I recently finished teaching my first undergraduate course. The students in the fifteen-person seminar, titled “Race, Poverty, and American Criminal Justice,” in Columbia College’s American Studies program were smart, engaging, and engaged. They were generations younger than I, and I expected that the experiences and outlooks that they would bring to the course’s topics would be different from mine. This was evident in the seminar’s first couple of weeks.
We started by examining what is often called America’s mass incarceration. America imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other country, and the prisoners are disproportionately non-whites. (We do lock up many, many white people, but not at the same rate as brown and black people.) The seminar’s initial reading was a seminal work that sought to explain the increase in incarceration by contending that it was due to a racist-inspired war on drugs. The students had no trouble accepting the author’s premises. I was not surprised. There is a lot of merit in the author’s position. Incarceration surged when the war on drugs began, and even though studies consistently show similar rates of drug use between whites and non-whites, the percentage of blacks jailed for drugs has been much higher than for whites. The students in the elective seminar easily marched with the author, and no one challenged any part of her thesis.
I also assigned another book about mass incarceration. This author, too, discussed a racist war on drugs, but he noted that the majority of people in jails was not there for drug offenses. He maintained that mass incarceration did not have a single cause but was the result of many actions including the war on drugs, harsher sentencing for repeat offenders, increased sentences for all manner of crimes, stricter bail practices, and harsher policing. This author, however, stressed that these changes could not simply be labeled racist. He highlighted the fact that just as blacks are imprisoned disproportionately, blacks disproportionately commit certain crimes, and, importantly, blacks are disproportionately the victims of crime. He discussed the often devastating effect of crime and the fear of crime on neighborhoods, especially black neighborhoods. Then he marshaled evidence showing that many of the tough-on-crime provisions fueling mass incarceration were advocated for by blacks who legitimately feared crime and its damage to their communities.
The students pushed back against this thesis. They had walked into class knowing about mass incarceration that affected the black community, and they wanted to accept that the cause was purely and simply racism. They wanted to keep their simplistic reasoning. That blacks had helped cause the problem because of legitimate fears for their own safety upset their world with nuances and new thoughts. That, of course, is what a college course should do, and our initial discussions about this thesis did not surprise me. What did surprise me, however, was the students’ lack of empathy with the victims of crime. They seemed to have no intrinsic understanding of fear of crime or that many in society might have had identifiable reasons to believe that they would be better off if more people were arrested and incarcerated. (Most of the students were of the firm belief that if we understood the roots of crime and changed those sources, we would not need any prisons.)
I tried to evoke a personal reaction and asked, “Shouldn’t you be able to get off the subway at eleven at night and walk home without being afraid?” They gave me the “Duh” look. Of course, their faces seemed to say, but what a stupid question. They looked as if they could not imagine being afraid coming home. Perhaps there were some that had been victims of fear-inducing crime, but I did not ask because I thought that might tread on the too personal. Instead it seemed clear that most could not fathom the prevalence and strength of urban fear of crime that once existed and how that affected and shaped lives.
I perhaps could have told my own stories of being a crime victim multiple times, but the course was not about me. The classroom discussion, however, did lead me to reflect not so much about being robbed at knifepoint or the house being broken into or cars and bikes being stolen, but more about how crime concerns affected my everyday life. I thought about what I had asked, the apprehension of walking from the subway to the house late at night, but for some reason that took my thinking back to a time when running was my nearly daily activity.
(continued May 15)