Thursday, November 7, 2013

Thanking the Miami Dolphins and Mercury Morris for Carl Hart

If you need proof that kids growing up in poverty are wasted potential, there's no better illustration than Dr. Carl Hart. His early life in a poor black neighborhood in Miami made it very likely he would become nothing. But a few flukes sent him out of the 'hood, and the particular timing of his youth squeezed him between Vietnam, crack cocaine, and the first Iraq War.

Before I read his book High Price, I knew Hart had come up poor, but I assumed he was one of the "good" kids whose mothers somehow kept them out of the street, that he had watched "the life" from the sidelines. But that's wrong. Hart was in it just the same as his brothers, male cousins, and friends, and he has the gold teeth to prove it.

The only difference was that he wanted to play sports (first football and then basketball), which kept his smoking and drug use to a social minimum, and he stayed in school with a C average in hope of getting a scholarship. He had an occasional teacher who recognized that he wasn't bad at math. And when he was a senior, with no college basketball scouts in sight, he (almost accidentally) took the U.S. military entrance exam.

Born in 1967, he finished high school in 1985, the year before crack hit it big on the east coast. He spent four years as a supply clerk in the Air Force but got out just a year before the build-up to Desert Storm.

He was finally sent on the way toward his academic career at 18 by the military's discipline and closest-thing-we-have to racial equity, combined with black consciousness-raising from a fellow soldier and the music of Bob Marley and Gil Scott-Heron. Soon Hart was taking college classes during his service years, at first thinking of a business degree, but later changing to psychology. From there on, he found mentors and his way to testing the effects of drugs, starting with rats and later with humans.

Clearly, though, Hart succeeded in spite of what was offered to him by life, not because of it. Though he had an intact family until he was six, his father was alcoholic and abusive. There was a very successful sports franchise in town that his dad loved, and Carl therefore loved the Miami Dolphins, too. The team happened to have its first successful black player around the same time, Mercury Morris, and that provided just enough motivation to the boy.

Hart touches on the ACES matrix (Adverse Childhood Experience Scores), acknowledging that he would have a high score. But he wonders if living in an abusive family, for instance, is the thing that causes life problems later on, or if instead the abuse was caused by the same underlying stimulus -- the stress of racism and poverty -- and that's what causes the outcomes. Maybe protective factors, like a tight-knit extended family, make a difference.

Either way, the outcome that is Hart's life was no foregone conclusion: There was a lot that worked against his chances. He almost got caught stealing some car batteries at 16, which would have resulted in time in the system, but he got lucky in the escape because he could run fast. His sister was shot as an innocent bystander, and if the shooter hadn't been in custody, Hart may have gone after him in revenge. He was in a car when one occupant threatened an innocent passerby with a rifle while the rest of the guys laughed. He smoked pot, drank, had sex, and even fathered a child (which he didn't know about until he was in his late 30s).

Hart makes the case that incarceration of young people for any reason less than pretty extreme violence is not worth it because of the downward spiral it causes, and there's research to bear this out. In the research, two sets of kids who've done crimes are assigned to either jail or alternative sentencing. Even if the kids in the alternative plan had committed a worse crime to start with, they're three times as likely to come out as productive members of society than the kids who serve time (page 133). Prison is a factory for making criminals, not to mention the fact that once you have a record you can't get a legitimate job, live in public housing, get financial aid for college, and are subject to many other punishments that last forever.

They're kids and their brains aren't developed. The case with Hart and his friends in a car with a rifle, threatening a pedestrian, made that clear. In the text of the book, he tries to remember what he was thinking and it's clear there just was no empathy for how it made the victim feel. They knew the guy was scared, but they didn't care if what they were doing was wrong. They were building off each other, having a laugh at his expense. They weren't planning to shoot him, just scare him. But would any person with a normal brain, post-adolescence, do that?

Another thing I learned from the book is that, at least in Miami's black culture, it's considered unmanly for men to masturbate, and that accounts for a lot of the baby daddy thing. You have sex starting as a teenager not only because it feels good: It's to prove you're a man, and there's a lot going on that otherwise undermines your masculinity. You commit petty and not-so-petty crimes with the group for the same reason. It's all about representing yourself as a man and being loyal to the group: boggled my mind that someone would every say no to his boys; for me, cool and its requirement of loyalty to our group always came first. It was the foundation of my values, one of the few things that really meant something to me and structured my social life. Putting those ties at risk, to me, seemed much more dangerous and threatening than anything the system could do to you if you ever got caught. If you stayed cool, you could handle that. If not, you weren't a man and there was nothing much to live for anyway (page 131).
My only fear of Hart's narrative is that it will be used by the Right to point out what they see as an inherent pathology in poor black communities. Look, they might say, every young man was involved in robbery, violence, casual sex and baby daddying, and drugs -- even a smart guy like Carl Hart. They were fatherless and that caused the problem. Oooo, single mothers. Those boys need the military to straighten them out.

Not seeing that these young men were fatherless because of the stress of discrimination and lack of opportunity, and more recently fatherless because of the drug war and incarceration. Hart's male relatives have almost all served time, even the ones who managed to become functioning members of the community.

Having economic opportunities for the adults in kids' lives -- instead of a 20 percent unemployment rate and discrimination that confined them to the lowest-wage jobs even when they could find one -- is a better solution than sentencing them all to boot camp so they can be IED fodder in the war on terrorism.

Related posts:
Quotes from Carl Hart's High Price

Why Not Try Life in a Rat Park?

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