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Why white kids in Baltimore get more second chances than black kids

Mark Makela/Getty Images

For all that's been said about inequality in Baltimore over the last week, one of the most devastating paragraphs comes from Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist — and he wrote it back in October, long before Freddie Gray's name was ever in a headline:

Eighty-nine percent of white high school dropouts were working at age 22; the figure for black dropouts was 40 percent. Contrary to popular portrayals of inner-city Baltimore, this isn’t due to differences in drug use and related social maladies. Higher- and lower-income white men were more likely than their African American counterparts to use hard drugs and marijuana, smoke, and binge drink. These young men, poor white and black alike, had numerous problem encounters with the law, but a police record was less of an impediment to whites in the job market.

The numbers come from an extraordinary study that took Alexander almost 25 years to complete. The project began in the early '80s, when the researchers began following almost 800 children attending Baltimore public schools. The sample included white children and black children, boys and girls, poor and middle class.

What was different about Alexander's study, though, was that it didn't stop. He and his colleagues followed that group of 800 until they were 28 years old. They talked to their parents, got their academic records, tracked the kinds of jobs they held, the kinds of crimes they committed, the kinds of lives they led. And they watched, year after year, to see who rose and who fell. "In sociology talk, it’s a study of intergenerational mobility from early childhood to young adulthood," Alexander says.

And what they found, basically, was that holding all else equal — city, income, schooling, prison records, etc. — it's much, much harder for a black man to rise up the income ladder than a white man.

Baltimore's policing trap

One finding in particular sheds light on the post-Gray debate over policing. Alexander and his colleagues found a terrible trap that affected the lives of Baltimore's poor black people, but not its poor white people. According to their study, poor black kids and poor white kids used drugs and committed crimes at roughly similar rates — if anything, there was a bit more drug use among the white children in the sample. But poor black kids were much more likely than poor white kids to be arrested. And once they were arrested, a criminal record was a much bigger hindrance to a poor black man getting a job than it was for a poor white man.

At the same time, due to their income composition, demographics, location, and so on, black neighborhoods had a lot more crime than white neighborhoods. And so, even putting aside any issues of racially biased policing, they were policed more intensely.

This created, in essence, a trap that closed in on poor black kids. Their neighborhoods had more crime, and so they were policed more heavily. That meant that even though they didn't commit any more crime than poor white kids, they were arrested more often. And when they got arrested, it was harder for them to get a job after prison than it was for a white kid who got arrested, so it became that much more likely they would turn to illegal ways of making money, which meant more crime in the neighborhoods, which meant more aggressive policing, which meant more black kids getting arrested, which meant more young black men held back by criminal records, and so on.

"It’s a downward spiral," says Alexander. "And it's all relevant to what we saw last week in Baltimore. Freddie Gray's death was a flashpoint, but the conditions were ripe for flashing."

How white kids recover from mistakes — and black kids don't

Any time there's a discussion of inner-city poverty among young African Americans, the conversation turns quickly to debate about personal responsibility — what does society owe someone who made bad, even criminal, choices?

But Alexander's work shows something often forgotten in that debate: all kids make some bad choices, but he finds, over and over again, that society is much more forgiving of the mistakes white kids make than the mistakes black kids make, and that high crime in black neighborhoods has created an aggressive approach to policing — often, though not always, for well-intentioned reasons — in which black kids get caught for their mistakes more often than white kids.

At the same time, Alexander's results show how a legacy of racial discrimination can lead to a persistent disadvantage for young black men. Alexander finds one of the reasons that low-income white kids without much education recover more easily from criminal records is that they often have family in skilled trades who can help them out. The industrial and construction trades, which were the best-paying jobs available to men without much education, employed 45 percent of whites but just 15 percent of blacks, and in those trades, whites earned twice as much as blacks.

The result was that a white kid who made a mistake as a 19-year-old was a lot likelier to have an uncle in plumbing or construction who knew him as a good kid who screwed up and could give him a second chance. That kid's uncle wasn't being a racist when he helped out his nephew, but because of historical racism in those professions, many more of those uncles are white, and so it was easier for white kids to get their lives back on track than it was for black ones. That same black kid was often just a resume with a criminal record, and so he didn't get that second chance.