Law and politics, Morality, rationality and self-interest

On Poverty, Disenfranchisement, Crime and Race

Like you, I’ve spent a good part of the last couple of days discussing the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman trial. The trial has left many with more questions than answers: What would have happened if during their tussle, when the gun went off it was George Zimmerman who lay dead with a bullet in his heart and Trayvon Martin who claimed self-defense? Would it have gone to trial? Would Martin have been acquitted?

It’s hard to say. Regardless of your view of Zimmerman’s innocence or guilt, the prosecution’s competence or lack there of, the jury’s partiality or bias, it’s hard to imagine that if their roles were reversed things wouldn’t have played out slightly differently. But how so? One answer a close friend provided was rather simple: “It would all depend on his lawyer”, he said.

This got me thinking.

In the discussions we’ve been hearing about race and justice, some have asked whether lady justice is truly colour blind. Sadly, more often than not, because race is highly correlated with wealth, a poor defendant can’t afford a top tier attorney, while fairly often a wealthier defendant can. Even ignoring the racial component of selective prosecution and police profiling by the police, race very often affects the outcome of these trials because race and poverty are heavily correlated in many parts of the U.S.

People can talk about living in a post-racial country, and we can talk about being color blind and we can insist that the Zimmerman trial was was not about race all we want, but the reason there’s a stereotype of the black male as a dangerous person with greater than average propensity for crime, is because poor and disenfranchised people tend to have a greater incentive to resort to crime. The REAL underlying problem that the U.S has not adequately wrestled with since the civil rights era, has been this legacy of Jim Crow and slavery. Folks who say that we are in a post-racial America are right about one thing: active, intentional racism is relatively rare compared to where it once was. Intentional stereo-typing and profiling may still exist (this is why Zimmerman’s race-focused remarks leading up to the incident were jarring and seized upon by Trayvon sympathizers as a mark of racist intent), but these are still far less severe than the norm in the not too distant past. Credit must be given where it is due: that the public expression of racist ideas (even by a television chef, years ago) are cause for public outcry suggests the general environment is such that active personal racism is no longer widely tolerated. In this regard, hearts and minds have certainly changed significantly since the civil rights movement began.

What has not been adequately dealt with is the remaining correlation between race, opportunity and economic outcomes. These correlations were never going to disappear simply by convincing the majority of Americans to stop using, and even be offended by use of the word “n*gger”. There still remain institutionalized biases, that stack the odds against minorities: the lack of opportunity in poor predominantly black and Hispanic inner city neighbourhoods; the shitty schools; the lack of role models; the biased incarceration rates that continue to decimate black and minority families. These things feed the correlation between race, poverty and crime; poor people without a good education, with no role models, with incarcerated fathers, and with more ex-cons than college graduates as friends will be more likely to see crime as an acceptable recourse. And rich people, afraid of what these poor and disenfranchised people might resort to, will be inclined to see the poor and desperate as a threat.

Because poverty and economic disenfranchisement are heavily correlated with race, people will substitute black for poor & disenfranchised. Walking down the street, you can’t look at someone’s credit report and bank balance and run away from every penniless person in dire straits with hungry mouths at home waiting to be fed, but if you internalize the stereotype of these poor people as black and destitute, well, then it’s quite easy to find yourself crossing the street when a black man (hood or no hood) approaches; it’s quite easy to find yourself clutching your purse a little tighter in the elevator when a black man gets on; it’s quite easy to understand why a neighbourhood watch zealot might see a 17 year old black boy in a hoodie and immediately perceive a threat and/or criminal intent.

Until the underlying correlation between race and opportunity is addressed, the institutionalized lack of opportunity will remain for blacks and minorities and the stereo-types will continue and we’ll continue to have unfortunate regrettable outcomes occur because rich people (often white) are scared of poor people (often black). It’s not race, it’s economics, stupid. And yet, the economics are so heavily correlated with race, such that even ostensibly non-racist folks who mentor black kids, might reach for a gun when they see a black kid in a hoodie carrying a bag of skittles: poor and disenfranchised black people walking through rich white neighbourhoods must be up to no good.

So what do we do?

Obviously, black people have to do more to lift themselves out of poverty – this has to be the first step. We should be providing our kids with good role-models, volunteering as mentors, setting up our own neighbourhood watches, engaging kids, and leaving absolutely no stone unturned in our quest for solutions for our kids to help them break the current cycle of poverty that holds so many economically enslaved. That is a must. In addition, it’s also reasonable to expect the state to directly tackle some of the institutional shackles that chain the poor into poverty – regardless of race. This will require an honest look at public policy, education policy, funding of public services and the careful assessment of what poverty alleviation tools work and which ones don’t. It will require a good faith effort from all parties to actually solve problems. White  rich people don’t want to have to worry about their black  poor and disenfranchised neighbours robbing them – or fear that they may end up shooting a suspected criminal in self-defense and be accused of racism. Likewise, black/hispanic  poor and disenfranchised people don’t want to be suspected or shot at because a white rich person thinks they are up to no good. The status quo is a problem for everyone – black or white, rich or poor – so we all need to look for solutions together.

Without this, the danger is that the current state of affairs will deteriorate further. Because poverty and the criminal behaviours that desperation and frustration tend to foster have become associated with race in the U.S, it is easy for some to think “those guys” are not like “us”. People often do not see the circumstances that have existed for hundreds of years that have created the mentality of persecution and disenfranchisement in many poor minorities for whom selling drugs and stealing seem to provide more favourable odds of escaping poverty than educational pursuits. Rather, all they see is the obvious racial profile: “inner city black youths commit more crime (per capita) than people who look like me do”. They may be seeing the effect of poverty, poor education, a lack of role-models and the long-term effects of institutionalized discrimination, but that’s not obvious. What is obvious is “those black people sure seem dangerous!”. Instead of “their circumstances are not like ours”, the ignorant mind concludes “They are not like us“.

Similarly, all these negative life circumstances, when extended over generations, can and do seep into a people’s mentality and culture. Hip-hop culture began as a defiant expression of rage, frustration, anger and the general angst of the black experience in the ghetto’s of American cities. It carried with it a strong sense of “us vs them” (F*ck the Police, “Me against the worldMr. N*gga, Changes, Ghetto Gospel etc.). The poor and disenfranchised black youth used Rap and Hip-hop to articulate their frustration and share their experience. Soon it morphed into a culture in which rebelling against an oppressive institutional mechanism of the rich and powerful white overclass was standard practice. “They dress this way – we’ll dress that way. They speak this way, we’ll speak that way”. While white artists like Vanilla Ice and Eminem helped take this culture from the ghettos and into middle-class households, those for whom this culture still represents their perception of reality have not similarly crossed over from their poverty and disenfranchisement to become a part of the middle-class communities that have embraced their music. Rap and hip-hop music may be mainstream, but many in the black ghettos from which it emerged have been left behind in their poverty – and have recoiled further away from white  middle class Americans who seem to love their music while fearing them. These people also come to believe “they are not like us; their reality is not our reality; their cops are not our cops”. On top of that, years of Rodney Kings and Amadou Diallos have reinforced the message that “they don’t value our lives like their own”.

It is, thus, imperative that the national conversation shifts from discussing the obvious question of racist intent and profiling, to the more subtle, more permanent and more insidiously divisive roots: the pink elephant in the room is the immense correlation between social inequality, poverty, economic disenfranchisement and race in modern America. Until that correlation and the resulting imbalance is seriously addressed, we run the risk of becoming country in which the privileged see the poor as different from themselves because of their race – in which the social costs of poverty become perceived as characteristics of race. Far from becoming a post-racial nation, we could be plunged deeper into a reality in which there is no better predictor of one’s circumstances in life than one’s race. This would be a tragedy of epic proportions.

So with the Zimmerman/Martin case fresh in our memories, this is an opportunity to dig a little deeper beneath the surface. Rather than aggressively defending our default positions, demonizing our opponents, accusing individuals of racism or demanding that our opponents realize that this has nothing to do with race, let’s pause a moment and consider the possibility that both takes may have an element of truth. Zimmerman may not actively be a racist: he may mentor black youth and he may have black friends. His primary motivations may have been those of a concerned citizen seeking to keep his neighbourhood safe from a perceived threat. And yet a threat was perceived exactly because of the strong association in his mind (justified or not) between race (a black kid in a hooded shirt) and crime: an association borne out of repeatedly reinforced stereo-types based on the correlation that exists in the U.S between race and poverty and the costly behaviours that poor and disenfranchised people at times resort to.

If we focus on this lesson, and make a concerted effort to ask the tough questions and brace for the tough answers and then prepare to make the changes to social policies that will be needed to break these correlations, perhaps then we may one day become a truly post-racial society in which one’s race is not the primary determinant of one’s economic outcome. Only then will we be free of the negative stereotypes that (consciously or subconsciously) influence a neighbourhood watchman to perceive a 17 year old unarmed black boy as a threat to his life.


Editor’s note: Just after posting this, a friend shared this video which depicts quite clearly how people often react differently to black and white people in identical situations. 


About tettehotuteye



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