Several years ago, at a staff meeting, a colleague expressed concern about the number of child clients at our clinic, which served a primarily inner city minority population, had fathers who were in prison. Someone else brought up the disproportionate rates of incarceration for young inner city males, saying something along the lines of "What is wrong with these people?"
Our one African American therapist sighed patiently and launched into what must have been her gazillionth educational speech about why the disparity has little or nothing to do with differences in character or ability.
I was familiar with much of what she said, but she brought up one point that I had never considered before.
"When judges sentence minors," she said, "they have a lot of leeway." If a young man is convicted of a nonviolent crime (possession, shoplifting, etc) the judge can release him if there is a relative or family friend who is established in the community and can supervise him, give him a job, and generally provide support and modeling for a law abiding life.
So, she explained, if three boys are found guilty of exactly the same offense, James Jr can do clerical work at his mother's law firm after school. Tony can apprentice at his uncle Louie's car shop. But Jamal may be out of luck. If he is poor and lives in a depressed neighborhood, his relatives most likely work in low level service jobs, if they are lucky enough to be employed at all, and they would be fired if they started bringing him to work. In this way, lack of opportunity breeds more lack of opportunity.
I have been thinking about this because of a recent development in our family.
We live in a small middle/working class enclave in a very affluent neighborhood, so many of our friends and neighbors are much better off than we are. One of our local churches supports a concert series that draws well known performers and an audience from throughout the city.
Recently at a party, one of these church members mentioned that he is the technical director for this concert program. "I'm looking for someone to help me with the audio," he said. For a volunteer position, running the sound for the concert series was taking up a lot of energy, and he wanted to train someone to assist him at the concerts and eventually to take over if he needed to take a weekend off during the season.
"My son is majoring in music and audio engineering in college," I offered, "and he lives at home, just a block away from the church." The gentleman gave me his card, Ben got in touch with him, and the quick and easy result was that Ben is about to start an apprenticeship.
I am thrilled that he will have this opportunity to learn new skills and practice the ones he is learning in school; to start building a professional résumé; and to rub shoulders with fine and accomplished musicians.
But I am also aware of why this happened so easily: our family is pre-approved because we live in the neighborhood and are friends of the hosts of the party. It is human nature to trust, and want to surround ourselves with, people we know, or who know the people we know; people who look like us and express themselves the way we do.
As Billie Holiday might put it, them that's got shall get.
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Anthropology Open Rank (Assistant, Associate, or Professor) of Anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts