Nature vs. nurture: To what extent are we a blank slate?

This is the question that determines so much of how we are treated

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The other day, I chatted with Peter, one of my former classmates in the Georgetown Prison Scholars program. He has just obtained a new job as a teacher for a diverse group of third graders. A lesson about ancient Rome included a discussion of that society’s reliance on slaves. (That was a surprise to me! But yes, the Romans often enslaved individuals captured during their frequent military adventures.) The 7- and 8-year-olds, recounts Peter, had a hard time wrapping their minds around why someone would enslave another human.

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These kids are like blank slates; they have not yet learned to treat people differently based on their skin color or social status. To me, and to Peter, this is evidence that love is an innate trait, and that hate, aggression and other antisocial attitudes and behaviors are more the result of “nurture” (environment) than “nature.”

The lessons life teaches

When I was young, my mother did her very best to teach me right from wrong. But when I walked out the door, the reality I saw around me taught me a different lesson. In my neighborhood, the people who had money sold drugs and the men who commanded respect and were treated as cool were those who killed if anyone went against them. Being Black meant the only way to make money was through crime, and if you didn’t engage in it, you’d still be seen as a criminal anyway.

Sure, there are some people who manage to stay on a straight and narrow course despite an environment that conspires against them from an early age, whether it be a broken home, impoverished family, abusive parents or violent neighborhood (or, too often, all of these). I remember one boy when I was growing up who we considered a punk; no matter what we tried to get him to do, he refused to break the rules. He just buried himself in his books. Clearly, nature plays a role too. But kids like that are unicorns, just as are guys in prison who manage to survive without sticking up for themselves by getting in a fight at some point. Many pulled-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps Republicans come from the school of thought that because they did it, everyone else can.

However, research — and the sheer weight of reality — shows that the norm is to reflect your environment. As one report concludes: “Individuals who were poor during childhood are more likely to be poor as adults than are those who were never poor, and this is especially true for African-Americans. Intergenerational poverty and persistent disadvantage impedes individuals’ ability to achieve the American Dream. Though there is considerable upward mobility in the United States, escaping poverty is difficult.”

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It’s not surprising, then, that other research shows that where we live determines to a large degree how long we live. even when communities are only a few miles apart. In Washington, D.C., for example, people living in the Barry Farms neighborhood face a life expectancy of 63.2 years. Yet, less than 10 miles away, a baby born in Friendship Heights and Friendship Village can expect to live 96.1 years, according to CDC data. A difference of just 10 miles shifts life expectancy by almost 33 years. Overall, any two census tracts in the U.S. can differ in expected life expectancy by 41.2 years.

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And then there is the impact of parental incarceration on children. Longitudinal studies show that children with one or more parents caught up in the criminal “justice” system are impacted in myriad ways, ranging from expulsion from school to their own incarceration. One report suggests that children of incarcerated parents are, on average, six times more likely to end up in jail or prison.

People change

However, there is a silver lining to these strong indications that life patterns are learned or acquired. It also means there is the potential for change, particularly with support and encouragement. And that latter possibility is too often discounted in the American penal system.

Thanks to a recent D.C. law passed to ease prison overcrowding during the COVID-19 pandemic, I am eligible for an early parole hearing early next year. So, I have been thinking a lot about the discriminatory practices that are too often baked into American parole procedures. One of them is the use of algorithms to determine the likelihood of a person to recidivate. Among the factors often considered are parental divorce and childhood gang activity, for example.

“These tools make calculations of risk based on what other people with similar backgrounds and track records have done,” notes Robert Werth, a senior lecturer in sociology in Rice University’s School of Social Sciences. “But…this skews risk assessment scores to more harshly assess and punish individuals who are of lower socioeconomic position and who are racial minorities. These calculations ultimately lead to people being punished for what they might do.”

One of the proprietary algorithms is called Compas — short for Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions. Compas was investigated by journalism think tank ProPublica. When assessing the tool’s use in Broward County, Florida, ProPublica found that it was 61 percent predictive of rearrest, “somewhat more accurate than a coin flip.” The algorithm was likely to indicate black defendants as “future criminals” at almost twice the rate as white defendants.

In 2014, Eric Holder, then U.S. attorney general, said in a speech to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers: “Although these [risk assessment] measures were crafted with the best of intentions, I am concerned that they may inadvertently undermine our efforts to ensure individualized and equal justice. They may exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities that are already far too common in our criminal justice system and in our society.”

Black lives matter

That brings us back to the current defund police movement, which in part is about investing in the “hopeless” communities that are responsible for so much of the crimes, both as victims and perpetrators. No one is born with a tendency toward violence or other criminal acts. It’s a way of life they learn. Kids growing up in these neighborhoods need to see tangible evidence around them — not just on TV and in books — that there are other kinds of opportunities for people like them and that they can succeed.

We have to start changing what we communicate about and to Black kids and Black people in general through the media, government, business and education. We have to start changing the vision we have for ourselves as a society — not just for some, but for all of us.

Written by

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at

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