“TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.” — WB Yeats, “The Second Coming”
The New York Times Sunday Review today has a couple of pieces on the dangers of hardening social and economic polarities in the US that I think merit some reflection from the few, the thoughtful, the Corridor Conversations readers.
The pieces may seem to those of a conservative outlook to have a liberal bias. If this affects you, just ignore the bias as you would tune out the editorializing of an annoying tour guide. Put on the headphones and enjoy the ideas for their own intrinsic value as material for reflection.
NYT reporter Sam Roberts has a short essay on the historic role of incarceration in the socialization of African-American men and how it skews the picture of Black progress. The economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University has an op-ed piece on the threat posed to our social stability from the abandonment of the poor and the sundering of the middle class. Together they give us food for thought about the perils of growing social polarization. We know that, as in history to date, society will throw the cops into that widening maw. For a refresher, see “’60’s, The”
Readers of this blog know that today’s institutional breakdown produces tomorrow’s class of alienated, anti-social offenders. They know this in the meta sense of how social dysfunction affects deviance and criminal justice policy and practice and in the micro sense of the increasing numbers of effed-up households in the district or in town whose new generations will create new kinds of mayhem and new demands on police. Polarization in race and economic opportunity indicates the erosion of hope. I suspect social polarization has been a bad thing for us since homo sapiens first appeared. Society cannot survive without a reasonably fair distribution of hope. Police in and of themselves cannot control these trends. We need to think about them because of the potential harm such failures will produce. The threat is, as Yeats suggests above, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
Sam Roberts writes about a study by two sociologists that argues that when you factor prisoners into the population universe for African-American, the distribution of hope is not as widespread as it appears under conventional analysis. The sociologists are Becky Pettit and Brian Sykes.
The real problem, as Dr. Pettit sees it, is that imprisoned black men aren’t figured into statistics about the standing of African-Americans. The consequence, she says, is an overstatement of black progress in education, employment, wages and voting participation.
Dr. Pettit, of the University of Washington, has now presented her research in “Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress,” published by the Russell Sage Foundation. Among her conclusions:
¶ Among male high school dropouts born between 1975 and 1979, 68 percent of blacks (compared with 28 percent of whites) had been imprisoned at some point by 2009, and 37 percent of blacks (compared with 12 percent of whites) were incarcerated that year.
¶ By the time they turn 18, one in four black children will have experienced the imprisonment of a parent.
¶ More young black dropouts are in prison or jail than have paying jobs. Black men are more likely to go to prison than to graduate with a four-year college degree or complete military service.
Black dropouts are more likely to spend at least a year in prison than to get married.
“Among low-skill black men, spending time in prison has become a normative life event, furthering their segregation from mainstream society,” Dr. Pettit writes.
Dr. Stiglitz would like more of us, presidential nominees and other citizens like, to think harder about the implications of the falling apart of the middle class.
We’d all do well to pay a bit closer attention. That American inequality is at historic highs is undisputed. It’s not just that the top 1 percent takes in about a fifth of the income, and controls more than a third of the wealth. America also has become the country (among the advanced industrial countries) with the least equality of opportunity. Meanwhile, those in the middle are faring badly, in every dimension, in security, in income, and in wealth — the wealth of the typical household is back to where it was in the 1990s. While the recession has made all of this worse, even before the recession they weren’t faring well: in 2007, the income of the typical family was lower than it was at the end of the last century. While Obama may not have done as much as he should to counteract the steep downturn he inherited from George W. Bush upon taking office — and he underestimated the depth of the problems that had been passed along to him — he did far more than his predecessor. And he could have done far more, as the dimensions of the problem became clearer to everyone, had he not faced such strong opposition in Congress.
There are many forces giving rise to this high and rising inequality. But the fact that America’s inequality is greater than other advanced countries’ says that it’s not just market forces. After all, other advanced countries are subjected to market forces much like those confronting us. Markets don’t exist in a vacuum. Government policies — or their lack — have played a critical role in creating and maintaining these inequities.