Do Poor Blacks Live in a Police State?

A New Lecture: “Anti-Black Discrimination in the Age of Obama” by Dr. Algernon Austin

The simplistic idea that impoverished African Americans have only themselves to blame for their poverty, due to their poor cultural values—a notion advanced by many, including black public figures such as Bill Cosby—is believable only if a blind eye is turned to those inconvenient things social scientists like to call “facts.” Algernon Austin soundly refutes the “culture of poverty” argument by paying careful attention to marco-economic data about long-term poverty trends and sociological case studies about persistent discrimination. In other words, unlike the glib punditry, Austin actually looks at the “facts.”
--Dr. Andrew Hartman, professor and audience member, IllinoisStateUniversity

Contact Dr. Austin to arrange a speaking engagement.

Like Henry Louis Gates Jr., all black men in America, are likely to have at least one negative experience with the criminal justice system. For poor black men in America's cities, however, these negative experiences are not rare events, but can occur monthly, weekly or even daily.

Alice Goffman, a sociologist who spent six years studying the men in a poor, black, Philadelphia neighborhood, documented the intense policing that she saw in her first year and a half of research.
I watched the police stop pedestrians or people in cars, search them, run their names to see if any warrants came up, ask them to come in for questioning, or make an arrest at least once a day, with five exceptions. I watched the police break down doors, search houses, and question, arrest, or chase suspects through houses 52 times. Police helicopters circled overhead and beamed search lights onto local streets nine times. I noted blocks taped off an traffic redirected as police searched for evidence or "secured a crime scene" 17 times. I watched the police punch, choke, kick, stomp on, or beat young men with night sticks 14 times during this first year and a half. ("On the Run: Wanted Men in a Philadelphia Ghetto," American Sociological Review 74, June: 343.)
Over a year and a half, only five days passed with Goffman not seeing some sort of police action.

One reason for the intense policing of this neighborhood is probably a high crime rate. But what Goffman illustrates in her article is that our criminal justice policies ultimately encourage crime and incarceration among poor, black men.

Criminologists have shown that work and family ties keep men from returning to criminal activity. The criminal justice policies that black, male ex-offenders are subject to often disrupt their relationship to work and to family thereby increasing the men's likelihood of returning to criminal activity.

Many people criticize young black men for not having ties to children they father. These people should, therefore, be upset that the police work to sever these ties from the day of the birth of the child. Goffman reports that one young black man, Alex, was arrested on the hospital delivery room floor after the birth of his son. Goffman states, "After Alex was arrested, other young men expressed hesitation to go to the hospital when their babies were born" (p. 345). On the day, Alex was arrested, the police also took into custody two other men on the delivery room floor.

Some might say that Alex simply should not have committed the crime that led to his arrest. What exactly led to Alex's arrest in the hospital? He violated his parole by drinking alcohol. Alex is 22 years old. Lots of 22 year olds of all races and classes drink alcohol, but our criminal justice system disproportionately imprisons poor, young, black men for this "crime."

The citizens of Pennsylvania spent roughly $30,000 [PDF] in tax dollars to punish Alex with a year in prison for drinking alcohol. Imprisoning someone like Alex in this situation strains his relationship to his girlfriend, child and extended family which means that upon release from prison he is more likely to commit an actual crime as opposed to the "crime" of drinking alcohol when one is 22 years old. In essence, the state of Pennsylvania has spent $30,000 in the hopes of making Alex into a hardened, career criminal who will neglect his son.

Another person Goffman knew was Mike, a 24 years old who was also parole. Mike managed to find work at a Taco Bell. She writes,
Mike refused to return to the halfway house in time for curfew one night, saying he could not spend another night cooped up with a bunch of men like he was still in jail. He slept at his girlfriend's house, and in the morning found that he had been issued a violation and would likely be sent back to prison . . . . Two parole officers arrested him the next day as he was leaving the Taco Bell. (p. 345-346)
Here we see the zero tolerance of the parole system preventing a young man from working a legal job.

It is very difficult for young, black, men with a criminal record to find work. For the "crime" of sleeping at his girlfriend's house, Mike loses his job at Taco Bell and will probably have a more difficult time finding legal work in the future. If Mike cannot find legal work in the future he is more likely to resort to criminal activity to make a living. To encourage Mike to become a hardened, career criminal the citizens of Pennsylvania spent about $30,000.

Goffman reports that nearly 40 percent of the young men in the neighborhood had been issued warrants for their arrest for these technical violations of their probation or parole. Technical violations include drinking and missing a curfew. Given that most young adults drink alcohol and stay out late, requiring young adult paroles to desist from this behavior is to design a system that guarantees a high rate of failure. The Pew Center on the States reported that in 2005 in California statewide nearly 40 percent [PDF] of paroles were returned to prison for technical violations. Incarcerating individuals for technical violations is an extremely expensive policy that definitely increases the incarceration rate and probably increases the crime rate in the long run.

Poor, young, black men are also disproportionately sent back to prison essentially for being poor. Goffman tells of Anthony "who was 22 years old and homeless" and who "had a bench warrant out for his arrest because he had not paid $173 in court fees" (p. 344). Anthony cannot afford to find a place to live, but our legal system expects him to find $173 to pay for court fees. Poor ex-offenders may find themselves in this situation, but middle-class and rich ex-offenders will not. For many of the nonpoor, $173 is a trivial amount. For the poor, it is not. The poor will therefore be overrepresented among those re-incarcerated for the failure to pay fees.

Many of the young, black men Goffman studied were involved in drug dealing. They were also all struggling financially to some degree. Anthony was not the only homeless one. Contrary to the stories told in rap music and to what is shown in music videos, most real-life street-level drug dealers are poor. They are not spending "Benjamins" like Diddy or Fifty Cent. For example, Goffman tells of Mike who was too embarrassed to attend Parent's Day at his son's school. Mike fell behind on his son's Catholic school fees because he was not making enough money from dealing drugs to afford it.

In the neighborhood with such intense policing, everyone knows that one need not be guilty of a crime to be arrested. One of the young men Goffman knew, Reggie, left a gun in his home that was found during a police search. Although it was Reggie's gun, Reggie's mother was arrested. The police "told her she would be charged for the gun unless she told them where to find Reggie" (p. 350). Reggie and his mother lived at Reggie's grandfather's home. The grandfather kicked Reggie out of his house knowing that if the police kept returning to his house "they going to find some reason to book my Black ass" (p. 350). Another Goffman informant states that "whoever they [the police] looking for , even if it's not you, nine times out of ten they'll probably book you" (p. 344).

Poor, young, black men live in a different world from the world of Henry Louis Gates Jr. These men regularly have negative interactions with the police. Once they get on wrong path, our criminal justice system encourages them to stay on the wrong path. Instead of working to foster strong relationships to work and family, the criminal justice system blithely disrupts these fragile relationships. Instead of recognizing that a homeless young man simply does not have $173, the state spends $30,000 to punish the young man for being poor. Without question, America has the worst criminal justice system that money can buy.

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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.

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