The Price of Low Expectations

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The Price of Low Expectations

Newspaper article

By: William Raspberry

Date: October 17, 2005

Source: William Raspberry. "The Price of Low Expectations." The Washington Post. (October 17, 2005): A15.

About the Author: William Raspberry is a Pulitzer-Award-winning journalist who has been writing for the Washington Post for more than four decades. His work has been highly acclaimed, and he has received numerous awards and honorary doctorates. His weekly column for the Washington Post focuses on social and political commentary. In addition to writing for the Post, Raspberry also teaches at Duke University.


The per capita rate of incarceration in the United States has risen dramatically since the tough on crime, war on drugs, and three strikes legislation of recent decades. Not only have the incarceration rates skyrocketed, so have the apparent recidivism rates; due, in large part, to the increasing strictness of parole and probation regulations. The United States now has surpassed Russia as the country with the greatest overall percentage of prisoners, with a rate of more than 720 per 100,000. At the start of the twenty-first century, the American population was just over 295 million, with more than two million people behind bars.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at the end of 2004 there were roughly 2,136,000 people incarcerated in local, state, or federal correctional facilities. There were nearly five million more individuals on parole or probation at the same time.

There are significant racial disparities in the incarceration rates: there are roughly seven times as many African-American males as Caucasian males in the jail or prison systems in the United States, although they represent less than thirteen percent of the overall population. There are also significantly more males of color than white males, both in terms of actual numbers and by percentage of the general population, on Death Row, despite their general population statistics. Overall, about half of the entire jail or prison population is African-American. According to figures published by the Human Rights Watch, African Americans are eighty-eight times more likely to be directly involved in the correctional system than Caucasians.

On average, about one third of the African-American male population of the United States has been personally impacted by the correctional system, either because they are in local, state, or federal jail or prison, because they are on parole or probation, or because they are awaiting criminal trial or post-conviction sentencing. Not only are African-American males far more likely to be convicted of a crime, they are more likely to be stopped, questioned, detained, or arrested than their Caucasian peers, particularly if they are below the age of thirty-five.


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.


The racial disparities in the American penal system have far-reaching effects; people with criminal records, particularly those with felony convictions (especially violent or drug-related conviction histories) and prison histories, have a very difficult time obtaining secure jobs, particularly those with pay scales at or above the median. Because so many more African-Americans than Caucasians have criminal histories, there is a disproportionately large percentage of the population that is disenfranchised, or is unlikely to obtain gainful employment that will offer remuneration above the poverty level. As a result, a significant number of formerly incarcerated individuals (of all races) will return to the pursuit of criminal activities, particularly those involving drug sales and trafficking, as a means of making sufficient income.

In studying overall rates, there have been oft-quoted statistics that crime, especially crime that is of a violent nature, more often occurs with African-American perpetrators and victims. Demographic research indicates that crime is most likely to occur within the most impoverished and least educated segments of the populace. In the United States, there are a disproportionate number of African-Americans and other cultural minorities living within those circumstances.

Demographic data indicates that the majority of those incarcerated in the state penitentiary system have minimal educations, most have not completed high school or earned a G.E.D., and many did not finish the first six grades of school. Nearly half were unemployed (in the conventional sense) at the time of arrest, a significant number had never held any sort of regular job, or been required to adhere to a regular daily routine. Among state prisoners, there are a disproportionate number of individuals who report having experienced learning disabilities, attention difficulties, childhood diagnoses of conduct disorders or behavioral problems, and backgrounds of abuse, neglect, or out-of-home placements. These are concerns associated with extreme poverty and lack of family support, rather than with any particular culture, ethnicity, or race.

According to data published by the United States Commission on Civil Rights, about one in fifteen youthful Caucasian males have been involved with the American penal system in some fashion—whether incarcerated, awaiting sentencing, under adjudication, or on parole or probation. The rate climbs to one in ten for young Hispanic males, and further rises to one in three for African-American male youth (young adults). This same group (United States Commission on Civil Rights) states that nearly eight in ten male African-Americans will be arrested at some point in their lives. Civil Rights groups assert that the large disparity between African-American and Caucasian incarceration percentages is due, in part, to social perceptions. There is believed to be an ingrained stereotype that African-Americans, particularly males, are more aggressive, threatening, and prone to criminal violence than their Caucasian counterparts. Prison and judicial system research reports indicate that, on average, African-American males receive more serious convictions and harsher sentences than do Caucasians who commit the same crimes. African-American males are far more likely to receive the death sentence than Caucasian males. Regardless of the race of the perpetrator, those who commit capital offenses are far more likely to receive the death penalty if the victim was Caucasian.

Perhaps the most telling statistics, from the perspective of racial bias, occur in the realm of youthful offenders: young black males are more than twice as likely to bypass the juvenile justice system and be sent to prison on a first offense as their Caucasian peers. Among all of the youthful offenders who are arrested and criminally charged (non drug-related crimes), African-American males are more than six times as likely to receive a prison sentence and be incarcerated in an adult correctional facility than are Caucasian males. For very young first offenders, African-Americans are nearly ten times more likely than Caucasian males to be remanded to juvenile detention facilities. For drug-related, non-violent charges, very young African-American males are nearly fifty times more likely than Caucasian youths to be remanded to juvenile detention facilities. Not only are the expectations exceedingly low for African-Americans (particularly young males), the penalties for criminal activity may be overwhelmingly high.



The System in Black and White: Exploring the Connections Between Race, Crime, and Justice, edited by Michael W. Markowitz and Delores D. Jones-Brown. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2000.

Weich, Ronald, and Carlos Angulo. Justice on Trial: Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System. Washington, D.C.: Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, 2000.

Web sites

The Black Commentator. "Mass Incarceration is an Abomination." 〈〉 accessed March 5, 2006).

Bureau of Justice Statistics. "Prison Statistics: Summary Findings." 〈〉 (accessed March 5, 2006).

Human Rights Watch. "Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and All Forms of Discrimination." 〈〉 (accessed March 5, 2006).

U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "Highlights." 〈〉 (accessed March 5, 2006).

The Washington Post Writer's Group. "William Raspberry." 〈〉 (accessed March 5, 2006).

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The Price of Low Expectations

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