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Courtney Wang | Class of ’18 | February 29th, 2016

Who is a “criminal?”

Criminology Professor Vernetta Young of Howard University uses the term “criminalblackman” to refer to our society’s common perception of the typical criminal: black, young, poor, urban males. How did we get this perception of a criminal?

In our society, politicians, police, the media, and the criminal justice system all have a strong influence on how the public views crime by shaping the public’s perception and fears of criminal behavior. This ‘official’ portrait of crime created by these institutions of power works in a way that further stigmatizes, marginalizes, and excludes lower-class citizens by making crime primarily the work of poor people of color. Trapped in a cycle of poverty, the poor may be forced to rely on an illegitimate economy just to scrape by, reinforcing the belief that crime is a threat from the poor. It is easy to believe that whichever individuals the criminal justice system targets must be our greatest threat. However, what these stereotypes about crime really accomplish is work to maintain a system of racial inequality that our current system of mass incarceration makes extremely difficult to break out of.

Our criminal justice system can be described as a disguised system of racialized control. Michelle Alexander explains this idea in her book The New Jim Crow, where she compares today’s system of mass incarceration with the injustice of the Jim Crow era. Today, with the concept of “colorblindness,” it is no longer socially acceptable to explicitly use race as a basis for discrimination and exclusion. Alexander argues that instead, we rely on the criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals,” and then enact all of the discriminatory practices that we engaged in during the time of Jim Crow. She suggests that instead of ending racial caste in the U.S., we have just redesigned it. By labeling someone a “criminal,” many old forms of discrimination such as housing and employment discrimination, and denial of the right to vote become legal–practices that we supposedly left behind with Jim Crow.

Alexander argues that many African Americans are prevented from socioeconomic mobility by the law because of our criminal justice system, and thus a racial “undercaste” is sustained. The United States imprisons more of its racial and ethnic minorities that any other country in the world, and much of this unrightfully stems from the “War on Drugs.” Contrary to popular belief, drug crime had actually been declining when the drug war was declared. Furthermore, Whites and Blacks use and sell drugs at very similar rates, yet in some states, Black men have been incarcerated for drug-related offenses at rates twenty to fifty times greater than those of White men. In his book In Search of Respect, Philippe Bourgois examines substance abuse in the inner city, and suggests that it is simply a symptom of deeper issues of social marginalization and exclusion. Over half of the population of Bourgois’s East Harlem neighborhood should not be able to meet their subsistence needs, but this massive underground drug market allows hundreds of thousands of residents in poor neighborhoods to scrape by with the minimal necessities. Growing up poor in a rich city has led to what Bourgois calls “inner-street culture:” a complex web of beliefs, values, and ideologies that have developed in resistance to exclusion from mainstream society. However, even though street culture emerged out of a search for dignity and in opposition of subjugation, it can lead to community devastation in the way that many of its participants end up trapped in lifestyles of violence and substance abuse–further enforcing the stereotype of crime being primarily the work of poor and perpetuating this cycle of racial inequality.

Karen Joe speaks to the dangers of how people’s stereotypes and perception of crime can influence policy decisions, regardless of the actual truth. In her article, Joe talks about the existence of a conspiratorial view among some police, policymakers, and the media that Asian gangs are connected to organized Asian crime groups and to the trafficking of heroin. Consequently, these concerns are shaping public policy so that efforts have been specifically geared toward the suppression of Asian gangs with less attention to prevention in Asian communities. However, Joe found that the Asian gangs she studied were not participating in formally organized controlled criminal enterprises, but rather, Asian gang members may establish informal connections with individual members of triads for a variety of legitimate and illegitimate reasons. The gangs or groups simply provide the context to establish these connections between individuals. Joe’s analysis sheds light on the importance of moving away from generalizing the experiences of gangs as conspiratorial, intricately organized groups, and rather we need to take into consideration the critical variances among groups and individuals.

During my time as a Community Bridges Fellow, I frequently work in Houston’s Fifth Ward, a predominantly Black community. Over the past two months, I have witnessed more arrests in the Fifth Ward than I have in the past year around Rice. It is easy to see the racial bias in the criminal justice system in the way that many low-income minority neighborhoods are more heavily policed compared to other neighborhoods. When the police target poorer neighborhoods, they greatly contribute to the disproportionate number of racial minorities represented in our criminal justice system. In doing so, the criminal justice system creates and reinforces stereotypes about crime being primarily a threat from poor people of color. It is important to keep these assumptions in mind when thinking about who is a criminal, because we are only getting a snapshot of the full picture of crime and the racial inequality that our system of mass incarceration produces.