Category Archive 'Upward Mobility'

07 Aug 2014

Crooked Ladder Now Too Slippery To Climb, Laments New Yorker

, ,


Malcolm Gladwell, in the New Yorker, looks a number of studies suggesting that crime used to be a viable path to social mobility. Modern intensity of policing and the absence of corruption, studies suggest, leave poor African American hoodlums today no “blind eye” under which they can prosper and become rich and respectable as their predecessors did.

Six decades ago, Robert K. Merton argued that there was a series of ways in which Americans responded to the extraordinary cultural emphasis that their society placed on getting ahead. The most common was “conformity”: accept the social goal (the American dream) and also accept the means by which it should be pursued (work hard and obey the law). The second strategy was “ritualism”: accept the means (work hard and obey the law) but reject the goal. That’s the approach of the Quakers or the Amish or of any other religious group that substitutes its own moral agenda for that of the broader society. There was also “retreatism” and “rebellion”—rejecting both the goal and the means. It was the fourth adaptation, however, that Merton found most interesting: “innovation.” Many Americans—particularly those at the bottom of the heap—believed passionately in the promise of the American dream. They didn’t want to bury themselves in ritualism or retreatism. But they couldn’t conform: the kinds of institutions that would reward hard work and promote advancement were closed to them. So what did they do? They innovated: they found alternative ways of pursuing the American dream. They climbed the crooked ladder.

All three of the great waves of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European immigrants to America innovated. Irish gangsters dominated organized crime in the urban Northeast in the mid to late nineteenth century, followed by the Jewish gangsters—Meyer Lansky, Arnold Rothstein, and Dutch Schultz, among others. Then it was the Italians’ turn. They were among the poorest and the least skilled of the immigrants of that era. Crime was one of the few options available for advancement. The point of the crooked-ladder argument and “A Family Business” was that criminal activity, under those circumstances, was not rebellion; it wasn’t a rejection of legitimate society. It was an attempt to join in. …

[The most important thing] is not the cultural difference between being an Italian thug in the early part of the twentieth century and being an African-American thug today. It’s the role of law enforcement in each era. … Until the nineteen-seventies, outstanding warrants in the city of Philadelphia were handled by a two-man team, who would sit in an office during the evening hours and make telephone calls to the homes of people on their list. Anyone stopped by the police could show a fake I.D. Today, there are computers and sometimes even fingerprint machines in squad cars. Between 1960 and 2000, the ratio of police officers to Philadelphia residents rose by almost seventy per cent.

In the previous era, according to Goffman, the police “turned a fairly blind eye” to prostitution, drug dealing, and gambling in poor black neighborhoods. But in the late nineteen-eighties, she writes, “corruption seems to have been largely eliminated as a general practice, at least in the sense of people working at the lower levels of the drug trade paying the police to leave them in peace.”

[Old-time Italian gangsters], of course, routinely paid the police to leave them in peace, as did the other crime families of their day. They got the benefit of law enforcement’s “blind eye.” …

The Federal Witness Protection Program did not yet exist; federal wiretaps weren’t admissible in court. Only the F.B.I. was properly equipped to tackle organized crime, and under J. Edgar Hoover the bureau saw targeting Communism and political subversion as its primary mandate. “As late as 1959, the FBI’s New York field office had only 10 agents assigned to organized crime compared to over one hundred and forty agents pursuing a dwindling population of Communists,” the attorney C. Alexander Hortis writes, in “The Mob and the City.” In the unlikely event that a mobster was arrested, Hortis points out, he could expect to walk. Between 1960 and 1970, forty-four per cent of indictments of organized-crime figures in courts around New York City were dismissed before trial. In that same ten-year period, five hundred and thirty-six mobsters were arrested on felony charges, but only thirty-seven ended up in prison. …

That’s why the crooked ladder worked as well as it did. The granddaughter could end up riding horses because the law—whether from indifference, incompetence, or corruption—left her gangster grandfather alone.

The idea that, in the course of a few generations, the gangster can give way to an equestrian is perhaps the hardest part of the innovation argument to accept. We have become convinced of the opposite trajectory: the benign low-level drug dealer becomes the malignant distributor and then the brutal drug lord. The blanket policing imposed on 6th Street is justified by the idea that, left unchecked, [low-level criminals] will get worse. Their delinquency will metastasize… [C]rooked-ladder theorists looked at the Mafia’s evolution during the course of the twentieth century, however, and reached the opposite conclusion: that, over time, the criminal vocation was inevitably domesticated.

Your are browsing
the Archives of Never Yet Melted in the 'Upward Mobility' Category.

Entries (RSS)
Comments (RSS)
Feed Shark