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The Causes of Crime and Poverty[: An Excerpt from The Philadelphia Negro]

In November, 1897, I submitted to the American Academy of Political and Social Science a plan for the study of the Negro problems. This work is an essay along the lines there laid down, and is thus part of a larger design of observation and research into the history and ...

Published onApr 16, 2024
The Causes of Crime and Poverty[: An Excerpt from The Philadelphia Negro]


In November, 1897, I submitted to the American Academy of Political and Social Science a plan for the study of the Negro problems. This work is an essay along the lines there laid down, and is thus part of a larger design of observation and research into the history and social condition of the transplanted Africans. … I trust that this study with all its errors and shortcomings will at least serve to emphasize the fact that the Negro problems are problems of human beings; ungrounded assumptions or metaphysical subtleties. They present a field which the student must enter seriously, and cultivate carefully and honestly. And until he has prepared the ground by intelligent and discriminating research, the labors of philanthropist and statesman must continue to be, to a large extent, barren and unfruitful. (Adapted from the Preface.)

Republished on CrimRxiv per the 1899 (1st) edition’s public domain. The material was not modified. The material is Chapter XIV, Section 43.

A study of statistics seems to show that the crime and pauperism of the Negroes exceeds that of the whites; that in the main, nevertheless, it follows in its rise and fall the fluctuations shown in the records of the whites, i.e., if crime increases among the whites it increases among Negroes, and vice versa, with this peculiarity, that among the Negroes the change is always exaggerated — the increase greater, the decrease more marked in nearly all cases. This is what we would naturally expect: we have here the record of a low social class, and as the condition of a lower class is by its very definition worse than that of a higher, so the situation of the Negroes is worse as respects crime and poverty than that of the mass of whites. Moreover, any change in social conditions is bound to affect the poor and unfortunate more than the rich and prosperous. We have in all probability an example of this in the increase of crime since 1890; we have had a period of financial stress and industrial depression; the ones who have felt this most are the poor, the unskilled laborers, the inefficient and unfortunate, and those with small social and economic advantages; the Negroes are in this class, and the result has been an increase in Negro crime and pauperism; there has also been an increase in the crime of the whites, though less rapid by reason of their richer and more fortunate upper classes.

So far, then, we have no phenomena which are new or exceptional, or which present more than the ordinary social problems of crime and poverty — although these, to-be sure, are difficult enough. Beyond these, however, there are problems which can rightly be called Negro problems: they arise from the peculiar history and condition of the American Negro. The first peculiarity is, of course, the slavery and emancipation of the Negroes. That their emancipation has raised them economically and morally is proven by the increase of wealth and co-operation, and the decrease of poverty and crime between the period before the war and the period since; nevertheless, this was manifestly no simple process: the first effect of emancipation was that of any sudden social revolution: a strain upon the strength and resources of the Negro, moral, economic and physical, which drove many to the wall. For this reason the rise of the Negro in this city is a series of rushes and backslidings rather than a continuous growth. The second great peculiarity of the situation of the Negroes is the fact of immigration; the great numbers of raw recruits who have from time to time precipitated themselves upon the Negroes of the city and shared their small industrial opportunities, have made reputations which, whether good or bad, all their race must share; and finally whether they failed or succeeded in the strong competition, they themselves must soon prepare to face a new immigration.

Here then we have two great causes for the present condition of the Negro: Slavery and emancipation with their attendant phenomena of ignorance, lack of discipline, and moral weakness; immigration with its increased competition and moral influence. To this must be added a third as great — possibly greater in influence than the other two, namely the environment in which a Negro Ends himself— the world of custom and thought in which he must live and work, the physical surrounding of house and home and ward, the moral encouragements and discouragements which he encounters. We dimly seek to define this social environment partially when we talk of color prejudice, — but this is but a vague characterization; what we want to study is not a vague thought or feeling but its concrete manifestations. We know pretty well what the surroundings are of a young white lad, or a foreign immigrant who comes to this great city to join in its organic life. We know what influences and limitations surround him, what he may attain, what his companionships are, what his encouragements are, what his drawbacks.

This we must know in regard to the Negro if we would study his social condition. His strange social environment must have immense effect on his thought and life, his work and crime, his wealth and pauperism. That this environment differs and differs broadly from the environment of his fellows, we all know, but we do not know just how it differs. The real foundation of the difference is the widespread feeling all over the land, in Philadelphia as well as in Boston and New Orleans, that the Negro is something less than an American and ought not to be much more than what he is. Argue as we may for or against this idea, we must as students recognize its presence and its vast effects.

At the Eastern Penitentiary where they seek so far as possible to attribute to definite causes the criminal record of each prisoner, the vast influence of environment is shown. This estimate is naturally liable to error, but the peculiar system of this institution and the long service and wide experience of the warden and his subordinates gives it a peculiar and unusual value. Of the 541 Negro prisoners previously studied 191 were catalogued as criminals by reason of “natural and inherent depravity.” The others were divided as follows:

Crimes due to

(a) Defects of the law:

Laxity in administration


Unsuitable laws for minor offences


Inefficient police


License given to the young


Inefficient laws in regard to saloons


Poor institutions and lack of institutions




(b) Immediate environment:





Home and family influences




(c) Lack of training, lack of opportunity, lack of desire to work


(d) General environment


(e) Disease


(f) Moral weakness and unknown




This rough judgment of men who have come into daily contact with five hundred Negro criminals, but emphasizes the fact alluded to; the immense influence of his peculiar environment on the black Philadelphian; the influence of homes badly situated and badly managed, with parents untrained for their responsibilities; the influence of social surroundings which by poor laws and inefficient administration leave the bad to be made worse; the influence of economic exclusion which admits Negroes only to those parts of the economic world where it is hardest to retain ambition and self-respect; and finally that indefinable, but real and mighty moral influence that causes men to have a real sense of manhood or leads them to lose aspiration and self-respect.

For the last ten or fifteen years young Negroes have been pouring into this city at the rate of a thousand a year; the question is then what homes they find or make, what neighbors they have, how they amuse themselves, and what work they engage in? Again, into what sort of homes are the hundreds of Negro babies of each year born? Under what social influences do they come, what is the tendency of their training, and what places in life can they fill? To answer all these questions is to go far toward finding the real causes of crime and pauperism among this race; the next two chapters, therefore, take up the question of environment.

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