Skin color is always what is noticed first. It is among the easiest things to identify; thus, it is always a factor. But underneath skin color is also gender and class. Baltimore is no exception.

True community is always about belonging and safety. When you feel you have neither, then it is “survival of the fittest.” The fewer the resources one has, the closer you are to survival. The closer you are to survival, the greater the level of distrust. The closer you are to survival, the less you plan because everyday is about crisis, which forces you to react.

If you grow up in extreme poverty, you learn to never to call the police. Institutions of all kinds are distrusted in poverty, but particularly law enforcement and judicial systems. If you are in extreme poverty in America and have been there for two or more generations, then for many (not all) the next three statements are considered to be true:

1) “Justice” goes to those who can pay for it

2) You are “guilty” until proven innocent

3) Many judges and policeman are “on the take”

If you are poor and male, it is worse. If you are poor, male and a minority (black, Hispanic, or Native American), it is even worse. Not only are you defensive, you are often targeted as well. (The stories of minority, poor, males being stopped for no reason are legion.) Again, this is an issue of safety and belonging.

Furthermore, you are not respected in poverty if you are not “tough” simply because you cannot survive the environmental reality. My brother-in-law, who died in jail, bragged that it took five policemen to “arrest him and bring him down.” He was a hero in the neighborhood because he was so “tough.” The very idea of being “polite” to someone who represents an institution you distrust would often be viewed as untenable.

Your first response would be to show your strength – a good offense gives an advantage. In generational poverty, “respect” is generally given to the person, not the representative of the institution, but the person themselves. In educated households, “respect” tends to be accorded to the position (whether you respect the person or not).How-Much-Banner

In defense of the law enforcement profession, these patterns also exist in high poverty neighborhoods:

1) Fewer adult men work, which means that money either needs to be obtained another way, and/or there is more undesignated time

2) The lower the level of education and the higher the number of households without men living in them permanently, the higher the level of violence

3) The higher percentage of adults who have been in prison or who are in prison

4) The lower the level of education…

5) …the higher the percentage of domestic violence. (Domestic violence occurs in all classes but a higher percentage exists in generational poverty.)

If you are a law officer and you know that you are entering a neighborhood with these characteristics, then your brain has already identified an expectation and a heighted sense of danger. This understanding may create a different response, particularly if “safety” is a concern.

We have a book called “Tactical Communications” for first responders and law officers to discover the mindset of “survival,” and what happens to the thinking of a person who has been in “survival” for a couple of generations.

This disconnect between the “law” and the generationally poor has been exacerbated in the last 50 years for the following reasons:

  • Housing has become segregated by cost (class)
  • The “neighborhood” cop who everyone knew and who had relationships in the neighborhood was replaced by a cop who rode in a car but did not get to know individuals in the neighborhood
  • Many policeman entered the law enforcement profession after the military; now only 3% of Americans have military experience (the military was a great “leveler” of experience.)
  • The educational requirements to be in law enforcement have increased, so now many places require at least two years of college. (It costs money to go to college. Only 11% of individuals in the bottom 20% of households finish college.) This disconnect is further heighted by the fact that the majority of law officers are white.

So what does a community do to change this pattern? Changing any pattern – be it dieting or exercising or parenting or whatever – requires that the thinking, “the mindset” be changed as well. We have been establishing “Bridges” communities across the world (over 250) to bring the resourced and under-resourced together in communities so that human capacity and talent can be developed and enhanced. These are the things that change thinking and mindsets: education, relationships with people different than you are (social bridging capital), volunteerism, and employment.

True community is always about safety and belonging.

Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D. is the founder of aha! Process and an author, speaker, publisher, and career educator. Recognized internationally for A Framework for Understanding Poverty, her foundational book and workshop, Dr. Ruby Payne has helped students and adults of all economic backgrounds achieve academic, professional, and personal success.