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Abstract

Since the last decades of the 20th century, the defining life course experience of poor and undereducated African-American men has been involvement in carceral systems (Western 2006). This pattern begins early in the life course, with African-American adolescents being five times more likely than their white counterparts to be arrested or incarcerated (Sentencing Project 2017). Central to the discourse surrounding African-American youth participation in criminalized behaviors, are assumptions about their parents and families. This discourse often implicates parents as deficient in their parental role, identifies them as the cause of their children's undesirable outcomes, and effectively marginalizes these families from widely accepted middle-class standards. This dissertation explores what it means to be a stigmatized parent at the bottom of a social hierarchy when your child is disproportionately more likely to have interactions with carceral systems. More specifically, this study seeks to understand how such parents understand their parental role and made meaning of youth participation in criminalized behaviors within the context of narratives that blame parents for their children's undesirable outcomes. This study employed a qualitative methodology and collected data through semi-structured, community based, open-ended interviews with 36 parents of teenaged boys within the Englewood neighborhood in Chicago. Participants were recruited through snowball sampling and interviews took place over the course of one year. A grounded theory method of data analysis was used to identify and organize consistent themes among interview data. Parents stated that youth participate in criminalized behaviors despite the instruction provided by parents. Parents identified five primary causes for such youth behavior - youth agency, negatively influential peers, poverty, lack of community resources, and poor neighborhood role models. Parents also identified various behaviors and strategies they actively used to guide youth away from criminalized behaviors. Other findings indicate that participant parents shared an understanding of their parental role and identified specific obligations they must perform in order to maintain a positive role-based parent identity. Once established, this positive role-based identity is maintained, regardless of youth outcomes or behaviors because parents synthesize and draw meaning from their own experiences, community stressors, and the fulfillment of their own psychosocial needs. Based on these findings, the role of trauma, respect, and honor within families is considered. Further considerations include how parents navigate the undue burdens of structural inadequacies and dominant ideologies. I suggest that the production and consumption of narratives that center the negligent and ignorant poor urban parent provide a source of affirmation for other parental identities. As economic anxieties arise for all and the assurance of desired child outcomes becomes more uncertain for all parents across the socioeconomic spectrum, those who are already stigmatized become convenient scapegoats through which other groups can manage their own anxieties. But such scapegoating prevents identifying policies, programs, and opportunities to support all families as income inequality grows and stability becomes more elusive for the average U.S. household.

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