The Dreadful Black Inner City Trap

What happens to your life when you are born in a tar pit, where your first step begins the process of dragging you down?

We white privileged folk usually fail to appreciate what it is like to grow up in an environment where crime and decay are everywhere. Dangerous parts of black inner cities are one sort of negative environment, but there are others, such as the many ghettoes and restricted quarters, present and historical, where various minorities and the most recent wave of immigrants, are confined and oppressed. Deep poverty is, in fact, more prevalent outside the inner city, with non-blacks.

What happens to your life
when you are born in a tar pit?

Each such place has unwritten rules that determine what you should do under its particular social conditions. These are social rules that are determined by local custom, because the law has rarely been helpful where polite society sees such citizens as naturally inferior.

Alice Goffman’s new book, On the Run, chronicles the six years she moved among the black denizens of one of Philadelphia’s roughest neighborhoods, and what she learned about the ways these people survived and how they dealt with each other. And what she shows with this firsthand account is that it’s an extremely complex situation that is fraught with danger and few good guys.

Virtually everyone among her primary characters is constantly involved in criminal activity of various sorts. Goffman does not excuse this, but accepts these people for what they are. There are few intact families, usually because the father is not present. Everyone has a gun. Drugs are everywhere. Many women have children at a young age. Some men do have jobs, but these are hard to come by, pay poorly, and are easily lost when the men are picked up by the police for legitimate or non-legitimate reasons. Nor are employers eager to hire young men with police records or outstanding warrants.

It’s an extremely complex situation
that is fraught with danger
and few good guys.

Once a young man has attracted the attention of the legal system, a lengthy list of restrictions on his life descends that is very difficult to satisfy. He has a curfew. He cannot drink a beer, cannot be out of his house past some arbitrary time, cannot leave the neighborhood to go see a show, can’t have an ordinary date with his woman, etc., etc. His life is reduced to boredom, and any violation, including forgetting to go to any of many meetings with his parole officer, or a court appearance, or to pay court fees with money he does not have and cannot earn may be grounds for rearrest.

Yet, in the midst of all, there are young men who are adamant about staying clean, and avoiding their comrades who have not. It’s not easy, but even in bad neighborhoods there are those who work honestly or go to class every day and get an education, keep their jobs, and entirely avoid the criminals all around them. It can be done. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor grew up in just such a neighborhood.

“Decent” society is represented by the police and the legal apparatus. The police in this setting are uniformly brutal and destructive. Goffman and her subjects were chatting on the front stoop where her subjects lived late one night, when the police arrived and attacked a man on the sidewalk who was the boyfriend of a casual friend. In the process of this arrest, the man was strangled to death. The police blamed his death on something else, and were never punished. 

In the midst of all, there are
young men who stay clean.

On another occasion, when she was sleeping on the couch at 3AM, the police battered down the door, threw her to the floor and handcuffed her, and freely destroyed the apartment, dumping the drop-ceiling tiles on the floor, emptying every drawer, knocking over furniture, slashing the couch. In this case, the mother had expected a raid, so her sons were nowhere to be found, either that night or in succeeding nights, when the police returned to do more damage. Needless to say, the mother didn’t have the money to repair even the door.

As I mentioned in my previous posting, the legal system itself is corrupt to the core, beholden to the hundreds of millions of dollars profit to be gained from the prison industry. And that is the legacy of the long-standing and false belief of virtually all politicians that they must be “tough on crime” rather than attempt to ameliorate truly bad social conditions. The police, who should be protectors, end up being oppressors. There is no reasonable explanation for a prison population that is eleven times higher than it was forty years ago. Goffman’s young men are no angels, but it really doesn’t matter much, because the system is fully aligned against them.

Few of the young men graduate high school, although some do manage to get a GED and attempt to build a real life. It’s worth asserting at this point that these African-Americans are quite capable of intellectual development, and they are not lazy and intent on living on government handouts, as conservatives so often claim. It is the system and the culture that traps them.

The police in this setting are
uniformly brutal and destructive.

Trouble with the law usually starts in early teen years, and gets worse from there. With younger kids, poor nutrition and lack of parental guidance—typical marks of poverty—create a child on the edge, less able to do school work, and likely to create his own trouble. From there it progresses so that virtually every male who doesn’t somehow manage to escape the criminal milieu comes to serve time on multiple occasions.

Altogether, it’s a hopeless and depressing situation. If there is to be any sort of solution it will not come from urging people to shape up. They are trapped, and poverty and the law makes escape very difficult.

It’s a situation more than a century in the making, beginning with systematic abuse of black citizens after emancipation, systematic neglect of their housing and public infrastructure, underfunded schools, poor services such as public transportation, and all the rest. It is very difficult for a young man to extract himself from the situation, and once he has achieved something there are dozens of ways he can be dragged back.

Suppose a young man has somehow managed to stay clean into his twenties. He graduated from high school with high grades, and now has a job that pays better than fast food joints. He is taking evening classes at the nearby community college, and doing well. But he cannot afford to live in a better place, and one evening he arrives home from class and the police jump on him, beat him up pretty bad, plant drugs on him, and arrest him. He is thrown in jail and his case is not called for a week. His job is gone, his study is interrupted, and he is injured. Now he has no income and has caught the attention of the police. Even if he is able to stay clean, he now has mandatory court appearances to fit into his life, and the police know him and may arrest him again for no particular reason. The point is that without escape from the entire situation, it is still difficult to stay out of trouble.

If there is any solution to be found,
it is going to take a long-term
civic commitment.

Goffman’s neighborhood and everyone in it are an ongoing disaster. If there is any solution to be found, it is going to take a long-term civic commitment, with enough public money provided to redress the historic neglect of the neighborhood and encouragement for multiple generations of young people. Providing equal money for every student in the nation’s schools, as I suggested recently, would surely help. Since nearly everyone uses drugs it will take an intensive program to reduce the problem. Since the place is awash in guns and violence, it will take the heavy presence of armed officials who are not associated with brutal police to get the level of violence down. It wouldn’t hurt to have places for young people to go for more healthy social activities like sports or music.

But the most significant problem in such neighborhoods is lack of opportunity. These young people are practically doomed from birth, as our fictional young man above is, no matter what they do. We don’t know what the solutions may be. What will not work is more of the same.


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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Good article, but I disagree slightly with your emphasis. There is a tendency for “society” to manufacture the problem and then blame the people on the receiving end of the problem AS the problem. I do believe there are social forces which intentionally set certain sections of society up to fail. Your example of police behaviour is most relevant. A law abiding person doing everything right can be sabotaged by the police so that they can’t escape the bad environment. As the police are the tools of somebody, and they don’t treat upper class people this way, it is hard to explain away as anything other than deliberate policy. A bad environment sabotages potentially everyone who lives in it. The solution is that the police must be held to confining their attention to people they have reasonable grounds to suspect of criminal activity. If they extracted the real criminals out of these areas, that would be a great help. It would also be good if there was a degree of social responsibility for the provision of decent jobs providing a living wage, decent fair priced accommodation, good libraries and reasonably priced further education. In other words, the foundations of a good environment which anyone can work with. People don’t need to be reduced to helpless dependency then smoothed over with hand-outs, just an environment in which they can help themselves. But I suspect their is a political agenda in creating ghettoes – it takes whole swathes of the populace out of the competition.


    • A good take. I agree that it is not handouts that will help, but equality of opportunity.


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