On November 17, 2011 Ashley and I did a book reading and talk on Razor Wire Women at the Regulator Bookstore in Durham, North Carolina. People in the audience asked some poignant questions about the nature of crime, incarceration, and justice. One of the questions in particular got me thinking about structure and agency, and why it is particularly important to analyze the role of our social structure in the mass incarceration of historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups of people.
As a sociologist, I am very familiar with the debate between structure and agency. Agency is the capacity of individuals to exercise their free will, to make choices for themselves, or to act independently. Structure, in contrast, refers to the fixed and enduring part of the social landscape that, as one of the “fathers of sociology” Emile Durkheim pointed out, shapes and helps to determine the ways in which individuals and groups act, think, and feel. For example, laws against interracial marriage—miscegenation laws—existed for hundreds of years and influenced how many people thought and felt about such unions: they were wrong, and legally prohibited. The sociological concept of structure also accounts for the role of social institutions—such as the government, religion, education, family, and the media—in creating, reproducing, enforcing, and sometimes contesting societal norms and the social order. As an example, institutions prohibited women from voting until 1920, when after much struggle the 19th amendment was passed. Similarly, in contemporary U.S. society most people would find miscegenation laws racist and ludicrous, exemplifying that as structure changes, people’s minds can also be changed, and vise versa.
In U.S. society, and especially in the mainstream media, we are inundated with discourses, a national ideology, and sound bytes that stress individualism, free will, and personal choice at the expense of more nuanced portraits of the ways in which our social structure differentially affects groups of people according to race, class, gender, sexualities, abilities, and age. Crime and justice are therefore conceptualized in individualistic terms. People who are policed, arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated are seen to be in their situations because of something they did or did not do: they broke the law or failed to follow the rules; they “chose” to steal or become addicted to drugs. Our society rationalizes that African Americans, Latinos/as, and the poor are disproportionately incarcerated because they “commit more crimes.” As a result of looking at agency far more than we look at structure, the institutionalized discrimination and structural inequality that channels people into prisons, jails, and detention centers goes unanalyzed, and we remain in a predicament where we have the highest incarceration rates in the world, of the most vulnerable populations of people in the country.
Our social structure is important to analyze because it enhances and/or constrains our life chances. If a person is born into a wealthy family with extensive cultural and social capital, that person’s life chances are enhanced: s/he has more resources at her/his fingertips, has access to healthy foods, is more likely to attend prestigious schools and to attend a prestigious university, and has the money to hire a competent attorney if s/he ever gets into trouble. If a person is born into a poor family, that person has fewer resources at her/his disposal, and is less likely to have access to healthy foods or attend prestigious schools or a prestigious university. And if the person who is poor gets into trouble, s/he is less likely to have resources to pay a private attorney (whose caseload may be far lighter than an overworked public defender) to receive a reduced sentence (or even no sentence).
Racism and socioeconomic status play a huge part in who is criminally prosecuted; communities of color and poor communities are far likelier than white and affluent communities to be policed. And laws have created a social structure in which communities of color tend to be at a disadvantage, economically, in comparison to white communities. As just one example in a long list of racist laws and policies that were enacted in the U.S., FHA housing laws in the 1950s gave federally backed home loans to whites, but not to Blacks and Latinos/as, so wealth was easier to build in white communities. The wealth built from home ownership, of course, can be used in a variety of ways, including putting children through college, so that some children are at an advantage, economically, in comparison to other children. Structure determines, to a large extent, our opportunities and constraints.
As a society we also fail to recognize that our choices are made within our particular social structure. When the mass media suggests that people “choose” to commit crime, it often fails to take into consideration the circumstances of people’s lives. If a person is engaged in prostitution, for example, often it is the best option s/he has, to make the most money to support herself/himself. In this sense, as Julia Sudbury points out in Global Lockdown, mere survival is criminalized.
In addition, it is important to recognize that how we measure and assess a threat to society is often predicated on who holds political and economic leverage. While the poor are criminally prosecuted and spend time in prison for their crimes, most white-collar and corporate crimes are not met with prison time but instead, if caught—and even when death or physical injury is involved—white collar offenders typically pay a fine. This is particularly ironic for our capitalist society given that the direct economic costs of white-collar crime are significantly higher than the direct economic costs of street crime. Conservative estimates put the annual cost of white-collar crime at $509 to $566 billion a year, or roughly 38 to 57 times the cost of street crime (see Gary Potter and Karen Miller’s introductory essay in Controversies in White Collar Crime, 2001, pp. 1 – 31). The indirect economic costs of white-collar crime add to the direct economic costs, and include higher taxes, increased costs of goods and services, higher insurance rates, and potentially, slower job growth (for more on this, see David Friedrichs’ book Trusted Criminals, 2007). And, there are significant physical costs to white-collar crime. Whereas the physical costs of conventional violent crimes in the U.S. add up to about 18,000 deaths and 1 million serious injuries per year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that more than 30,000 Americans die each year from work related diseases and accidents, and about 3 million workers suffer from physical harm in the workplace (see Jeffrey Reiman’s The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison (2004), and David Friedrichs’ Trusted Criminals (2007)); this data does not even take into account how many undocumented workers are injured or killed each year as a result of the work they do for us. Yet, with all of the costs of white collar and corporate crime, we fail to prosecute such crimes to the extent that we prosecute street crimes, and we do not pathologize white collar and corporate offenders in the same way that people who commit street crimes are pathologized.
I began this post by describing the relationship between structure and agency. While structure dictates a great deal of our lives, we are not puppets. Agency can be exerted to affect and change the structure of society. We see this throughout history: drawing on U.S. understandings of “liberty,” “justice” and “citizenship,” activists in the civil rights movement, including most famously Martin Luther King, Jr., successfully applied U.S. definitions of “justice” and “equality” to end de jure segregation, and leaders like Ella Baker used their foundational knowledge to inspire others to fight together for an end to Jim Crow laws in the Deep South. With 1 in every 99.1 men and women—or over 2.3 million adults—incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails (see Pew Center on the States report), it is high time that we look at our social structure to begin to move away from our reliance on imprisonment. Rather than looking at the flaws of individuals, it’s important to look at the flaws of our structure. The Occupy movement is doing this, as are organizations like Critical Resistance and Incite!. If we exert our agency collectively we can change the structure of society so that mass incarceration is not the answer to social problems like poverty and racism. Rather, resources can be channeled into communities that have been marginalized and disenfranchised, to make them safe, secure, and whole again. We do not have to settle for anything less.