In America, race trumps class, race trumps wealth, and race trumps everything else, especially when it comes to incarceration. It was already well established that Black males born in 2001 have a one in three chance of being incarcerated at some point in their lifetime. However, a new study finds that Blacks are more likely than whites to go to prison at all socioeconomic levels, and poor white kids have a smaller chance of being incarcerated than more affluent Blacks, indicating that race is a factor in who ends up behind bars.
The study — authored by Khaing Zaw and William Darity Jr. of Duke University and Darrick Hamilton of the New School — examines the links between race, wealth and incarceration, acknowledging that mass incarceration disproportionately impacts African-Americans, and that imprisonment is the new de facto form of segregation in America. The authors also understand that Blacks and Latinos possess only a fraction of the wealth of whites, with the racial wealth gap as the strongest indicator of inequality, and racial discrimination in the justice system only compounding the wealth disadvantage experienced by people of color. Wealth can influence the likelihood of imprisonment, which in turn can suppress wealth accumulation.
In their study, the researchers looked at data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which followed a group of young people into adulthood from 1979 to 1994 and asked participants questions concerning their assets and debts, and whether they had been in prison. Then, the authors categorized the participants based on race and wealth to determine who eventually became incarcerated.
Among the poorest whites in the study, in the lowest 10 percent, 2.7 percent went to prison. Meanwhile, 3.1 percent in the next highest 10th went to jail. And yet, even with negative wealth, that is, more debt than assets, their chances of winding up behind bars was substantially less than for their Black peers. Among wealthier Black young people, 10 percent ultimately found themselves locked up. Moreover, only the most affluent Black youth had better odds of avoiding prison than the poorest white kids — 2.4 percent.
“For comparable levels of wealth in 1985, when the respondents were entering young adulthood, blacks, Hispanics, and whites had disparate likelihoods of incarceration. As a result, we find that wealth is relevant to the prospect of incarceration,” the authors wrote. “At low levels of wealth (at the baseline), both blacks and Hispanics had a higher incarceration rate than whites,” the report added. “Although the black-white incarceration disparity was reduced for males (at higher levels of wealth), it was not eliminated.”
“Wealth does not provide the same degree of insulation from imprisonment for black and Hispanic males as it does for white males,” Darity said, according to Pacific Standard. “Race trumps class, at least when it comes to incarceration,” Hamilton added, as the Washington Post reported.
Regarding the reasons for the disparities in incarceration based on race — even among similar wealth levels — the authors point to a number of possible culprits, including education, job experience and social connections. Further, “individuals still may have disparate economic situations, through income, extended family wealth or differential exposure to discrimination,” the study notes.
The study left some questions unanswered, such as why the odds of incarceration among wealthier Hispanic males are comparable to those of well-off white males. Further, the role of an extended family in the link between incarceration and personal wealth deserves more study.
Once again, those policymakers and politicians who would downplay the role of race in this country, and suggest that an economic solution in and of itself will cure all the ills of inequality, are sorely missing the mark.