by Guest Contributor Jeremy R. Levine, originally published at Social Science Lite
Mass incarceration, particularly of black and brown folks, is a hot topic in the social sciences. Hell, it’s a hot topic in nearly every poor, marginalized, urban community of color. Harvard sociologist Bruce Western offers some of the best academic analysis of the carceral state in Punishment and Inequality in America. Western brilliantly details the absurd cost of our contemporary prison system as well as the significant toll incarceration has had on poor communities of color. True unemployment rates are hidden in the “non-economic institution” of the prison, as labor statistics ignore the very existence of prisoners. So, while black male unemployment reached an astounding 17.2% in April of this year, the true percent of unemployed black males is much higher, thanks in part to racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. It’s common knowledge at this point that blacks are more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted, and more likely to receive longer sentences than whites.
Leaving prison produces even more hardship. After incarceration, men become “permanent labor market outsiders,” as their job prospects are reduced to unstable (if any) employment. Not surprisingly, these outcomes are racialized. Princeton sociologist Devah Pager conducted a fascinating study (“The Mark of a Criminal Record”) in which she sent black and white job candidates with nearly identical resumes to apply for low-level jobs. The results illustrated profound racial discrimination, as black candidates with criminal records were far less likely to receive callbacks for jobs than whites with criminal records. But that wasn’t all; in fact, black candidates without a criminal record were still less likely to receive a callback than whites with a criminal record. Her results suggest that there may be some sort of racial stigma attached to criminal behavior—a racial stereotype that all blacks are perceived as potential criminal offenders.