No justice in justices' comments on black criminality
Every once in a while someone says something that stirs up a few days of arguments over whether they were insensitive or not. Most recently it was a couple of Washington State Supreme Court justices who offered their opinions on black criminality.
Seattle Times staff columnist
"The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better" book by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Allen Lane, 2009.
"The Hidden Cost of Being American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality" book by Thomas Shapiro, Oxford Press, 2004.
"Race at Work" Princeton study: www.princeton.edu/~pager/race_at_work.pdf
Jerks we will have with us always, but some things we can change.
Every once in a while someone says something that stirs up a few days of arguments over whether they were insensitive or not.
Most recently it was a couple of Washington State Supreme Court justices who offered their opinions on black criminality. Richard Sanders and James Johnson said black people are overrepresented in the prison system strictly because we commit more crimes and that discrimination in the system is not a contributing factor. Apparently there is no bias when the people deciding your fate assume from the get-go that you are inclined toward criminality.
I prefer intelligent, nuanced, sensitive comments myself, but what really bothers me are the underlying inequalities that are so much harder to address than a single person's attitude. That's the stuff we can and should fix.
I would have amended the judges' remarks on crime by saying that sometimes circumstances increase the rates of certain crimes.
If you have your hand on the till on Wall Street, you may commit one kind of crime.
If you are experiencing the effects of intergenerational poverty, living in a cluster of other people in the same situation with most avenues for escape absent, you may be more likely to engage in some of the less-glamorous crimes.
Some poor people are just bad. So are some rich people, but deep, persistent poverty damages people's prospects.
Black people have higher poverty rates than most Americans and higher poverty is associated with higher crime rates. That effect is aggravated by longterm poverty and bias.
More equality of opportunity would change that formula.
Great disparities in wealth, which we are increasingly experiencing, distort democracy. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, "We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."
While the rich have been getting richer, the poor have been getting poorer.
Black Americans have been especially hard hit, facing biases that keep poverty high.
Poverty and racial biases reinforce each other.
If you are concentrated in neighborhoods where jobs are scarce and schools fail, you are more likely to be unemployed than people in better places.
If on top of that, employers are reluctant to hire you even when you are qualified, then you may go long stretches without wealth. You may find other avenues for income. A 2004 Princeton University study showed that employers are more likely to hire white ex-cons than black men with clean records.
If this situation lasts for generations, you may not have the same family or community support for climbing out of this hole that someone else might have. You can predict school performance by family income and the mother's educational level.
You may have more health problems, including more mental-health problems, which will affect both your ability to get work and your behavior in general.
You may get into trouble with the law. And if, when arrested, you are more likely to be convicted and imprisoned than other people, you may re-enter society with less chance of success than before.
And what about the kids you left behind? And what about the neighborhood? Does it decline?
If the cycle isn't broken, people who don't see the barriers may say, there is simply something wrong with those people.
And when you show up before them for a job, for justice, for a home, for an education, they may decide you are not worthy.
Break this cycle, and we will all live in a less distorted and more pleasant place.
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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