Culture and Society

Deconstructing Racism in America: Part 5, Inequality’s Last Stop

Twenty or so generations have passed since that September nearly 400 years ago when slaves landed at Jamestown. For the first ten generations or so, we continued to purchase slaves in Africa and ship them across the Atlantic. The first 13 generations were born into slavery. And of the 20 generations that have come to pass since Africans were first brought to America, only two have been born and reached adulthood in a time where they were not legally segregated from the rest of society and prohibited from education, jobs and full participation in the democratic process. That’s people my age, and their adult children. Everyone else, didn’t have a chance.

The outcome is inarguable inequality.

African Americans suffer from twice the poverty rate of other Americans. They make half the income f white and Asian Americans. And they have twice the rate of unemployment. Those are facts. And in an economy that continues to devalue low skilled labor and pay higher premiums for higher skilled labor, we’re seeing something else happening. What was once segregation that was mandated by law is now transitioning into economic segregation because of a widening wage gap. More African American children go to school in schools of majority African American population today, than they did in the 80’s. Our urban populations are now a majority minority for the first time in our history. We are walling ourselves off from each other, again. And it’s leading to the 21st century version of racial oppression in America, crime and punishment.

It’s an easy solve right? Just don’t break the law and you’ll be fine. Probably fits on a meme or a bumper sticker. Probably is already on one. It turns out though it doesn’t really work that way. Not in America. And not anywhere else really either. And it has nothing at all to do with race.

In 2002, Norman Loayza and Daniel Lederman of the World Bank and Pablo Fajnzybler of the University of Minas Gerais published a paper titled Inequality and Violent Crime. It’s brilliant. You can Google it and read it. What they found in the global economic and crime data challenged conventional beliefs that violent crime was something poor people committed or fell victim to. What they found was actually that conventional thinking wasn’t entirely wrong. It was just incomplete. Violent crime was something that poor people committed and were victimized by more regularly than others. But not all poor people. In fact, really poor people in really uniformly poor places committed very little violent crime at all. And well off people in just about any place committed very little violent crime.

So who’s committing the violent crime then?

Well it turns out it’s poor people living in areas where there are also rich people. It seems correlation between crime rates and inequality are pretty clear. It also turns out that, when you normalize the data to account for economic disparities associated by race, it appears not to matter at all. Which means that poor people or certain races don’t commit more violent crime. Poor people of any race that live in societies rife with inequality commit violent crime.

But why?

The answer is simple behavioral economics. My favorite definition of behavioral economics is that it’s the study of decision making. It’s less about the numbers and patterns, though those are fun too. It’s about what economics can tell us about the decisions we humans make and why we make them. And when it comes to why there’s a strong correlation between income inequality and crime, you can settle on the economics of opportunity cost. Opportunity is the indirect cost we must consider when we decide to do something that may prohibit us from doing something else that might yield a benefit. Going to the movies with my wife costs me 20 bucks. But if I take the day off from work, and I make a hundred dollars a day the total cost of the decision to go to the movies wasn’t 20 dollars. It was 120 dollars.

The opportunity cost of committing a violent crime, being caught and convicted, for someone on financially stable ground in America is too high for it to happen systemically. For someone with little or no economic outlook to speak of, that cost is small enough to enable systemic patterns. Additionally, the motivation to commit a crime in a society where everyone around you is poor and you have little material gain from committing a crime is also less so. So it doesn’t happen much. Which means that people either view their decision to commit a crime, in those instances where there is a conscious decision to commit one, through three lenses: 1) having too much to lose 2) not enough to gain or 3) nothing to lose and lots to gain.

#3, is just a little too enticing for our caveman brains when you scale it across millions of decisions a day across America.

You’ll notice, conspicuously absent from that list is whether you’re black or white. It doesn’t feel that way in America though. It feels like race is a part of it. Well,  in America, that’s specifically where the economic inequality line breaks. So it’s coincidental. Not causal.  It’s not just the straight income and poverty levels that matter though. It’s that African Americans live disproportionately in urban America, along side our very richest Americans.  That’s a phenomenon that isn’t going away.  So neither is the problem.

18 out of 20 generations have been excluded from the economic surplus of America. Of the 540 billionaires in America, three are African American. Oprah, Michael Jordan and investor Robert Smith. There has never been a billion dollar fortune passed to an African American. And though there is no longer any legal barriers separating white America and black America, that bridge is still far too narrow for the masses in good time. And factors like globalization and de-industrialization in America are widening the gap we’ve cast it across.

The long term effects of our inequality gap and the near mathematically predictable crime rate is that we are slowly eroding our African American communities through incarceration and violence. For every 100 African American women, there are 83 men. The 17 missing are in jail or dead. In urban centers like Ferguson MO, it’s has high as 40 men missing. If you’re wondering, for white America, that total is one man missing for every 100 women.

This is that odd place where conservative ideology of putting the family at the center of our society and the cold hard facts of centuries of segregation come together to tell us, that on our current trajectory we’re rapidly eroding the African American culture in our country. And that’s a cycle that picks up momentum as the inequality gap widens. It has nothing to do with race. And everything to do with math.

So what happens when you raise your hand to protect and serve in that dynamic? That’s next in Part 6.

–> Tomorrow: Part 6: Law Enforcement and Inequality

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3 replies »

  1. Good article and points taken. For accuracy purposes here are two more African American billionaires: Robert Johnson (BET Founder) and Robert Smith, Founder of Vista Equity.