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by Peter Moskos

June 7, 2015

Where and how you are raised? It matters.

When it comes to policing and crime, I'm quick to harp on individual agency and free will. It matters. People make bad and harmful choices. They choose to do so. And police can prevent some of the things that lead to bad choices. Some liberals forget that.

But this isn't say that root causes don't matter. Of course they do. More than police. More, on a macro level, than free will or police. And sometimes conservatives forget this. From the Economist:
The great thing about America, Scott walker went on, was that it offered equality of opportunity, even if outcomes were up to individuals. America is one of the few countries left in the world where it doesn’t matter what class you are born into, he declared, and many in the audience, notably the older voters with snowy hair, clapped enthusiastically.
That's laughable. Prof Michael Jenkins states this well (in a column about Spike Lee's "Chi-Raq") (though I think his student body is very different from what you'll find in my classroom):
“I tell my students, ‘Think about the circumstances in which you were raised,’ ” says Michael Jenkins, a criminal justice professor at the University of Scranton. About the parents, teachers, schools and other organizations that get thanked in the graduation speeches, that were there to support you. Then “think about some of the poor decisions you made even with all those structural conditions in your favor.”

There are things “we celebrate as leading to success, but we fail to acknowledge that the lack of those things explains poor behaviors,” he says. There are places that suffer from lack of investment, unemployment and underemployment, under-education. We act as if everyone has “the same choices we have, then we take credit for our own decisions when they were also bounded, but bounded by more positive outlines.”
If conditions didn't matter, if you think your kids would turn out just as well growing up in the ghetto, then why don't you move to a "bad" neighborhood? Housing is cheap. But I don't blame you. There are good reasons you don't want to raise your kids in segregated poor violent neighborhoods. Such as:

A) The schools are bad.
B) The streets aren't safe.
C) There are no stores.
D) Your neighbors may be, if not criminals, inconsiderate of those who, say, have to get up in the morning and go to work.

So you're not moving to Camden (or wherever). For the kids, perhaps. So why wouldn't it affect those who actually do live there (usually because they just happened to be born there)? So shouldn't we all have a little more empathy for those who are forced to grow up without any of the advantages mainstream America can provide?

This doesn't mean you can't and shouldn't blame people for their actions. But after we do that, can't we also work to improve society and the world others are forced to live in?

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