies of the judicial system are looked as well. This paper is a moral argument presented where the basic implicit moral premise is that racial discrimination is wrong but yet still exists in our judicial system. Research is presented to explain how social structures have an enormous impact on behavior.
Keywords: prisons, African American males, conflict perspective, poverty, education, crime, judicial system, crack/cocaine, employment
The Human Warehouse: the making of black men into an endangered species
In the United States of America the most basic right one has is freedom. However, this is simply not the case for many African American males. The U.S. has passed laws to prevent discrimination but our basic social institutions such as the family, schools, job market, and judicial system plays a major role in the formation and perpetration of racial inequality. It may not be consciously done, but careful examination of these institutions reveal that racism is alive and well in the United States. One in three African American males is under some type of correctional control (Johnson, 2001). While only one in fifteen white males are under some type of correctional control (Johnson, 2001). Why is there such a large disparity between the two?
Many believe that blacks are born with low intelligence and this keeps them from making intelligent choices. Such beliefs were considered scientific for many years. It was believed that whites were intellectually superior to their black counterparts. As recently as 1994, scientific racism has existed. The book The Bell Curve attempted to revive the argument that race is significantly linked to intelligence. Even though we know that blacks are not born intellectually inferior, it is this belief that insidiously permeates our society in a covert fashion. The scientific community rejected this belief but the public paid a lot of attention to this book. For many years phrenology was seen as a valid science and used as a justification for slavery. Early criminologists believed that criminals were born with inferior traits that included defective genes, irregular bumps on the head, larger jaws, a scarce beard, and a tough body build (Thio, 2010). A person was seen as criminal before any act had been committed. Today, when society pictures a criminal in their head, the criminal will be a black male. Modern day racism is more ambivalent than openly hostile.
Psychological theories assume that the individual is responsible for their behavior due to the condition of the mind or personality (Eitzen & Zinn, 2007). Psychologists work with the individual to help them cope better with their situation. Individuals who suffer from mental illness, substance abuse, aggression, or victims of trauma benefit from these services. However, one must look at societal structures to see beyond the individual. The old nature vs. nurture argument comes into play. Society determines what is acceptable and moral. Many believe that "you can be whatever you want to be." This is just wishful thinking. It is this type of thinking that influences White Americans into believing that the source of racial inequality exists because Blacks have low levels of motivation. Whites want to believe that all is well and that racism does not exist because of the laws prohibiting it. Therefore when there is a disproportionate amount of African Americans are convicted of crimes, raised in single parent homes and have high unemployment rates as well not completing high school or college, White America assumes it is all the fault of the African Americans themselves and that they have the same opportunities as their White counterparts. It is not that simple. Societal forces do shape how one thinks and behaves.
Poverty plays a major role in our society. It can limit ones success in education which then limits one's career opportunities. The two go hand in hand. Today, students are expected to pay a large part of their tuition. A large number of African Americans are kept out of college due to its cost (Farley, 2005, p. 15). "Almost one-third or more black men were in jails and prison in 2000 than were enrolled in all colleges and universities. This sharply reverses the pre-1980 pattern in which black men in colleges and universities outnumbered incarcerated black men by a ratio of three to one" (Allen, Latessa, Ponder, & Simonsen, 2007, p. 311). Poverty rates are higher for African Americans when compared with their white counterparts. Why is the poverty rate so high for African American families? One reason could be that many African American families consist of a single mother and her children with no husband to contribute financially. In 2002 the Census Bureau reported that "just over half of all black children under the age of eighteen were in single-mother families" (Farley, 2005, p. 89). Women are already in the minority as far as income and when one factors in race, the consequences are even harsher. Some try to argue that single mothers cause poverty. This is not the case. There is a correlation but not a direct cause. If anything, there is a great deal of evidence that suggests poverty causes single-parenthood. Even if one looks at the income of a two parent African American family their income is still significantly lower than that of whites. The unequal distribution of resources promotes racial hatred, especially among those who are in the minority and this in turn fosters criminal activity (Reisag, Bales, Hay, & Xia, 2007).
Since we know that one in three African American males is under some type of correctional control, it could be said that this has a direct effect on single parenthood. There is new research on how parental imprisonment shapes the life of a child. "One in seven black children born in 1978 and one in four black children born in 1990 had a parent imprisoned" (Wildeman, 2009). Most offenders are likely to be undereducated. One study shows that sixty-three percent of male offenders have not gotten their high school diploma (Allen et al., 2007). It is a well known fact that the more education one receives, the more income one will earn. As discussed previously, high tuition rates oftentimes keep African-Americans from pursuing a college degree. If one does not have a high school diploma, one can expect to earn minimum wage which is definitely not enough to support a family. It is easy to see how education, family structure and employment are all interrelated. We oftentimes blame just the individual; however, if we look at our current macro-structures we will see a picture of an African American male behind bars.
Why are minorities more likely to go to prison? Do some laws target the underprivileged? Do money and power matter in the judicial process? These are questions that have been raised over the years. Our society dictates that one follow the laws that govern each state. There must be laws or society would be in total anarchy. In the past, there have been laws that promote prejudice. As recently as 1960, blacks did not have the right to vote or the right to go to the same schools as whites, almost every aspect of society was segregated. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did pass a law prohibiting these practices. One of the fundamental tenants of the conflict theory says that the powerful protect their assets therefore the "laws, religion, education, and the mass media all work for the advantage of the advantaged" (Eitzen & Zinn, 2007, p. 52). It was only when the underprivileged were able to work together as one did the laws change. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did do a lot of good but we must remember that for 200 years or more African Americans have been persecuted in an unfair way. Although laws are not meant to discriminate, in many ways they still do.
In 1987, the law was different for crack than it was for cocaine. The difference lied in the weight of the substances. Mandatory law required that if one was caught with .5 grams of crack they were sentenced to a mandatory five years in prison. This is a small amount when compared with the 28 grams of powder one had to have to receive the same sentence. Powder cocaine is used more frequently by whites but in the 1980's a cheaper brand of cocaine emerged known as "crack". Crack was more likely found in lower-class neighborhoods which consisted of mainly African American families. The law unintentionally affected lower class minorities. In 2005 one study showed that out of the 253,300 state prisoners serving time for drug offenses 44.8% were black, while 28.5 % were white the other 20.2% were Hispanic (Sabol Ph.D & West, 2005). " The United States Commission's 2002 report found that nearly eighty-five percent of persons convicted of crack cocaine penalties were black" (Drug Policy Alliance Network, 2010). The law was changed in 2005; however there are still many African Americans in prison because of the old law. The United States spends more money on law enforcement than it does on drug treatment. "According to SAMHSA, 23.5 million individuals needed treatment in 2004 but only 2.3 million actually received treatment. About one-fourth of those who need treatment for an illicit drug problem and about one-third of those who need treatment for an alcohol problem has made an effort but were not able to receive proper care" (Levinthal, 2008).
Merton says that in many ways society encourages crime. The United States emphasizes the role of success and achievement. Starting at kindergarten teachers motivate students to make good grades and to be ambitious. We are exposed to success stories that are meant to inspire us. Athletic events that one watches or takes part in expound the importance of winning. We are taught that it is important to be a success. However, if the legitimate means of obtaining success are not available then one may resort to illegitimate means to obtain success. One of the biggest symbols of success is money. Obtaining a good paying job is not freely available to all classes of people. Society continually overemphasizes the role of success while underemphasizing how to obtain success through legitimate means (Thio, 2010). It is easy to see how one may resort to illegitimate means if he is undereducated, lives in poverty and more than likely comes from a single parent home.
Some point out that this alone cannot explain criminal behavior since many of the underprivileged do not resort to illegitimate means to achieve success. Merton addresses this concern by saying that there are five different responses that an individual may do, not all of which are illegitimate. One may conform to the legitimate means of obtaining success. Innovation may be used and this is when one rejects the legal means of obtaining success. Ritualism is where one gives up on high success goals and becomes content with what they have. Retreatism is when one withdraws out of mainstream society; this category includes outcast, vagrants, and addicts. Rebellion is another choice. A fine example of this would be The Civil Rights movement. Rebellion is not seen in a negative light.
Whites favor spending more money on crime and less money on welfare programs. There are more affluent white families in the United States than there are Black. Whites are the dominant racial group. Conflict theorists would say that since the power and money are divided unequally among the two races then it would serve the White race to spend more money on crime in order to be able to stay in power. This is exactly what has occurred. One study obtained significant results that says that "racially prejudiced views of African American violence are an important component of White Americans' support for greater expenditures on crime control" (Barkan & Cohn, 2005). Policy makers need not be overly convinced by public opinion on crime since some opinions may be driven by racial prejudice.
Another shocking statistic says that only 1 in 180 white men are in prison while 1 out of every 20 black men are incarcerated (Johnson, 2001). What exactly is the color of justice? True enough we do need laws to maintain order but is the United States doing much about the prevention of crime? Punitive measures do not reduce crime; one only has to look at the recidivism rate to see this does not work. If we look at the risk factors involved with one becoming a criminal the solution is simple. Better schools for the inner-city neighborhoods, more opportunities for one to go to college as well as lowering the cost of tuition. We also need welfare reform that encourages fathers to be a part of the family. The United States is sorely lacking with regard to drug treatment. African Americans are more likely not to have insurance that would cover rehabilitative services that would help with mental health issues as well as substance abuse. The waiting lists are very long in non-profit organizations that offer these services as well as there are very few non-profit agencies when compared with other private institutions.
There also needs to be a better way for the offender to reintegrate into society. If one is convicted of a felony then job opportunities are limited, especially for the African American male. One study compared Black offenders with White offenders who were matched with equivalent resumes and found that outcomes for the Black offenders were significant. These offenders were less likely to get jobs than their white counterparts (Pager, Western, & Sugie, 2009). This shows that Whites are more readily forgiven for their crimes against society than African Americans. This may explain why the recidivism rate is higher for Blacks than for Whites. If employment opportunities are limited then so is income. Many may resort back to crime as a way of achieving their goal. Cohen extended Merton's theory by including status frustration. Status frustration helps create a deviant subculture. The criteria of being accepted is opposite of that of mainstream society. This helps explain the existence of gangs.
Frustration can also lead one to taking illicit drugs. Even though the offender knows that these avenues will lead him back to prison, he simply does not know any other way to cope with the stress. Many would say that the system is being blamed. This is not the intent. Change does need to occur in our social structures which will then foster an individual change more readily. Locking one up from society does not get rid of the problem. If anything it contributes to the cycle of poverty, lack of education as well as eroding the family. While society demands retribution it also decides who is more likely to go to prison.
White collar crime is committed by those who in the upper classes which include businesses and professionals. Crimes such as embezzlement, evasion of taxes or tax fraud, employee theft and financial frauds are considered white collar crimes. What is amazing is more money is stolen that involves white collar crime than street crime. Even more shocking is that since the crimes are committed by "respectable citizens" they are less likely to be prosecuted and if they are prosecuted the sentencing is much more lenient than sentences imposed on street criminals. Most of these crimes are committed by affluent White people.
Street crimes are crimes such as robbery, auto theft, shoplifting, burglary, possession or selling of drugs, etcâ€¦These crimes are committed more frequently by the poor and powerless. African American males make up the largest part of this category. Once again the stigma is there in our court system. What is the difference between embezzlement and burglary? If anything the former is more costly to the victim. Racial disparity does exist in our judicial system.
In conclusion, this is a moral argument with implicit moral premises. The evidence is supported by data as well as published journals. Racial injustice does exist in our criminal justice system. As long as society continues to allow poverty and a lack of opportunity for education to exist then a disproportionate number of African American males will fall into a life of crime. It is truly a generational problem. There are more young Black children who are being raised without a father around due to this crisis in our justice system. In some ways it is like the old south where families were being displaced. If we examine this problem more closely we can come up with a better system than what we have now. It is true that the United States has made a lot of progress but we also have a long way to go.