One consequence of racism and segregation is that many American whites know little or nothing about the daily lives of African Americans. Black America’s least-understood communities are those poor, hyper-segregated places we once called ghettos. These neighborhoods are not far away, but they might as well be on the moon. The only news most people ever hear about the inner city comes from grim headlines; the only residents they can name are characters on The Wire. Of course, ignorance of a community doesn’t stop outsiders from having opinions about it or passing laws that govern it. But those opinions, based on stereotypes and catchphrases, make it difficult to conduct meaningful public deliberation about social policy. And the laws, all too often, harm people who have enough going against them already.
While most Americans are detached from the urban poor, social scientists have been examining and formulating theories about their lives for more than a century. One line of research, exemplified by a chapter from Elijah Anderson’s Streetwise (1990), explores policing practices in the tough-on-crime era that began in the 1970s. Anderson looked at interactions between police and young black men in Philadelphia. He found that such men were at constant risk of being stopped, harassed, and even arrested, whether or not they had committed a crime. In these circumstances, Anderson wrote, a black youth “knows, or soon finds out, that he exists in a legally precarious state. Hence he is motivated to avoid the police, and his public life becomes severely circumscribed.”