For African Americans, Growing Up in Nice Neighborhood Barely Lowers Risk of Incarceration

ITHACA, N.Y. — The relevance of race when it comes to law enforcement decisions is as front-and-center for Americans than perhaps ever before. People of all nationalities and ethnicities continue to speak out against police brutality and racism, and more research on the subjects is coming to light. To that end, a new study from Cornell University concludes that when it comes to risk of incarceration among African Americans, the neighborhood where one grows up makes little difference.

This is to be especially true among African American males, researchers say.

So, while one may assume that an African American raised in the inner city is more likely to see jail time than an individual raised in a gated community, these findings suggest that largely isn’t the case. Conversely, background and neighborhood plays a much larger role regarding prison risk for Caucasians and Latinos, the authors say.

“If you’re a black male in America, it doesn’t matter much if you come from a good neighborhood or a bad neighborhood,” says Steven Alvarado, assistant professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, in a release. “Your chances of being incarcerated are similar.”

Systemic inequality ‘mutes’ advantages for African Americans

It may seem like this research was released because of the climate in the United States right now in response to George Floyd’s murder while in police custody last month. The study’s authors say the timing is merely coincidental. Nonetheless, though, they say their work clearly indicates a problem in U.S. law enforcement.

“There’s a systemic and a deep inequality in American society,” Alvarado adds, “in terms of the treatment of blacks in the criminal justice system that might mute some of those beneficial effects of growing up in a more advantaged neighborhood.”

Data originally collected from a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics national survey was used for this research. That data encompasses thousands of Americans who grew up between 1986 through 2014. That time period was specifically chosen because it coincides with a big uptick in both incarceration rates and residential segregation in the United States, researchers say.

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From there, the survey data was combined with census data. This allowed the study’s authors to rank different neighborhoods’ advantages and disadvantages based on factors like average income and education levels among residents and home values. A number of siblings were also included in the data, which helped account for some “unobserved” variables that may influence a person’s risk of incarceration. Such variables include genetics, major family events, and parenting approaches.

‘Highly racialized criminal justice system’

Predictably, the results of the analysis confirm that growing up in a poorer or “tougher” neighborhood increases the chances of jail time for Caucasians, African Americans, and Latinos. However, African Americans benefit only half as much from growing up in a good neighborhood in comparison to whites or Latinos.

“My findings complicate that a little bit and tell us that when it comes to incarceration we might want to also think about larger structural changes to criminal justice in the United States,” Alvarado comments, “and not simply moving people from one neighborhood to another as a sufficient way to address this issue.”

The research team were shocked and saddened by what they discovered. They theorize that African Americans don’t benefit from nicer neighborhoods when it comes to risk of incarceration due to the United States’ “highly racialized criminal justice system.”

“More than other racial and ethnic groups, the odds of experiencing incarceration for blacks may be tied to racial profiling, surveillance, stop-and-frisk policies, gang injunctions and other forms of social control that affect all black Americans, regardless of their family and neighborhood origins,” Alvarado explains. “It’s very difficult for black Americans to find refuge from incarceration. We’re seeing that play out now in terms of the demonstrations and the policy changes that municipalities are starting to consider.”

The study is published in Socius.

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