Class consciousness is not Americans’ strong suit. In a country founded by overthrowing royal rule, we like to subscribe to the myth that most of us are middle class.
George Washington and the others did succeed in casting off King George. But of course the country was not born fully free; the slaves remained in bondage, despite the Constitution.
Today, there is another sense in which, to paraphrase Rousseau, people are often born in chains in the self-styled Land of the Free. The mass incarceration of the past thirty years has especially impacted those at the bottom of the economic order and kept them behind bars.
Bruce Western and Becky Pettit discuss this phenomenon in their essay in Daedalus on “Incarceration and Social Inequality.” Mass incarceration, they point out, “deepens disadvantage and forecloses mobility for the most marginal in society.”
In that sense, I would argue, mass incarceration is profoundly anti-Christian. Jesus came to proclaim a preferential option for the poor. But we have come to accept deep, entrenched poverty that tends to perpetuate itself from generation to generation.
To be sure, crime does involve personal choices, not merely social structures. But those choices are exercised in a culture in which the odds are against those from the lower economic depths.