In the months leading up to the election, widespread protests exposed a nation divided by race and conflicted about the role of the criminal justice system in American life. According to an Associated Press poll, three-quarters of voters indicated the protests were a major factor guiding their recent vote, with supporters of Vice President Biden likelier to endorse the protests and supporters of President Trump likelier to decry the violence that occasionally accompanied them.
Reuniting the nation will require us to reconcile these disparate views of race and the criminal justice system. Our recent book, which tracks the lives of 1,300 young men released from Michigan’s state prisons, sheds light on the residential segregation that stokes these divisions—and its consequences for the lives of young men coming of age in America.
Across the nation, steep residential segregation cleaves racial divisions between people, as illustrated by the early “red mirage” of rural voters, which was overtaken by the urban “blue wave” that ultimately delivered the election to Biden. These divisions were on stark display in the three states—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—that voted for President Trump in 2016 and flipped in favor of President-elect Biden.
Heather M. Harris is a criminologist and David J. Harding is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. They are the authors of "After Prison: Navigating Adulthood in the Shadow of the Justice System" (Russell Sage, 2020).
In Michigan, the neighboring towns of Benton Harbor and St. Joseph have a complicated history emblematic of ideological divisions rooted in segregation. The 1991 death of Eric McGinnis, a Black teenager whose body surfaced in the river between the cities, became the subject of a book in which journalist Alex Kotlowitz chronicled the vastly different experiences and perceptions that Blacks and whites have in relation to the criminal justice system. Whites in St. Joseph believed Eric fell to an accidental death, whereas Benton Harbor Blacks believed Eric was murdered, with the unsolved case evidencing Blacks’ inequitable treatment—even in death.
Our data tell similar stories about race, residential segregation, and the often indelible shadows the criminal justice system casts. When the young men in our sample were released from prison in 2003, Benton Harbor’s population was 93 percent Black with a per capita income of $8,700. By contrast, St. Joseph was 90 percent white with a per capita income of $25,000. Seven times as many people in Benton Harbor lived in poverty. Across Michigan and nationwide, similar degrees of racial segregation relegate Blacks to extremely poor communities, for which there are no comparably impoverished white communities. These neighborhood disadvantages limit the life chances of young Black men prior to and after they are released from prison.
Thus poverty and race are tightly linked in the United States, where poor people of color often become enmeshed in a criminal justice system that can tend to interpret conditions of poverty—broken windows, unkempt homes, and unemployed people — as signs of criminality and indolence. Accordingly, even in our sample of young men who had served time in prison, we find evidence that whites and Blacks are treated differently in Michigan’s criminal justice system. Young Black men were incarcerated after fewer arrests, which means white men got more second chances before they were sent to prison. Black men also served far more of their minimum prison sentences—on average three months more—than white men, despite being only slightly more likely to break prison rules.
After prison, young Black men return to neighborhoods that are twice as poor and crime-ridden as those of young white men. These disadvantages extend to the labor market, where even Blacks who live in proximity to stable, well-paying jobs have fewer connections that enable them to find work. It is thus unsurprising that, compared to white men, young Black men are more likely to land back in prison or, when they manage to stay out of prison, never find employment and become disconnected from conventional institutions like schooling and work.
Our research and the research of other scholars points to solutions to these problems that include connecting young men to stabilizing institutions that allow them to continue their educations, assist them in finding well paying, meaningful work that gives them the potential to build and maintain independent households, and subsidizes their housing in good neighborhoods. As Richard Rothstein noted in the book "The Color of Law", reducing residential segregation will require reversing segregationist housing policies by instituting corrective policies that give Black families the opportunity to buy homes in prosperous neighborhoods at discounted rates.
In recent months, anger and frustration over the failure of national, state, and local governments to address and atone for persistent racial inequities yet again boiled to the surface of American life. Although stoked by high-profile instances of gross police brutality, everyday injustices at the hands of the criminal justice system and those who wield its power permeate the lives of Americans of color, particularly young Black men. Against this backdrop, a majority of voters — 9 of 10 of whom considered racial justice protests as they cast their votes— chose a President who expressed solidarity with that movement. The time has come for state and national policies that correct these ongoing injustices.