The debate spawned by the recent officer involved killings in high profile cases in Missouri and New York has generated some interesting push-back discussions by those on the right about the overfocus on police issues and the underfocus of the media on black-on-black crime.
This is not a new refrain. In July of 2013, in the aftermath of another racially polarizing killing, Trayvon Martin, conservatives were pushing back: “49% of murder victims are black men. 93% of those are killed by other blacks. Media don’t care. Obama doesn’t care.”
However, as some have argued there is really no such thing as “black on black” crime. While it is true that most black victims (upwards of 94 percent) were killed by black offenders, about 86 percent of white victims were killed by white offenders. What does that mean? It means that we live in a society that remains segregated in living arrangements by race and people are generally killed by people in their proximity.
That means that if blacks are being robbed and killed by other blacks it is likely due to the fact that they live in the same neighborhood as other blacks.
Of course, just because there’s not a racial component to these killings does not mean that it is not a problem. However it is a separate problem than the ones that emerge when a white police officer shoots an unarmed black man.
Others push back to say that we need to deal with the problems of the black underclass, a point that I could not agree with more. However, I believe that problem is not what many people want it to be.
Yesterday we ran a column from Michelle Alexander, who has written a book based on the idea that mass incarceration has become a modern day Jim Crow situation for black people to be subjugated. We have argued in the past that the prison to poverty cycle is critical for understanding the problems that we face in our cities and urban environments today.
The current levels of mass incarceration act as a societal repression of African-American men, a large percentage of whom are “warehoused in prisons.” As Ms. Alexander argues, these young black men, once labeled as felons, become trapped in a second-class status that they find difficult to escape.
The problem is that we have a system that is basically a trap, where once people get into the system, they can’t get out, and it cycles to the next generation.
To expand on this thesis, a reader recently pointed me to the work of Northwestern University sociologist Devah Pager. Professor Pager has studied the impact of incarceration on the employment outcomes of black and white job seekers. While there are over two million individuals currently incarcerated, about half a million of those will be released each year, with 95 percent of them overall eventually being released.
One estimate places the number at 12 million for ex-felons in the US, roughly eight percent of the working age population. Not surprisingly, researchers have studied the employment probabilities and income expectations for individuals released from prison, and have found a strong and consistently negative impact.
In her 2003 article in the American Sociology Journal, Professor Pager finds that “ex-offenders are only one-half to one-third as likely as non-offenders to be considered by employers.”
Moreover, she finds “the effect of a criminal record appears more pronounced for blacks than it is for whites.” She writes, “While the ratio of callbacks for non-offenders relative to ex-offenders for whites is 2:1, this same ratio for blacks is nearly 3:1.37 The effect of a criminal record is thus 40% larger for blacks than for whites.”
Professor Pager observes, “This evidence is suggestive of the way in which associations between race and crime affect interpersonal evaluations. Employers, already reluctant to hire blacks, appear even more wary of blacks with proven criminal involvement. Despite the face that these testers were bright articulate college students with effective styles of self-presentation, the cursory review of entry-level applicants leaves little room for these qualities to be noticed. Instead, the employment barriers of minority status and criminal record are compounded, intensifying the stigma toward this group.”
While we have naturally been focused on the impact of mass incarceration on the future prospects for black males, the research of Professor Pager points to a potentially even more troubling possibility.
In a 2008 article in CNN, based on her research, she writes, “Is racial discrimination a thing of the past? Debates about the relevance of discrimination in today’s society have been difficult to resolve, in part because of the challenges in identifying, measuring, and documenting its presence or absence in all but extreme cases. Discrimination is rarely something that can be observed explicitly.”
To test these issues, she conducted a series of experiments that attempt to investigate potential employment discrimination. She “hired young men to pose as job applicants, assigning them resumes with equal levels of education and experience, and sending them to apply for real entry-level job openings all over the city.”
She notes, “Team members also alternated presenting information about a fictitious criminal record (a drug felony), which they ‘fessed up to’ on the application form. During nearly a year of fieldwork, teams of testers audited hundreds of employers, applying for a wide range of entry level jobs such as waiters, sales assistants, laborers, warehouse workers, couriers, and customer service representatives.”
“The results of these studies were startling,” she writes. “Among those with no criminal record, white applicants were more than twice as likely to receive a callback relative to equally qualified black applicants. Even more troubling, whites with a felony conviction fared just as well, if not better, than a black applicant with a clean background.”
To reiterate, a white with a felony record fared just as well as a black applicant who had no criminal background. This research, which has been successfully replicated in subsequent studies, suggests that the problem of mass incarceration has a strong racial component to it.
White felons are not stigmatized in the same way as black felons.
But worse than that, racial prejudice seems to overwhelm other considerations.
As Professor Pager puts it, “Here, comparing the two job applicants side by side, we are confronted with a troubling reality: Being black in America today is just about the same as having a felony conviction in terms of one’s chances of finding a job.”
More troubling still, the “young black men posing as job applicants in this study were bright college kids, models of discipline and hard work; and yet, even in this best case scenario, these applicants were routinely overlooked simply on the basis of the color of their skin.”
Professor Pager believes that these results “suggest that black men must work at least twice as hard as equally qualified whites simply to overcome the stigma of their skin color.”
It comes back to this issue – if you want talk about the issues of the black underclass, conservatives start with issues like faith, breakup of the families, and drug dependency. The problem is that they see these problems uni-directionally – in other words they see lack of religious faith, the breakup of the families and drug dependency as a cause rather than an effect.
And it is a cycle – those factors do lead to additional criminality and mass incarceration but they have also been perpetuated by mass incarceration and lack of job prospects.
So let’s address the issues of the underclass, but let’s start with discrimination — because it still seems to be the dog that is wagging the tail.
—David M. Greenwald reporting