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The Rich (Still) Get RicherÖ: Understanding Ideology, Outrage and Economic Bias

by Jeffrey Reiman

American University

Companion website for The Rich Get Richer & the Poor Get Prison

Note: The American Society of Criminology meetings in November of 1998 marked the 50th anniversary of that organization. They also marked the 20th anniversary of the publication of Jeffrey Reimanís book, The Rich Get Richer & the Poor Get Prison. A panel at the conference featured a series of papers to mark two decades of this book being in print. The following are the substantive prepared remarks given by Jeffrey Reiman at this panel. They also appeared in The Critical Criminologist v9 #2 (Spring 1999). These remarks are posted here by permission of Jeffrey Reiman.

I am extremely honored to be here. I am, in addition to being honored to be here, surprised. Surprised that twenty years have passed since the original publication of The Rich Get Richer, surprised that the book seems still to be a popular text, and surprised at how little has changed with respect to the economic bias in criminal justice that the book tries to document. (Of course, I thank all of you for forcing your students to buy The Rich Get Richer year after year, thereby making me richer and ó per my hypothesis ó helping me stay out of prison.)

Not that I thought the publication of The Rich Get Richer would bring about massive social change (though my mother still wonders why the President hasnít offered me a cabinet-level job to fix the criminal justice system). Rather it occurs to me that my book was originally published at a time when many writers were bringing social science research to bear on the economic bias in the criminal justice system. Indeed, not many years before, the Johnson crime commission report, "The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society," had emphasized the way in which the criminal justice system systematically focused on the poor and powerless in our society, writing, in language that now seems almost quaint: "The offender at the end of the road in prison is likely to be a member of the lowest social and economic groups in the country." But for all this attention and documentation, little has changed--on some accounts things have gotten worse.

Of course, the mechanisms of economic bias have changed. Now we have sentencing guidelines the effect of which is that judges no longer have the discretion with which to favor well-off folks ó instead that is now left to prosecutors whose discretionary decisions about charging are far harder to monitor, happening as they do, not in open court, but behind closed doors. And this is not to mention the bias that is built into the sentencing guidelines themselves (and the extremely harsh minimum sentences that often accompany them), such as the famous gap between the penalty for crack cocaine and that for powder. Likewise, as police have hopefully become less and less racist in their personal outlooks, the war on drugs has led to massive police presence in the poorest sections of our cities, with the inevitable effect that poor drug sellers continue to be arrested and imprisoned in great numbers, while it is obvious that the drug trade reaches far beyond the inner city.

Economic bias is still with us. What has changed is that the attention and concern that was once focused on economic bias as a serious problem that threatened to undermine the legitimacy of the criminal justice system has steadily diminished. It was easy to find material for the first edition of The Rich Get Richer because the social science journals were chock full of studies showing economic bias in criminal justice; but as the years have passed, with each succeeding revision of the book, I have found the studies decreasing in number and eventually dwindling to a trickle. At the same time, I have yet to find a major criminology textbook that even has an index entry on economic status or class; the FBI Index gives no information of the economic class of arrestees for various crimes, the Bureau of Prisons reports give only scant information on the pre-incarceration economic situation of current inmates, the Victimization Reports give some gross categorization of victimization by household income but of course nothing about that of the victimizers, and so on.

So we have on one hand a continuation ó some times even an aggravation ó of economic bias, and, on the other hand, a diminution of studies by social scientists (not to mention an unbroken silence among politicians and other leaders) about that economic bias. I think that there is a lesson to be learned here about the power of ideology and the way in which it works.

It is commonly thought that ideology is a system of false beliefs. But I think that this is a mistaken view, for several reasons. First, it is, I think, a plain fact that peopleís judgments are generally rational in light of their experience and normally correct. Any serious doubt of this flies in the face of reality, but it also leads to the most depressing implications for progressives since if you think that people are generally irrational and mistaken in their judgments you cannot be very optimistic about the possibility of social change. Moreover, if the people are generally irrational, what of the social scientists? How can they even identify beliefs as ideological if they too, being people, are generally irrational?

Second, if ideology were just false beliefs, I think it would be easier to penetrate ideology than it palpably is. After all, coupled with the general rationality of the people, showing a belief to be false should open the way to contrary beliefs. And third, the simple fact is that people know about economic bias in the criminal justice system. Is there anyone in America who, after months of the O. J. Simpson murder trial, is unaware that O. J. got the best justice that money could buy? Whether one thinks he was guilty or innocent, no one can doubt that a poor defendant with similar evidence against him would have been lucky to get away with a life sentence!

Rather it seems that people are aware of economic bias, but theyíre just not outraged about it. Economic bias in criminal justice seems rather like the many other ways in which rich people get better treatment than poor folks. Itís more or less par for the course. In America some people are rich and some are poor and thatís life and you get what you pay for, and so on.

I think that this becomes easier to understand if we think of ideology, not as false beliefs, but rather as an angle of moral vision--an angle of vision from which the world is seen, and in light of which facts are evaluated morally.

To fix this idea (and perhaps entertain you as well), I want to use as a way of showing the nature of ideology something from the old days of TV, when the world was black and white. At that time, as some of you might have heard, there was a very brilliant creative oddball comedian named Ernie Kovacs who had a daytime TV show. On one of these shows, there was a skit that took place in what looked like a farmhouse kitchen. In the middle of the kitchen, two farmers sat at a wooden table. On the table was a pitcher of milk and a glass, and a bowl of oranges. When one farmer tried to pour the milk from the pitcher into the glass, the milk, instead of flowing vertically down into the glass, flowed at a diagonal, missing the glass by inches and causing gales of laughter in the studio and in my house. When the other farmer put an orange on the table in preparation for cutting it up and eating it, rather than staying put, it rolled horizontally across the table and fell on the floor, causing further laughter in the studio and my house. This went on until the laughter reached life-threatening proportions. Then, a second TV camera on the side of the set was turned on to show how this hilarious feat had been accomplished. What now was visible was that the farmhouse kitchen was titled at an angle of about 15 degrees and the TV camera and camera operator who were shooting it during the skit were slanted at the same angle.

Thatís how ideology works! Imagine that the slant in the set represents the degree to which relationships in a society are characterized by morally unjustified domination. I donít mean merely hierarchical relations or differences in power, since these might be justified. By morally unjustified domination, I mean relations that are based on no more than the power of some to control the lives of others. Imagine that the farmers at the table and camera operator televising them--and even us, the viewers at home--are the members of this slanted society. Ideology, then, is represented by the fact that the members of the society are, so to speak, lined up with the society so that they see it as not slanted. Instead of relations of unjustified domination, they and we see the famous "level playing field."

More precisely, ideology is an angle of vision that makes unequal relations look like relations between equals, and thus turns their inequality into a matter of morally irrelevant differences. Then, for example, if the two farmers were to get into a fight, the one on the higher side of the slanted floor would have an advantage over the other--but it wouldnít be seen as a morally unjustified advantage. It would look as if he just were stronger or a better fighter. And thatís generally how economic advantage looks in our society, namely, as if it were a matter of each individualsí good or bad luck, special talents or lack of them--but not as a form or effect of unjustified domination.

In Marxian theory, the mechanism that accomplishes this varies with the mode of production. In feudalism, it is the belief in the equality of souls before God, in conjunction with which, differences in power look like punishments or rewards for sins or like conditions of the test that all must pass to get into heaven, but in any event as not very important compared to the divine judgment that all are subject to and the eternal condition to which that will lead. In capitalism, the corresponding mechanism is the law, not just the law in the courts, that of course, but also "legality" as a governing metaphor for human relations, seeing people as "owners" of themselves and so on. The law bestows to capitalist and worker alike the same rights to property and control over themselves. Accordingly, they meet as two people each equally free to come to terms with the other or to refuse to. Their differences, the fact that one owns a factory and machines and raw materials and the other owns the muscles in his back, look like natural differences--matters of good or bad luck, but not like unjustified domination. And the same effect spreads through the society: so that differences in wealth are not seen as forms or means of unjustified domination, but only as morally irrelevant differences.

Notice in this view of things, people are not thought to be irrational, and their beliefs (this is a table, thatís an orange) are generally correct. All they and we fail to see is the real moral angle of the playing field. I think, by the way, that this accurately characterizes neo-classical economics of the Milton Friedman variety. Not only is just about everything that neo-classicists say about the economy true, just about everything they say was believed true by Marx! However, unlike Marx, the neo-classicists just donít see the slant, and thus everything they say is ideological!

Blind to the slant, economic differences in our society look like individual differences in fortune, like difference in talent or strength, not like forms or means of unjustified domination. We may envy the rich and feel sorry for the poor, but we donít normally see poverty itself as a form of socially caused victimization. Consequently, we grow accustomed to the fact that people have different amounts of wealth and get different sorts of treatment as a result, and we feel it would be better if this were less so, but it is after all not that terrible, no more terrible than the fact that some people are smarter than others and get better treatment for that reason.

If this is so, then we might wonder how it was that in the sixties and seventies there was widespread recognition, by social scientists and even by some political leaders, of economic bias. And I think that the answer is that the slant in the society becomes visible at times of social upheaval, like the Great Depression in the 30s, and like the convergence of the civil rights and anti-war movements that gave America itís own cultural revolution in the 60s. Until such upheavals, concern about the economic bias in the system is likely to be limited to small groups, such as critical criminologists.

The author can be reached at the Department of Philosophy and Religion, American University, Washington, D.C., 20016.

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