The Price of Low Expectations

By William Raspberry
Monday, October 17, 2005

In one recent year, just under half of all young black men in the District of Columbia were in prison, on parole or probation, awaiting trial or sentencing, or being sought on a warrant. In Baltimore, one in five black men aged 20 to 30 was in custody. Numbers like these no longer surprise.

This may: "High levels of incarceration concentrated in impoverished communities have a destabilizing effect on community life, so that the most basic underpinnings of informal social control are damaged. This, in turn, reproduces the very dynamics that sustain crime." The quote, from Todd Clear, a professor of criminal justice at the City University of New York, was called to my attention by Eric Lotke, who has expanded on Clear's work.

It sums up what I was trying to say in a recent column about elephants and delinquency.

Several readers wondered if I was advocating the unleashing on hapless inner-city communities of killers, rapists, drug fiends and sex abusers as a way of providing role models for young men. (Teenage male elephants in a South African game park stopped their delinquent behavior after several adult bulls were introduced into the herd.) Wouldn't the herd (and wouldn't America's inner cities) be worse off with the introduction of adult males of certifiable bad behavior?

It's a good question, and I offer three responses.

The first is that most of the crimes that account for the post-1980 swelling of America's inmate population were nonviolent offenses: drug offenses overwhelmingly, but also petty theft, larceny, shoplifting, etc. -- exacerbated by mandatory sentencing and three-strikes legislation. It's reasonable to ask whether rehabilitation efforts and non-prison punishment might be a saner way to deal with these crimes that are virtually denuding many communities of their male populations. No one is advocating the release of gangbangers, street thugs and killers.

The second response is that the men we are talking about, while they may not be paragons, are not necessarily dangers to their communities. Analogies might include members of the Mafia, who, in some cases, made their immediate communities more stable, and men like Saddam Hussein, Anastasio Somoza or Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose removal (for whatever well-intended reasons) left their societies significantly less stable. Sometimes even good intentions can blow up in our face.

And here's the third: We are not inherently good or bad, law-abiding or criminal, but are nudged by forces both within and outside us into becoming what we become.

Some combination of forces has convinced dismaying numbers of black men that they are largely unnecessary. The society isolates them as dangerous, or potentially so; employers assume they are unreliable, without fundamental skills and unlikely to learn on the job; their neighbors fear (or admire) them as ruthless; and even the mothers of their children may not consider them fit material for husbands.

These forces include changing community values and changing attitudes toward marriage and childrearing, of course, but they also include an incarceration rate that makes spending time behind bars predictable and, as a result, removes its deterrent power. The decline in marriage strips families of their adult men; the senseless increase in incarceration strips communities of theirs.

Thus, fatherlessness and incarceration feed each other in a deadly symbiosis. Black leaders haven't been able to see and resist it because of their near-exclusive focus on racism as the cause of everything that goes wrong. Whites haven't seen it because of their overweening fear of black crime. And so the downward pull of dismal expectations continues.

A few individuals are able to rise above the low expectations of others, but most of us tend to become what those around expect us to be. And if irresponsible behavior is what they expect, that's what we tend to give them. And so men who might have gone a different way in response to signals that their families and communities valued and depended on them react instead to signals that tell them they are users and takers and, at best, sperm donors.

I keep on my office wall a framed quotation from Goethe: "If you treat an individual as he is, he will stay as he is, but if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be."

Not always, of course, but maybe often enough.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company