Crime and Obesity: Let’s Get to the Heart of the Problems

There is something deceptively simple about New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s blanket initiatives. Whether it is giving the police unfettered discretion to stop and frisk anyone they think might look like a potential criminal because “it saves lives,” or banning the sale of large-container sodas because, well, that saves lives too, the initiatives promise easy fixes to complex problems.

They are, however, based on a blindness to prejudice that is compelling precisely because it is wrong.

In short, Mayor Bloomberg’s initiatives purport to be color- and class-blind. If the stop-and-frisk program affects mostly men of color, Bloomberg argues, this is purely coincidental. And if most of New York City’s overweight population lives in the poorest boroughs, that is also just by chance. Maybe, this line of argument implies, it is just that men of color and the resource-poor make appallingly bad decisions about their lives and health.

Incidentally, I am not arguing that our definitions of what should be subject to punitive measures and what constitutes a “normal” weight are perfect or even always good. The point I am making is about policy effectiveness. And in that sense, even a cursory look at correctional and obesity statistics in the United States reveals deep-seated disparities which knee-jerk reactions — in particular those that blatantly ignore color and class —cannot fix.

For example, 87 percent of those stopped and frisked in New York City in 2011 were either black or Latino and mostly male, even though drug possession and use — the ostensible reason for most stops — is equally prevalent among whites. And on health, compare the pricing of a Happy Meal and a pound of organic locally grown apples and you might have an idea of why the poor constitute the majority of the nation’s obese, and why many of them, at the same time, are malnourished.

Here’s a hint: It’s not because we don’t know better. 

Obesity, like being caught in the criminal justice system, is a condition disproportionately suffered by the poor and the relatively powerless. And it is self-perpetuating. Extra padding, much like a criminal record, is easier to acquire than to shed.

To articulate these truths is not to say that overweight individuals and those in conflict with the law are immoral, stupid, or devoid of agency and responsibility. It is not even to say that the decisions that led to the obesity and punishable behavior necessarily all are bad.

It is simply to acknowledge that all of us make decisions within our specific constraints, and that policy initiatives that seek to influence these decisions must look for ways to eliminate the constraints.

In the current case, our approach to crime and weight is better understood as wilfully ignored discrimination. The Supreme Court has pretty much systematically sidestepped and ignored racial profiling in the criminal justice system, resulting in continued discriminatory outcomes. And though discrimination against overweight individuals is prevalent in the workforce — in particular when it comes to obese women — only the state of Michigan and six cities ban this type of discrimination directly. This creates a vicious cycle of discrimination which perpetuates existing class and color disparities — a reality that policy initiatives to end both crime and obesity will have to contend with to be effective.

So why do politicians push for color- and class-blind initiatives? A key reason is that solutions to discrimination are more complex (and thus harder to sell to the public) than those which punish individual choice.

Take public school lunch. Many children depend on public schools almost entirely for their culinary development.  In New York City, for example, 62 percent of all children qualify for free school lunch, and many who don’t qualify still eat both breakfast and lunch at school. As a result, if food at school is overly fatty, salty, or sweet, this is what our children’s palates become accustomed to. The federal government has issued new guidelines to address this issue, but cooking healthier food in school cafeterias requires time, and time requires better benefits and higher salaries for cafeteria workers. Meanwhile, schools blame parents for not contributing, and increased money for school lunches is not high on the political agenda.

My point is: It should be.

Instead of spending money on policing serving sizes for sodas at the gas station, New York City Hall would do well to help instil healthy eating habits in children in the first place. And focusing on effective anti-obesity measures will probably save more lives than any amount of stopping and frisking. After all, heart disease has been the leading cause of death in New York City for at least the past decade.

Either way, there is no excuse for the discrimination that is inherent in current approaches to both crime and weight.

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  • coralsea

    In addition to the link between obesity and low-income/high healthy food prices that many people fail to acknowledge (and it is very definitely an important one), is the link between obesity or overweight and chronic illness.  Many people who are not overweight/obese or suffer from chronic illnesses have this idea that if you are sick, you LOSE weight, or, conversely, if you are tubby, you must simply be lazy and unable to police your diet.


    I have suffered from long-term/chronic illnesses for about three-quarters of my life, beginning in childhood.  What is interesting is that when I am not infested by an active infection and/or my rheumatoid arthritis is under control, losing weight is easy for me because I’m not eating for energy and craving fatty or rich foods.  (Believe it or not, I don’t really like chocolate that much when I am healthy.  But I know that I am getting another infection or viral outbreak or whatever that will result in a chronic 101 degree temperature for months on end when I start wanting chocolate).


    I know plenty of other people who are in the same boat: they are sick and just dragging along and they eat for energy and don’t exercise because it’s all that they can do just to drag through their days.  Unfortunately, a lot of MDs, unless they have experienced chronic illnesses that literally can eat up years of your life while they flail around, trying to figure out what is wrong, end up criticizing the weight gain.  Do they think we don’t know we’re overweight?


    Anyway, I have no desire to minimize the issue of obesity among lower-income Americans, but it can be difficult, when you have to support yourself–and maybe a family–and you feel horrible for months or years on end (yes — it happens — a lot) and then you also have people putting you down for being overweight.  This isn’t a topic that is discussed all that much, but I think it should be.  

  • j-rae

    When I took my grandson for a WIC appt a few months ago I was appalled by the ignorance of the person who was doing the height/weight checks.


    Yes, my grandson was at the 99th percentile for weight. BUT his weight and length were in proportion. I got a long lecture about making him obese and that we must cut back on the amount that he eats so to cut back on his weight gain.


    This lecture, that was unwarrented and unhealthy matches what so many schools do today.

    The children are sitting in a classroom listening to lectures about weight control and diabetes. At the same time morning recess has been cancelled so that everyone can eat breakfast. Midmorning recess has been cut to a potty break so that the kids can study for the NCLB crap, lunch recess has been cut back for the same reason and the afternoon recess has been cut to a potty break. PE has been cut due to budget cuts and making more time for kill/drill. Then at the end of the day there is the demand that NO child walk or bike to or from school. They need to be picked up by a parent.

    So that they can go home and play video games and do homework. After all the outdoors is dangerous. (really depending on where you live it can be very dangerous)

    And lets not forget the sugar in all the food that they sell at the store. But sugar in spaghetti sauce is a whole other post.



  • coralsea

    J. Rae — I feel humbled and a little foolish for my post.  Frankly, as far as I am concerned, strangers should not be making nasty comments to kids.  And as you said, the whole issue with sugar and other additives in foods — one has to wonder what this stuff is doing to use (and especially children).   I have been following the situation with genetically modified crops and “factory farming” for quite a while, and it is truly frightening.  What is also frightening is the degree to which agribusiness is protected from investigation and criticism.  Recently, several states passed laws forbidding people (read animal rights folks) from photographing the conditions in factory farms.  These laws join other “veggie libel” or “food disparagement” laws that forbid derrogatory comments from being publicized regarding food (do you remember the whole deal when Oprah got sued by the state of Texas for making comments about mad cow disease — that was an example of these laws).  A lot of lawyers are surprised (as well as regular folks who believe that we have a right to free speech) by these laws, but they do exist.


    NCLB is such a disaster.  I like President Obama — he was, in my opinion, better than McCain by far — but I don’t understand how he could have kept that crime against students, learning, and teachers in place.


    My issue with obesity and chronic illness is important, but what is happening to kids and kids diets and health in this country is a tragedy.  My best thoughts to you and your son!

  • j-rae

    One of the biggest causes of weight gain in adults is decreased activity caused by injury or joint disease.


    Adults with joint problems decrease activity due to pain, gain weight due to decreased activity, get shamed by health professionals for the gain, get depressed and gain more weight. The cycle is horrible and hard to stop.

    Too many doctors don’t pay attention to the fact that pain control can be used to interrupt the cycle. And the shaming is horrible and often done within hearing and sight of other patients and staff making it so much worse.


    On the subject of ingredients in foods, I didn’t know that there was sugar added to spaghetti sauce until my son’s girlfriend attempted to dump some in my homemade sauce. When I asked what she was doing she said her mother always added sugar, it made it taste more like the canned stuff.

    Aghhh…. the next time I was in the store I looked, and sure enough they put sugar in the sauce. I was a bit disgusted. (and no I didn’t let her put sugar in my sauce, it’s sauce not syrup)



  • coralsea

    Hi J Rae — the sugar thing is really alarming, especially with the soaring diabetes rates in children.  Honestly, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to know what the heck one is eating.  This is a health issue that affects women, children, and men.  


    Also, I understand that doctors feel they have to advise you to lose weight, exercise more, etc., but yes — a lot of them think it’s fine to let the nurse yell your weight down the hall!  At this point, I am just trying to keep my weight steady; if I can do that, I’ll feel that I’ve accomplished something!

  • bluetigress

    Actually, bloomberg’s soda reg does NOT affect the size of cup you can buy at the gas station.