When Temple University criminal justice professor Jamie Fader set out to interview young men in Philadelphia’s Frankford neighborhood starting in 2014, she was struck by the fact that they were just missing. They were not at community meetings, churches, boxing gyms, barbershops, or bars. And when she did find one to participate, he typically was unable to refer a single friend, despite generous recruiting incentives.
What Fader encountered is a phenomenon familiar to a generation of young men of color who self-isolate in order to avoid dangers — which include not only street violence but also an unpredictable criminal-legal system in which any encounter could produce disastrous or even deadly results.
As several of them told her, “I don’t have time for drama.” That’s the title of Fader’s forthcoming paper in Criminology, a publication of the American Society of Criminology.
The academic term for it is “network avoidance” — and Fader found that, though it may keep young men alive and out of jail, it comes at a high cost to the men, their families, and the communities missing a generation of potential leaders. To Fader, a professor of criminal justice, it is one more consequence of the high levels of surveillance and policing of poor Black and Latino neighborhoods, which previous studies have suggested predicts higher rates of delinquency, worse health outcomes, and higher levels of legal system involvement.
“Their orientations revolve around risk and trying to reduce or mitigate that risk,” Fader said. “Men, 25 to 34 years old, our assumption might be that they’re moving around, going to jobs, going to family reunions, engaged in normal adult activities. But instead, we find so many of them trying to really limit those activities and carefully regulate their relationships with people because of the trouble that could arise.”
Fader studied with Elijah Anderson, the sociologist whose book Code of the Street became a seminal study of how Black men in Philly, often labeled as criminals, moved through society. She’s writing a book that explores the world of a subsequent generation of system-impacted men — who, as kids 25 years ago, were labeled superpredators under the now-discredited theory that warned of a new type of violent and remorseless youth.
“They talked a lot about being seen as criminals, being seen as potentially violent, being seen as producing nothing and being drains on the system,” she said, citing negative experiences in school, with police, and on the job market. “They’re working hard to defy those odds and, in their terms, ‘not to be a statistic.’”
While young people understand networking is a way to get ahead, she said, the risks seem to outweigh those theoretical benefits. In Frankford, one in three residents has a criminal record. For those on probation, just associating with another system-involved person could result in a violation. And even those who have never been convicted of a crime, she found, reported experiences with false arrests that made staying home seem like the safe choice.
A byproduct was that many limited their ambitions to mere survival. One 28-year-old Black man told her: “There are not many 28-year-olds who are still alive and kicking. Most are either dead or in jail, so I applaud myself.”
Other consequences included elevated stress levels and the associated health effects, the absence of a reliable support system to lean on, and a loss of political capital that reinforces the status of marginalized communities.
Those findings resonated with community organizers and employers, who said the pandemic has made many young people more disconnected than ever.
“It saddens me to hear, but it also adds understanding,” said Robb Carter, codirector at the Men’s Center for Growth and Change, which provides counseling and support groups to men in Philadelphia. He said he often encounters people who feel they’re damned no matter what choice they make. “We want people to be independent, to raise families, but they’re going to have a hard time doing that in healthy ways when they have been damned.”
Complicating that is the reality that, for many young men seeking to steer clear of danger, self-isolating can be an effective coping mechanism, said Adrian McGill, who works with young people at the job-training program PowerCorps PHL. Particularly as gun violence has spiked, many want to “stay out of the way.” But doing so indefinitely can leave them stranded.
“The young person that has been in foster care, what do you think their baseline trust is? It’s zero. They’ve never had relationships that were positive, that were supportive,” said McGill. “Then they go back into isolation, because isolation is their safety.”
Reuben Jones, who runs the organization Frontline Dads, sees that disconnection as one reason city antiviolence efforts have fallen short.
“It’s hard to reach people that are living under the radar, and there’s a whole population of the city that are doing that from a lack of trust and fear of exploitation by the system,” he said.
Jones, who has been distributing food, masks, and gun locks during the pandemic, recalled trying to persuade a young man who had a gun bulging under his shirt to accept a lock. It could keep the man and his kids safe, Jones advised. But the man refused, for fear the tacit admission that he had an illegal gun could be used against him. “He was trying to convince me, ‘Look, brother, I don’t carry guns. I don’t even know what a gun looks like!’”
To Fader, the study is an indication of the harm of an overreaching criminal justice system — and a call for rethinking community safety.
“In my view, what this study says is we just need a lot less,” she said. For these men, the criminal-legal system feels like a “wholly destructive force.”
She said communities should be asking: “Where do we want to put our resources? How do we create public safety in ways that are not destructive? There’s good research that shows a number of things we can do in the community to make everyone safer: funding nonprofits, greening spaces, creating solidarity among neighbors and willingness to look out for one another. All of these things are proven methods of reducing violence. All of them operate in ways that have even bigger benefits to public health.”