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American Dream Can Lead to Crime

December 22, 1987|RITA J. SIMON | Rita J. Simon is the dean of the School of Justice at American University, Washington.

American society places a premium on individual success. Becoming rich is a sign of respectability and prestige. How the wealth is acquired is often not closely scrutinized. The results are more important than the means by which they were attained. For most people, hard work over many years is the route to relative success. What they cannot achieve in their lifetime, they hope their children will accomplish. The children will have had the benefits of more education and better opportunities. Most families expect to move up the social mobility ladder one step at a time.

But some of us are not as patient. We have fully integrated the value of success, and we want the money, and the standard of living that money can buy, right away. How can one make the leap from poverty to the top of the heap? Some people far down on the social ladder have special talents that can speed them up the rungs. Their talents provide a shortcut for reaching a place at or near the top of the social mobility ladder. They can box, shoot a basketball, throw a football or ride a horse well. Athletic ability has provided many a ticket from the ghetto to the glitter of the "big time."

Criminal activities provide another shortcut to monetary gain and success. I am, of course, talking about the types who rob, forge, steal, embezzle--those who are in the business of crime to make money and who believe wholeheartedly in the American dream of success.

Not everyone has the ability to be a successful criminal. Many "small time" crooks do not make it; they live a hand-to-mouth existence or end up spending more time in prison than they on the outside. But for many the dream remains, and they wait for the opportunity to strike it big. Once they've made it and bought the big house in the right neighborhood and sent their kids to the right schools, it doesn't matter how they got there. And it didn't take two generations of plodding, dull work or long hours in the classroom. They took a shortcut. These observations about criminal activities as a shortcut to social mobility are not original. Robert Merton provided the theoretical basis more than 40 years ago. Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin elaborated on Merton's ideas in the 1980s.

Among the major subscribers to the American value of wealth equaling success are immigrants. The reason many of them left their homelands and came to this country was because they were more ambitious than their countrymen. They wanted more, and they were willing to work to fulfill their dream. Recent data, for example, on the percentage of Asian immigrants in Ivy League and other fine colleges and universities show that their numbers far exceed their representation in society. College admission officers have referred to them as "driven."

There are others in the immigrant communities who are just as consumed with making it in American society. But instead of turning to the universities or other legitimate arenas, some turn to crime. Because recent immigrants, no matter where they came from, are not welcomed by most Americans, news of their involvement in crime receives a disproportionate amount of publicity. Poll data going as far back as the 1940s show that most Americans consistently favored decreasing the number of immigrants allowed into the country. Poll data also show that the most recent immigrants are the ones least desired and least welcomed. In the 1980s those groups include Vietnamese, Haitians and Cubans.

In fact, immigrants are less likely than natives to engage in crime, and often the crimes that they commit are petty. Yet the publicity surrounding their criminal activities is distorted and exaggerated, making it seem that many immigrants are criminals and that much of the crime committed in this country is carried out by immigrants. Not so. But immigrants are easy scapegoats, especially because they identify so heavily with the American value of individual success. And they are so ambitious that newspapers tend to report accounts of criminal activities within immigrant communities or crimes committed by recent immigrants as if those activities were unique to the particular group. The articles suggest that there is something special about Cuban or Vietnamese or Haitian culture that produces more criminal activity than other cultures do.

The writers forget that their predecessors wrote similar stories, noting the defects of character and collective morality about the Chinese, and before that about the Greeks and the Jews and the Poles, and even before that about the Irish. People who choose to leave their homelands are not fully representative of the society and culture that they opted to leave. Most immigrants are young, healthy and ambitious. When they come to a society that places a premium on individual success with a heavy emphasis on money as a symbol of that success, those who have less talent and skill to make it through legitimate endeavors, and who are impatient, may turn to crime as a shortcut for achieving the American Dream.

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