Thursday, April 28, 2011

Born Free? Not Here, For Those in Chains

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.


  1. There is no doubt that incarceration can "foreclose mobility" as it erects huge barriers to social status and economic wealth. But that is part of the disincentive. However I strongly reject your suggestion that it is derived from a culture of economic inequality. Moral inequality by choice perhaps. The challenge for the poor is much the same as for African Americans in the 1950's - they must strive to be "better" than higher social economic classes in order to "break free".

    Income inequality in America is more dynamic than anywhere in the globe - which means people can break thru by their own efforts - and often do. It's still "the American Dream" that attracts millions of immigrants to America.

    You are also linking the "Liberation Theology" that has been debated for centuries within the Christian church but confuse it with socialist ideology. Ergo, you must be a Democrat as you are confusing "equality of opportunity" with social engineering.

    It's too bad as I think you were on to something here.

  2. To my knowledge, the data do not support the assertion that social mobility is more dynamic in America tha elswhere around the globe. See the Summer 2010 issue of Daedalus (which I link to) for extensive discussion of this point.