As we have watched tense confrontations between the police and protesters unfold each night in Ferguson, Mo., since Darren Wilson, a police officer on the Ferguson force, shot 18-year-old Michael Brown to death, I have found myself thinking about (among other things) a recent piece by Malcolm Gladwell about race and crime in the United States. Reviewing two books — a 1972 study of organized crime and “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City,” Alice Goffman’s new book about policing in Philadelphia — Gladwell argues that certain policing strategies have fractured American society rather than bringing us together in a more robust community.


Demonstrators protesting the shooting death of Michael Brown make their voices heard on Monday in Ferguson, Mo.  (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

“Irish gangsters dominated organized crime in the urban Northeast in the mid to late nineteenth century, followed by the Jewish gangsters—Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, and Dutch Schultz, among others. Then it was the Italians’ turn,” Gladwell wrote. “The point of the crooked-ladder argument and ‘A Family Business’ was that criminal activity, under those circumstances, was not rebellion; it wasn’t a rejection of legitimate society. It was an attempt to join in.”

But, as Gladwell explains, once European immigrant groups were assimilated into both whiteness and the legitimate economy, the ladder got kicked over or pulled up.

Where law enforcement once showed tolerance for earlier criminal enterprises that could be parlayed into legitimate businesses, “The police buried the local male population under a blizzard of arrest warrants: some were ‘body’ warrants for suspected crimes, but most were bench and technical warrants for failure to appear in court or to pay court fees, or for violations of probation or parole.”

These policing policies do not simply deny young men of color the time to transition into the licit economy as entrepreneurs or business owners. They make it exceptionally difficult for them to enter it at any level. These policies interacted with cultural narratives that suggested people of color were uninterested in the path trod by others before them, preferring criminal activity or welfare to work.

But just because the route is narrowed or closed entirely, dreams of following the route suggested by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola in “The Godfather” persist in culture created by and about black men, even when there is a melancholic note to them.

In a remix of Kanye West’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” Jay Z famously boasted that he had made the rare transition from the illicit economy to the legal one and not just survived, but thrived: “I sold kilos of coke, I’m guessin’ I can sell CDs / I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” West, who set himself to conquering the fashion industry after making his mark in rap, rechristened himself the “Louis Vuitton Don.”

These men are the exceptions. “American Gangster,” Ridley Scott’s 2007 biopic of drug dealer Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), traces the contraction of this trajectory from one generation to the next. After inheriting a crime operation from an older gangster (Clarence Williams III) who retains a respectable role in his Harlem community, Lucas dramatically expands the scope of his dealing and the range of his lines of business.

Those ambitions make him a target for prosecution, rather than for transition into legitimate businesses. His predecessor’s limited scope could be tolerated. Lucas’s good seats at the Frazier-Ali fight in 1971 and the fur coat and hat he wears to it cannot. If Lucas were white, he might have become Michael Corleone, unhappy but solidly entrenched in both the U.S.  economy and the hierarchy of the Catholic church. But because Lucas is black, he redeems himself in prison, collaborating with the police to dismantle his own operation.

“Power,” a recent Starz drama about a drug dealer name James St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick) who owns a nightclub as cover for the more substantial part of his business, has a similar elegiac tone in its best moments.

James wants to shift over into legal businesses entirely, even if it means cutting his profits substantially. But his best friend Tommy (Joseph Sikora) is skeptical that they can make the shift, and perhaps concerned that there would be a place for him in Ghost’s new business, and his wife (Naturi Naughton) does not understand why things have to change. James’s nickname is “Ghost.” While it is an accurate description of his ability to evade detection, the moniker also suggests how hard it would be for him to transition from one life to another.

In this context, Michael Corleone’s complaints about the life he might have had look a little spoiled. If he rues the choice he made to take over his family’s crime operation, rather than to continue the path his father intended for him into politics or business, at least Michael had a choice to make. He stood at the pinnacle of the crooked ladder and stepped off of it, rather than being shoved or shot.

When we talk about the expansiveness of the American dream, what we normally mean is that everyone should have an opportunity to participate in the pursuit of it. But Gladwell’s description of the crooked ladder and Michael Brown’s death offer important amendments to our thinking.

We cannot exist as a community if we believe that people climb the crooked ladder because they are different from the rest of us, more depraved, less interested in the same ultimate achievements. And we ought to think very, very seriously before we deny anyone an opportunity to rise in a way that is more acceptable.

Law enforcement officials in Missouri have suggested that Michael Brown stole some cigars shortly before his death, as if that allegation renders logical the events that led to his killing. Even if he did steal those cigars, what have we become that a petty theft should mark someone forever, derailing him from a path that was headed toward college, much less justifying his death? It is foolish, grossly punitive and wholly un-American to declare that our worst moments ought to exclude us from citizenship and the continued pursuit of the American dream. Even when our fellow citizens commit grievous sins against us, such as the crime of murder, there is something powerful about the idea that we should hold ourselves and our representatives in law enforcement to higher standards than the ones to which criminals hold themselves.

When we have made it so easy to exile people from the American dream, whether because their criminal records make it impossible for them to work or vote, or because people like Michael Brown are killed before they even have a chance to pursue it, no wonder the fantasy of the crooked ladder persists in culture. The off-screen reality, in which fewer and fewer ladders of any kind are available to people of color, is a gross diminution of American ambition. And it is only one of the things we should have found intolerable long before Michael Brown’s death.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.