07 February 2007

Poverty And Profiling

I had a couple of comments on my post the other day about racist hate crimes in which, contrary to the popular stereotype, blacks are the perpetrators and whites are the victims.

The questions they posed were important enough that I think they deserve to be answered in a post of their own rather. Josh in Seattle asked if I thought "poverty plays a great role in an increased crime rate in amongst African Americans or [is it] negative socialization?" and later added, "I think you will have a hard time with any longitudinal study of a specific "high crime" population that does not take into account poverty."

He then asked if I advocated "racial profiling as an effective means of crime prevention." When I responded that I was more in favour of "behaviour profiling," i.e., stopping and questioning people who dress, speech, or manner was suggestive of an antisocial or thuglike attitude, but that if such an approach impacted disproportionately on one or more racial, ethnic or cultural groups, that was no reason not to use it, since standards of civilised behaviour should be universal, not tailored to suit differing elements of society.

Both Josh and the ever-popular Mr Anonymous responded that in their opinion, such an approach would be "unconstitutional," and Anonymous also went on to ask, "Does how a person dresses go into your formulations of the "behavior profile? What about what they drive? What part of town they live in? Whether or not they are clean shaven? Where do you draw the line between actual thug-like "behavior" and stereotypical perceptions of what a thug-like person is supposed to look like?"

Before I answer, I should point out that we're in danger of getting sidetracked here. I was originally talking specifically about hate crimes committed by blacks, and my theory (though hardly mine alone) that many muggings, while classified as garden-variety robberies, actually fall more into the hate-crime category, i.e., blacks attacking whites primarily because they are white rather than for financial gain. But I suppose I brought up the profiling issue when I made reference to the disgraceful Al Sharpton's attempts to accuse the New York Police Department of doing just that, when in fact the NYPD actually stops a smaller proportion of blacks than are reported as suspects in violent crimes.

Anyway, crime is crime, regardless of motive, and many of the same tactics apply to dealing with it, so I'll answer the questions as they were given. First off, the poverty issue. I stated my opinion that crime is a cause of poverty at least as much as the other way around. I can't prove it, nor, in my opinion, can anyone prove the opposite. Crime and poverty are often if not always correlative, but trying to prove which came first leads inevitably into chicken-and-egg territory.

But I think it's important to bear in mind that "poverty" is not some condition like eczema, that appears for no apparent reason and hangs around despite all rational efforts to treat it. It's neither constant nor unchanging - rather the opposite, in fact - and can in many cases be shown to be the direct result of actions taken or not taken. University students are often poor - albeit temporarily - yet don't usually resort to crime. A guy who quits his job or drops out of school to go live in the ghetto and be an artist is almost certain to experience poverty, but again not likely to show an increased predilection toward violent crime.

It's also an outdated fallacy to assume that "black" equals "poor" in modern America. Yes, income is lower and poverty is higher among black Americans than among whites (or Asians or Latinos), but a basic grasp of statistics makes it easy to understand that there can be (and are) many whites who individually are poorer than many blacks, and that there is now a substantial and growing black middle class in this country. Since the 1960s and 70s, educational and employment opportunities for black people have steadily expanded, and those first two decades also saw a huge expenditure on LBJ's War on Poverty and an enormous expansion in welfare benefits, especially those paid to mothers with dependent children. All of this should have alleviated poverty in the black community to a considerable extent, but it is precisely during this period that crime in that community has soared to unprecedented levels. So, if poverty causes crime, please explain why decreased poverty doesn't have the opposite effect. And as a side note, please explain why poverty is still as endemic among blacks as some people seem to believe even after five decades of civil rights laws, affirmative action, and hundreds of billions of dollars in direct and indirect financial aid?

My supposition is that an economy which provides jobs, security and stability can not and will not ever flourish in a community where the rule of law is absent, and that unfortunately describes large swathes of our inner cities which are primarily occupied by blacks. Businesses can't or won't function there, schools have to pay more attention to keeping their students from getting killed (or killing each other) than actually educating them, and the cycle of illiteracy and criminal behaviour becomes self-perpetuating as women have children despite having no means of providing for them, and men impregnate those women despite having no means or intention of helping to care for their offspring.

Now you can say that this kind of behaviour is an understandable response to desperate circumstances, but it also helps to create those circumstances. It doesn't take a college degree to know that having a baby while you have no income and no husband likely to provide one is going to leave you deeper than ever in poverty. Nor does it take a lot of brains to realise that as bad and as hard as ghetto life may be, dropping out of high school and spending your days and nights hanging out in front of the liquor store is unlikely to improve the quality of that life.

When you get beyond rhetoric and feel-good leftism and the social worker syndrome so devastatingly portrayed in West Side Story's "Dear Officer Krupke," you're faced with the unpleasant but inescapable conclusion that while black Americans undeniably have a harder row to hoe as a result of racism past and present, a significant share of the responsibilty for their state in life rests, as it does with Americans of any other colour, on their own shoulders. To suggest otherwise, to tut-tut and say sadly, "Oh, but they can't help themselves, they're poor," is patronising and insulting to the millions of poor people of all races who have ended their poverty by the simple, tried-and-true measures of studying, working hard, not getting messed up on drugs and alcohol, and showing a measure of respect for their fellow man.

Now, on the subject of "profiling." I always assumed, and I think most people would similarly assume, that part of the job of being a cop is to pick out the bad guys from the good, ideally before said bad guys have had a chance to inflict too much harm or injury on others. In less "progressive" times, when cops actually had some familiarity with the neighbourhoods they patrolled rather than simply cruising through in a car or holing up in a bunker-like station until they get a report of someone being stabbed or shot, it went without saying that cops would stop "suspicious" looking people and question them, often searching them and/or telling them to clear out of the neighbourhood if they knew what was good for them, this last instruction sometimes being reinforced by a quick boot to the behind.

Minus the boot to the behind, I have no problem whatsoever with this form of law enforcement, both because it seems like common sense to me, and also because I've experienced it and know that it works.

And when I say "experienced it," I'm talking about being on the receiving end of the boot. As some of you know, I spent most of my teenage years as exactly the kind of young thug you'll often see me railing against here. I was a pretty useless piece of work: I'd steal from anyone, including my friends if I thought I'd get away with it, I'd rob your car or your house, hell, I was even ready to shoot you if you gave me enough of an excuse, and for the latter part of my teens pretty much always carried a loaded gun to reinforce that point. I hung around with a similarly inclined gang of lowlifes, and if you walked too close (i.e., anywhere near) to our stomping grounds in front of the candy store, there was a pretty good chance you were going to end up getting chased and/or beaten up.

In other words, we were exactly the kind of people you'd expect the cops to be protecting you against, and to their credit, the cops did a halfway decent job of doing so. Once the cops became aware of our presence (which admittedly took them a year or so), they were on our cases all the time, putting us up against the wall to be searched, running endless ID checks, dragging us down to the station to throw us in the lineup even when they knew we hadn't done that particular crime ("But you've done six others we haven't even heard about yet," one cop admitted to me in a moment of unusual candour).

It didn't stop us from being assholes, or from continuing to commit crimes, but it did slow us down, a lot. That gun I carried, for example: I was such a rotten kid, so full of attitude and (usually) so drunk that there's any number of times I could have shot someone, but the fact that I was always having to ditch it because of the danger of being frisked thankfully meant that it didn't happen (the one time I tried to shoot at a carload of mouthy kids, I couldn't get it out of my pocket in time because my jeans were too tight; the time I tried to shoot out the golden arches at McDonald's and hit the parking lot instead, well, it was just blind luck and the fact that my gun was only a piddling .22 that meant no one was hurt).

By the time I was 17 I was lucky if I could get more than a couple blocks from home without the cops pulling up, wanting to know where I was going, and frisking me. And of course I hated it. I complained to my parents, my teachers, to anyone who would listen about how "unfair" it was. "They just pick on us because of our hairstyles and the way we dress," I'd cry, and occasionally some gullible adult would be dumb enough to offer some sympathy and have a word with the cops.

But my uncle, who was a high school principal and so had considerable experience in dealing with thugs, echoed the words of the cops: "Don't tell me it's just a 'style.' I see kids year after year come slouching into school with a greaser haircut and pegged jeans, and while I know not all of them are headed for trouble, I can tell the ones who are. There's a certain slouch, a certain sneer, a certain chip-on-their-shoulder tone in their voice when you ask them a question. And," he said, looking straight at me, "Mister, you've got it."

So for years I hated my uncle as well as the cops, but in time I came to admire him greatly, and acquire considerable respect for the cops as well. They may not have always been nice about it, and they definitely weren't always fair, but they almost certainly stopped me from doing greater harm to myself or others than I would have done otherwise. Were they "profiling" me? Yes, most definitely. They could see my gang-style clothes and attitude coming a mile away and acted upon it. In other words, they were doing their job.

So to specifically answer the questions from Josh and Mr Anonymous: a) I don't remember seeing any provision in the Constitution guaranteeing the right to look, talk or act like a gangsta. b) Does how a person dresses influence whether they should be considered suspicious? Indubitably. Not everyone who dresses gangsta-style is a criminal today anymore than they were in my day, but sooner or later people have to learn that how you portray yourself with your clothes carries consequences. Punk rockers, hippies, drag queens, men in business suits, girls in miniskirts, all have to learn this lesson, said lesson being: you don't want to be treated like a thug, don't dress or act like one. c) The kind of car they drive? To some extent, i.e., there are certain cars preferred by gangbangers, but I'd attach more importance to the way they drive. Someone driving aggressively, racing up to stoplights, revving the engine impatiently when a pedestrian crosses in front of them, playing the stereo at a volume to disturb the neighbourhood, all of these merit a stop. Not that they are necessarily serious offences in themselves, but they are clearcut indicators that the driver is a jerk. And people willing to be jerks in small ways are more likely than the average to be jerks in more serious ways. d) Clean-shaven or not? Until we start asking the police to enforce crimes against fashion, I suppose we can leave the beardos alone, though I suspect you're asking this more with regard to profiling of Muslims as terrorism suspects, which is a somewhat different issue. The part of town they live in? This has to be done with great care: while it's true that in certain neighbourhoods a very high percentage of, say, the young men, are likely to be involved in criminal activity, the police need to avoid alienating the innocent people they are there to protect. Unfortunately it's not always easy to make an instant assessment about someone's appearance or attitude without stopping them and (at least briefly) talking to them. Obviously the police need to be as polite and reasonable as possible without jeopardising their own safety, and to apologise and thank people for their cooperation when they've determined the stop wasn't necessary.

Lastly, though this has been partially covered already, Anonymous asks, "Where do you draw the line between actual thug-like 'behaviour' and stereotypical perceptions of what a thug-like person is supposed to look like?" Well, that's basically a lawyer-like rhetorical question, and the likely-to-be-unpopular answer is that we all draw such lines in our everyday lives, whether we admit to it or not, and there's no reason to expect the police not to do the same. Only an idiot doesn't make judgments about people based on their clothing and demeanour, judgments which determine who we trust, what streets we choose to walk down or not, etc. How could you possibly deny the police, who after all have a lot more at stake, i.e., their own lives and those of the public, the right to make these same common-sense judgments? Yes, they'll get it wrong sometimes, but the alternative is not to force them into a PC strait jacket where they have to pretend, against all experience to the contrary, that everyone is above suspicion until or unless they actually shoot someone. If you think you can do better, join the police force and show them how it's done.

One other point, harking back to the discussion about poverty: I came from a relatively poor working-class background, but by no means was I suffering from the kind of poverty I assume Josh means when he suggests it as a cause of crime. I and my fellow junior thugs didn't do what we did because we were poor or saw no hope of advancing ourselves otherwise (indeed, most kids we went to school with were from similar backgrounds but were studying hard and preparing themselves to go to college or trade school and would end up pretty successful). If there was any sort of poverty underlying our criminal and antisocial behaviour, it was a moral poverty, and even there I have my doubts, because most of our families were basically pretty decent people who worked hard and sacrificed to provide for us.

No, when it comes down to it - and I've heard precisely the same story from black ex-cons and reformed gangbangers - we were thugs because it looked like fun, because we thought we were better than other people and shouldn't have to work for what we wanted like all those suckers did, because we were jerks and assholes, and because, most of all, we thought we could get away with it. When it began to turn out that we couldn't, some of us started rethinking our options (the others are dead or in prison). And that, harsh as it may appear, is how law enforcement is supposed to work.


Lefty said...

brace yourself, larry; here it comes...

btw -- here's the latest from your favorite city:


Josh in Seattle said...

1. I understand your position on the "chicken vs egg" approach and I'm hesitant to start another Google war on poverty vs crime statistics so perhaps this will fall into the "agree to disagree" category. I did make the specific mention of Messers Cosby and Williams in an attempt to echo parts of your critique on the AA community and the break down of the family. I would also add into the that more, for lack of a better word, "middle class" ambitions seen in most Asian and Latin communities. I find a staggering number of AA youth as aspiring to succeed in music or athletics...nothing inbetween.

2. The Constituion protects us from unreasonable search and seizure. Thus far, you haven't convinced me your model wouldn't run afoul of those safeguards.


Anonymous said...

Unreasonable search and seizure? Yeah, and try the Equal Protections Clause. Larry, how much do you want to bet that blonde, white kids who wear white t-shirts and baggy jeans will get apprehended less, under your proposed policy, than black kids who wear white t-shirts and baggy jeans?

How much do you want to bet that white people with beards will not be construed as threatening individuals to the same extent as Middle Eastern people with beards?

Your definitions of thug-like appearances is so prejudicial and subjective that, no matter how many may share your views, I don't think it would pass constitutional muster.

Besides this, there's also, in my view, First Amendment issues implicated here. People have the right to express themselves by wearing whatever clothes they want (with very few limitations). Commensurate with this right is the right to be able to do so without being legally discriminated against and profiled by the police.

Now, as a practical matter, I'm sure the police already do what you're suggesting they should do (and then some), in violation of the law. But to suggest that we transform such a questionable informal practice into a legally sanctioned means of law enforcement is, in my view, not only unconstitutionally burdensome on the individual citizen's right to express themselves, but also a little short-sighted.

How about we just treat everyone equally? Now there's an idea.

Havard said...

I went to school with black kids from families with six figure incomes that commuted over 20 miles to join gangs. Eight years later, most of them are dead. Not a single one was living in poverty. Poverty isn't the reason, but the result of crime and thuggish behavior.

Dave said...

Sadly Larry, I must agree with Anonymous here with regards to your profiling tactics; just because you're ashamed of Young Larry doesn't mean everyone fits that portrait and should suffer harassment accordingly.

That said, part of your argument makes sense; if you dress like a thug, people will assume you are one. It amazes me when kids wearing purposely lewd, obscene, or inflammatory shirts meant to offend people piss and moan when they do. Granted, I often wear such clothing, but I do so knowing that, at some point, someone will react negatively and I'll have to deal with it, generally by being as polite as possible.

And comparing real poverty to fake, overexaggerated, bumming-off-my-parents undergrad poverty is insulting to poor people, who don't have parents rich enough to bail them out financially when they make questionable decisions with their money.

Regarding black poverty, it's true that lots of progress has been made and that a black middle class is emerging, but there are still hoops a lot of blacks have to jump through for things like loans, housing, and jobs (you can't sound "too black" over the phone, I've heard) that other ethnicities don't have to put up with. Chris Rock described being black as always being 50 cents short, which rings true these days when the prejudice is more subtle.

Anonymous said...

On second thought, what's the Constitution but some piece of paper that means what five Supreme Court justices say it is?

Roberts, Alito, Scalia, Thomas....

One more right-wing justice and, well, anything written in the Constitution can mean anything they say it means, and permit anything they say it permits.

Seriously, though, I don't think people realize the extent to which our country is 10-20 stopped heartbeats away from reverting back to an oligarchy in which personal liberty and privacy, lip service to these principles notwithstanding, is regarded as a quaint, impractical ideal of simpler times.