December 19th, 2014
Excusing Poor Criminals Is Another Brand Of Bigotry
Poverty is not easy in any country. Sure, compared to poverty in other, less well-off nations, American poverty may not be as harsh and we have a series of safety nets in both the private and public spheres. But those safety nets are sometimes hanging by a thread or barriers have been erected barring access to them.
Poverty is rough, we should do everything we can to lift people out of it and I’m a progressive because I believe that part of our work as a society should be towards helping people lift themselves out of it.
But poverty is not an excuse for immorality.
Poverty is not a reason for breaking the rules and laws of society, even if you believe (as I do) that the penalties and punishments for some criminal acts are more severe than they need to be. It’s not an excuse.
My writing on this is based in part on this recent discussion from MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, but honestly this is a discussion that has gone on back and forth in black America for a long time now.
Ms. Perry and others appear to be dead-set on a message towards the poor, specifically the black poor, that as a result of their life circumstances it is excusable for them to be in jail and that until sentences are re-adjusted or eliminated for certain criminal acts, it is perfectly okay for the black community (particularly in urban areas) to embrace a culture lacking in shame for committing criminal acts.
That is, if someone is a parent and is sentenced to a disproportionately long prison sentence for selling crack cocaine (for example), that this is somehow acceptable. The harshness of the criminal penalty therefore excuses breaking the law, because they were poor – and well, what are poor people to do besides commit crimes?
This line of thought is abhorrent to me. It assumes that we should have a different system of social judgment for criminals depending on their economic backgrounds. It infantilizes poor people in a way, telling them that they’re inferior and just can’t be judged by the same standards of society we use with the middle and upper classes. It is a terrible message to send, and I would argue it is part of the cycle – in addition to external pressures and the legacy of institutional racism – that keeps black Americans from succeeding in the way other cultures have in this country.
Regardless of how we feel about the penalties for those various crimes or how our criminal justice system deals with them, we are all well aware of what is and isn’t within the borders of legality. You cannot excuse a criminal due to his socioeconomic status.
Just because it’s really dumb – in my eyes – to lock someone up for marijuana (a less dangerous substance than alcohol), doesn’t mean that you haven’t done something stupid when buying or selling it.
And let’s not fool ourselves, the vast vast majority of people who are arrested for these things in urban America aren’t performing some sort of Martin Luther King-style act of civil disobedience. They did so because they thought they could get away with doing something illegal.
That’s one of the problems plaguing black America. The unwillingness, especially from the intellectual classes who should know better, to condemn this type of behavior.
Sorry, but America’s history of racism and wealth inequality does not make your criminal act okay. Especially if you are a parent, particularly a father in this instance, you have forsaken a societal duty to be an upstanding law-abiding citizen.
This has an effect. If children not only grow up in single-parent households, but in a society that accepts incarceration as a part of life, it allows a cancer to grow inside of it.
No matter the problems with laws and external pressures, we are responsible in large part for our own destinies. Bad luck is bad luck but we should at least have a culture where we raise up those who do the right thing out of concern for their families and communities.
And there are millions who do it. That’s the most galling thing to me in this entire discussion. It assumes, in my view, that it is simply impossible to make it at society’s lowest rungs without breaking the law and being an outlaw.
But MILLIONS of people do it. It doesn’t make headlines, because what bleeds leads. “Man And Woman Raise Child, Don’t Break Any Laws” is a yawner headline, but millions of people are able to make it through life without breaking the law – regardless of their economic status. They know right from wrong, and it had no bearing on whether their bank account balance was 1 digit or 50.
They are the heroes, but we need more of them. And President Obama’s completely uncontroversial assertion that we’d have less problems with inner city crime if we had more fully functional family units does not denigrate the hard work single mothers (like my own) have done – but it acknowledges that the ideal, the absolute best situation for our kids is a complete mother and father unit. Study after study bears it out that while not always an achievable goal (again, in my own case it was probably in my best interests for my parents to separate), it should be the goal we orient our society around.
And it isn’t out of any hubris or middle class superiority, but because it’s the best environment for children to grow up in – the same people who will become adults and the people who set the ground rules for the next generation of people.
We need to stop coming up with a laundry list of excuses for bad behavior and poor individual choices, while also working on the deficiencies beyond individual control in our society. Neither is independent of the other, but neither do we have to wait until one problem is solved before a solution is implemented for the other.
We should be encouraging parents and the communities around them to encourage moral behavior in their children, not excusing immoral acts because of past institutionalized hatred.
We can be better, we should aim higher, we should do the right thing as best we can.
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