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What is the Relationship between Race, Poverty and Prison? Research Paper

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Updated: Jan 27th, 2020


Racial discrimination in the American Justice system is an ongoing problem within the U.S. that indicates a deep societal inclination towards bias for certain ethnic and social groups within the general population of the country. Ever since the 1980’s a boom in prison construction has occurred fueled by America’s war on drugs wherein arrests related to possession and use has been met with ever lengthening prison sentences.

Yet a majority of those arrested have been African Americans who actually represent one of the smallest percentages of drug users in the country. In fact various studies examining the proliferation of drug use within American society today all indicate that a majority of users are in fact Caucasians.

Other studies examining the inter-relation between criminal arrests and race show that African Americans, Mexicans and even Latin Americans are more likely to be arrested as compared to Caucasians. The reason behind this is an apparent racial predilection connecting race to criminal behavior wherein police concentrate their efforts in areas with large groups of minorities as compared to areas with high percentages of Caucasians due to an apparent assumption that if a crime will happen it will most likely happen in those areas.

The inherent problem with this is that it becomes a “self fulfilling prophecy” in that a higher predilection to suspect minorities for crimes does indeed result in minorities being arrested for crimes but this leaves out the much larger Caucasian population resulting in various individuals going un-arrested due to the lack of police suspicion in particular areas.

It must be noted that this apparent racial discrimination is not limited to criminal arrests but rather extends to various social situations related to economic opportunity, education and even the way people are treated in public. This in effect creates social segregation wherein American society is becoming increasingly divided over racial lines.

Today, forms of segregation are also evident in society where wealth is increasingly being isolated towards the majority; in the case of the U.S. this represents the Caucasian population. The end result of such actions is that minorities remain minorities with wealth, education and connections being increasingly isolated to the upper echelons of society.

What this means for various businesses is that often when minorities apply for jobs they lack the educational capacity, experience and networks that a person from a majority possesses which affects hiring decisions despite the presence of affirmative action programs and reverse discrimination policies.

Various studies conducted examining the hiring practices of various HR departments have also shown that despite the presence of affirmative action programs most HR personal tend to call people for interviews with names that sound like they belong to a majority while at times ignoring those that belong to minorities unless upper management says that they need to round out the talent pool with minorities.

It based on this that it can be seen that there is a distinct connection between race, poverty and the inevitability of a prison sentence. As such this paper will examine the causes behind racial discrimination, the resulting lack of economic opportunity for minorities and the resulting inclination towards criminal behavior.

This will be done by utilizing various scholarly articles and journals, census data as well as various newspaper articles that examine the current social problem that is plaguing the U.S. Based on the data presented this paper will attempt to answer whether racial discrimination results in the inevitability of poverty and criminal behavior or if there are other social factors that contribute to the apparent inevitability of extensive criminal behavior among various groups in minority populations.

Examining Social Structural Inequality

Structural inequality in essence is an inherent bias within social structures which can provide some advantages to a select group of people within society while at the same time marginalizing others.

This can be seen in instances related to racism, education and discrimination wherein certain segments of the population are categorized and marginalized depending on the color of their skin and their particular race. For example the recent law involving illegal immigration passed by Arizona has in effect created a form of discrimination against many Mexicans living within the country who are in fact here legally.

The fact is structural inequality is one of the main reasons behind the continued limitation behind the school system and various careers wherein minorities are in fact being discriminated against due to connotations involving their propensity towards illegal or criminal behavior.

One example clear example where structural inequality promotes discrimination can be seen in the current U.S. school system and their use of tracking in order to segregate performers from nonperformers.

While on paper it can be seen as a viable way of providing the proper type of education where it is needed the most the fact remain that the tracking system has actually resulted in racial lines being drawn with white Americans normally being segregated into the upper tier of the tracking system while minorities are usually set in the lower tier system.

While it may be true that some minorities do have difficulties in learning due to their origins the fact remains that such a system actually perpetuates the concept of societal inequality where it has come to be believed that white Americans are more predilected towards success while minorities are leaning towards marginal careers at best.

This is not only limited to the current school system in lower grades but also in higher education wherein the basis of college admission is the use of SAT scores as a indicator of talent in an individual. The one problem with using SAT scores as the main criteria for evaluating college admissions is that they fail to accurately represent the true value or abilities that a person possesses.

Take for example an individual who works to support his family, gets marginally good grades in school and average SAT results, it can be assumed that the average SAT results and the marginally good grades could be attributed to the fact that this individual has to work to support his family rather and as a result could not devote the same amount of time into studying.

Most individuals would not be capable of balancing work, family obligations and going to school yet here is a person that is able to do that. Based on an examination of various applications of minorities to several colleges it has been shown that on average the SAT score of white Americans outclassed that of their minority counterparts yet this is not an indicator of superior talent but rather white students were given more opportunities to learn and develop as a result of their social advantage.

This particular form of structural inequality this denies the possibility of certain minorities from entering particular colleges resulting in not only a degree of inequality in lower education but in higher education as well. Other forms of structural inequalities that can be seen take the form of community marginalization wherein particular types of races are concentrated in certain communities (Kaye, 1982).

What this cause is an imbalance in the distribution of wealth where money is consistently isolated in white populations while minorities are made to stagnate in their respective income niches (Kaye, 1982).

Understanding the Connection between Race and Criminal Behavior

What must first be understood is that all types of criminal behavior have some form of trigger that causes itself to manifest in a person. No one is born a criminal or is inherently criminal, rather, attributes in the surrounding environment influence the way in which a person acts which causes the criminal behavior to manifest in the first place (Farrington, N.D.).

For example, various social scientists indicate that a person’s race is invariably connected to that person’s propensity or possibility of being able to commit a crime (South & Messner, 2000).

African Americans, Mexicans and Latin Americans are actually three of the most identifiable demographics when it comes to identifying the origins of crime in certain parts of the U.S. An article in the New York Times examining the number of African Americans in U.S. jails shows that since 2000 there were 791,600 African inmates behind bars compared to the 603,032 that were enrolled in college (Butterfield, 2002).

Comparatively, during the 1980’s there were only 143,000 African Americans in jail and 463,700 enrolled in college (Butterfield, 2002). This particular increase in the number of African Americans in jail actually coincided with the increased in the number of prisons being built in the U.S. Based on this, what I would like to point out is that there is an inherent connection between social inequalities and perpetuation of criminal behavior resulting in jail time.

The three most identifiable minorities in connection to a vast majority of crime in the country are also the three most identifiable minorities in connection to poverty, social inequality and a distinct lack of education standing and achievement.

Data from various school districts around the U.S. reveals that communities composed of African Americans, Mexicans and Latin Americans were among those that were predicted to perform the most poorly in terms of scholastic achievement while communities composed primarily of white Americans were predicted to perform at a much higher level.

This is in part due to two factors: racial prejudice against the capabilities of minorities and class prejudice against a class with a lower income threshold. While school districts may say they are not prejudiced the fact remains that the current system of segregation within schools wherein students at the same grade level are grouped into different blocks depending on aggregate skill is in fact a form of discrimination since it encourages social class disparity.

From a sociological perspective this particular form of behavior encourages the creation of criminal tendencies in people since it reinforces the social idea that minorities cannot rise above what they currently are. Another way how sociological perspective helps to show how social inequalities create careers in criminality can be seen in various studies involving population structures and rates of crime (South & Messner, 2000).

As it can be seen in various inner city neighborhoods in the L.A. area the population structure in several areas is geared towards low income families and the concentration of minorities into a single area. It must be noted that the rate of crime in certain areas has been proven to go up depending on the income rate of the populations within it (Uggen, 2000).

As such areas with population structures geared towards low income families and people create the possibility for criminal behaviors to occur as a result of desperation or distinct rate influence from people in the surrounding environment (Steffenmeier and Allan, 103).


Thus, the connection between race, culture and population structures can be understood under the sociological context that since certain races and population demographics are considered to be more predilected towards criminal behavior they are not given the chance to rise above this distinction which causes it to manifest (Horney eta al., 1995).

By viewing crimes from a sociological perspective researchers can begin to understand why certain criminal careers begin in the first place. By understanding the necessary triggers that cause criminal tendencies to occur certain degrees of sociological change can thus be enacted in order to prevent such behavior from happening again in the future.

Reference List

Butterfield, F. (2002).Study Finds Big Increase in Black Men as Inmates Since 1980. The New York Times. pp. 14

Farrington, D. (N.D.) A criminological research agenda for the next millenium.154-167

Horney, J et al. (1995). Criminal Careers in the Short Term Intra-Individual Variability in

Crime and Its Relation to Local Life Circumstances. American Sociological Review 60.5, pp. 655-673.

Kaye, D. (1982). Evidence of Discrimination. Journal of American Statistical Association. Vol. 77, No. 380, pp. 773 – 783

South, S, and Messner, S. (2000) Crime and Demography Multiple Linkages

Reciprocal Relations. Annual Review of Sociology 26, pp. 83-106.

Steffenmeier, D, and Allan, E. (N.D.) The effects of age-linked stratification and status attainment process on patterns of criminality across the life course. pp. 96-115

Uggen, C. (2000). Work as a turning point in the life course of criminals a duration model of age employment and recidivism. American Sociological Review 65.5, pp. 529-546

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