Abigail Henson on How Black Fathers With Criminal Records Navigate Employment Discrimination
In Desistance, Persistence, Resilience and Resistance, Abigail Henson visbilises the resilience shown by Black fathers with a criminal record while navigating discriminatory employment market. She argues that Black men who have to provide for their families resort to “hustling” not due to persistent criminality, but because of the racist attitude of the employment ecosystem.
Drawing from the interviews conducted with released Black fathers in South Philidelphia, Henson endeavours to use a “strength-based” lens to highlight the resilience displayed by such men when faced with stigma and discrimination. With the aim to expose how racist employment system disproportionately impacts Black men, she goes on to propose:
“It is not solely a criminal record that leads to employer discrimination, but rather the intersection of race, gender, and a criminal record that result in perceptions of Black formerly incar- cerated males as “socially unacceptable” by potential employers.”
The respondents in Henson’s study expressed willingness to join the legitimate workforce, but the same was consistently denied to them due to the intersection of their gender, race, and criminal record. Despite such constraints, the respondents continued to remain resilient and resistant, finding hustles for themselves to support their families. Henson takes recourse to YA Payne’s Site of Resilience (SOR) theory, to show how for Black fathers, the “providing by any means necessary” is an act of resilience instead of recidivism:
“Despite the inability to gain employment because of limited skills, lack of quality education and employer discrimination, the fathers did not give up. Rather, they expressed resilience in choosing to provide by any means necessary. The streets were seen as a temporary safety net that would always be there to catch the men as they searched for something better. Being in the streets was a goal-oriented adaptation to blocked opportunities and not the result of “criminal values.”
Majority of fathers in Henson’s study believe that providing employment opportunities to them and others in their area would reduce crime in the community. Lamenting the lack of work opportunities in close vicinities, the respondents desired more opportunities to work or do business in their neighbourhood to make money and spend quality time with their family as well.
Henson uses these narratives to argue how the discourse on recidivism is disproportionately focused on persistent criminality instead of racist policies and practices that push Black men to recidivate. While claiming that such approach perpetuates the stereotype of “criminal Blackman”, Henson contends that:
“In criminological research, it is necessary to take a strengths-based anti-racist approach that contextualizes criminal engagement and shifts the critique from those required to navigate barriers upon reentry to those creating and sustaining such barriers. When thinking about the purpose of incarceration and how we define a successful reentry, it is important to understand that re-engagement in crime or re-arrest is rarely a display of a persistent criminal character. This simplistic analysis disregards police officers’ hyper surveillance of Black men, and particularly those returning home from prison, which increases the chance of arrest. This kind of analysis similarly neglects systemic racism and discrimination that contributes to blocked opportunities for financial security and survival”.
Henson moots for expanding the definition of “successful re-entry” to include “measures that reflect sustainable positive growth in the individual such as familial and community engagement, a future-orientation, motivation, joy and empathy”:
“By expanding definitions of resilience and turning a critical gaze onto policymakers, research can contribute to a shift in collective consciousness around Blackness, maleness, and criminal engagement that can lessen discrimination and ultimately increase public safety.”
Complement this with Maria Johnson and Alford Young on Diversity and Meaning In The Study of Black Fatherhood, and Devah Pager on The Mark of a Criminal Record.