Revisiting Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City: the Broader Effects of Incarceration on African American Communities

BY Claire Anne Judson | March 7, 2024 | Student Essay Awards

Judson’s essay cleverly weaves together readings of three main sources: Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010), Kendrick Lamar’s album,good kid, m.A.A.d city (2012), and a recent study on race- and class-based inequality in the U.S. prison system. By bringing these (and other) sources into conversation, Judson shows a command over the skill of engaging with critical frameworks to make a strong case. Judson wrote the essay for Prof. Kim Voss’s Fall 2023 class, “From Berkeley to the Public: The Art of Writing about Contentious Politics.”

In his sensational 2012 record, good kid, m.A.A.d city,rapper Kendrick Lamar insists that the outside world open itself up to the harsh realities of his own. The album has been praised by critics and listeners alike for its brilliant, complex depiction of gang violence, drug use, police brutality, cycles of systemic racism, and incarceration. Andscape declared it album of the decade (Tinsley 2019). While Lamar has never been incarcerated himself, his rageful poetry insists that the violent effects of the carceral system in his Compton neighborhood have caused devastating pain and trauma. Meanwhile, his narratives skillfully contrast his love for and deep connection to his roots: “I live inside the belly of the rough, Compton, USA / Made me an Angel on Angel Dust, what?” (Lamar, m.A.A.d city, 5:20).

Incarceration disenfranchises, leads to unemployment, breaks up families, causes severe mental and physical health issues—the list goes on. But as a crucial dimension of America’s striking inequality, incarceration and its effects are felt by some communities more than others. The question remains: which groups are the most vulnerable?

In her 2010 book, The New Jim Crow, author Michelle Alexander argues that the American prison system has served as an extension of Jim Crow oppression beyond the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Through tough-on-crime efforts such as the war on drugs, African American men are arrested and incarcerated at shockingly disproportionate rates. Black people with criminal records face all sorts of legal discrimination in housing, voting, and employment, to only name a few. As Lamar’s lyrics suggest, these are all unsettling parallels of Jim Crow-era segregation, oppression, and violence, and they reinforce cycles of devastating inequality (Alexander 2010).

While The New Jim Crow received overwhelming praise for its powerful descriptions of present-day racial discrimination, some critics have pointed out that it doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, the hard data show that racial inequality in prisons has actually decreasedin the last decade; if anything, the prison system has become more discriminatory across class lines. In their study “Racial and Class Inequality in US Incarceration in the Early Twenty-First Century,” sociologists Christopher Muller and Alexander F. Roehrkasse address these critiques and add another dimension to Michelle Alexander’s story. If the insides of prisons are beginning to look more racially equal, what about the outsides? Do people’s indirect experienceswith the justice system, as emphasized by Lamar in good kid, m.A.A.d city, also look the same across racial groups?

Muller and Roehrkasse use the concept of class permeability to weigh the impacts of having imprisoned family members and living in neighborhoods with high incarceration rates. First coined by Erik Olin Wright, class permeability describes the ways in which class extends beyond an individual’s circumstance. Income and education matter, but so too do social relationships and ties (or lack thereof) to certain communities. Muller and Roehrkasse find that an individual’s incarceration affects that person’s families and neighborhoods. This is an experience felt far more often by black people, who although less likely to be incarcerated themselves are significantly more likely than their white counterparts to be connected to someone who has.

Analysis of racial inequality in incarceration has yet to be adequately updated or expanded. Bruce Western’s 2007 book, Punishment and Inequality in America,found that prison admissions were more unequal across class than across race (Western 2007). Muller and Roehrkasse point out that Western’s most recent data is from 2001, and they aim to update and extend his analysis to include family and neighborhood effects. Their investigation is split into three sections. First, they look at prison admission rates through 2015; second, they use 2018 survey data to estimate the likelihood of family member imprisonment across racial and class lines; finally, they use census information to look at disparities within high- and low-imprisonment neighborhoods. Using this recent data, Muller and Roehrkasse identify groups that are at risk of experiencing incarceration both directly and indirectly.

Recent prison admission rates prove consistent with Western’s argument: class inequality in prisons is increasing while racial inequality is decreasing, albeit slowly. It remains true that black people continue to be incarcerated at disproportionately higher rates than white people, but the authors notice trends that increasingly disadvantage low-education and high-poverty groups, regardless of race. Both white and black people without access to quality education are likelier to go to prison.

While there is now a larger disparity among class groups than among racial groups in prisons, this is not to say that racial disparity does not exist or matter. Muller and Roehrkasse emphasize the inextricable connection between race and class. Black people are significantly more likely to be poor and to live in poor neighborhoods, and therefore they are more likely to be connected to incarcerated family members. In terms of the likelihood of having an imprisoned family member, Muller and Roehrkasse find that race is more of a factor than class. Black people of all class backgrounds are far more likely than white people to have an incarcerated close family member, which means that black Americans are disproportionately exposed to incarceration and the justice system indirectly.

Someone does not have to be incarcerated to experience the negative impacts of the American prison system. According to the National Institute of Justice, children of incarcerated parents face significant psychological strain and emotional trauma, and they are more likely to drop out of school. Family structure becomes less stable, and it is often difficult for parents to achieve a livable income post incarceration. Children who grow up with incarcerated family members are also more likely to be incarcerated themselves (Martin 2017).

These are just the sorts of impacts that Lamar raps about in good kid, m.A.A.d city. On track 16, “Collect Calls,” he tells the story of a young black man, Dante. He’s living behind bars, which has caused his mother to “block” his collect calls from prison, presumably cutting him out of her family. “Mama, take this mother— block off / Tryna reach you every day, collect calls” (Lamar 0:40). Ironically, Dante’s mother is fed up and does not want him to be free, fearing that he will be released back into the violent cycle of gangs and police brutality. “Dante, if I stress to take the block off / That’s the day the state had take them locks off / I can only help but do so much” (Lamar 2:55).

The detrimental cycle of incarceration torments predominantly black neighborhoods. Zoning laws, redlining, and housing discrimination have concentrated black people in poor, high-incarceration neighborhoods. As such, predominantly black neighborhoods tend to experience higher rates of poverty and incarceration. Muller and Roehrkasse find that high-income black people are more likely to live in a high-incarceration neighborhood than low-income white people. In some instances, this cycle is described as an environmental toxin. For instance, a recent study in the American Journal of Public Health found that non-incarcerated individuals in neighborhoods with high incarceration rates are far more likely to experience major depressive and anxiety disorders than those living in low-incarceration communities (Hatzenbuehler et al. 2015). A 2019 PNAS study found that kids raised in neighborhoods with high incarceration rates are at a higher risk of experiencing downward mobility and future incarceration themselves (Manduca et al. 2019).

“The streets sure to release the worst side of my best,” Lamar raps on track 7, “Good Kid” (Lamar 2:52). Like The New Jim Crow, Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city stresses the complex, devastating ways in which the American justice system recreates historical systems of violence and oppression in black communities. Racial disparities in prisons may be shrinking, but the broader effects of incarceration continue to be felt disproportionately by African Americans. The study by Muller and Roehrkasse takes a critical, multi-dimensional approach, illuminating the true collateral damage done by prisons in the US.

Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. 2010.

Hatzenbuehler ML, Keyes K, Hamilton A, Uddin M, Galea S. “The Collateral Damage of Mass Incarceration: Risk of Psychiatric Morbidity Among Nonincarcerated Residents of High-Incarceration Neighborhoods.” American Journal of Public Health, 2015.

Lamar, Kendrick. good kid, m.A.A.D city. Top Dawg Entertainment, 2012.

Manduca, Robert, et al. “Punishing and toxic neighborhood environments independently predict the intergenerational social mobility of black and white children.” PNAS, 2019.

Martin, Eric, et al. “Hidden Consequences: The Impact of Incarceration on Dependent Children.” National Institute of Justice, 2017.

Muller, Christopher, and Alexander F Roehrkasse. “Racial and class inequality in US incarceration in the early twenty-first century.” Social Forces, 2021.

Tinsley, Justin. “Album of the decade: Kendrick Lamar’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’.” Andscape, 2019. ty/

Western, Bruce. Punishment and Inequality in America. Russell Sage, 2007.

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