The American Dream is a myth perpetuated by many societal institutions that states that upward social mobility is possible for everyone as long as they work hard enough. Despite the prevalence and popularity of the American Dream, the realities of power and privilege within American society have made achieving it impossible for many. In their attempts to overcome these barriers and realize the American Dream, many poor people and people of color have become entangled in the prison industrial complex. Labeling theory attempts to explain this through examining the ways in which different labels (particularly those related to deviant behavior) are assigned to members of various social groups (Akers, 2005, p. 151). In general, agents of control “impose labels on the less powerful” (Akers, 2005, p. 151). This becomes particularly meaningful when the role of social class (among other variables) is considered as the likelihood of being labeled deviant or criminal for engaging in a given behavior is far higher for members of traditionally marginalized groups (Akers, 2005, p. 152).
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Labeling theory proposes that “the formation of the individual’s identity is a reflection of others’ definition of him or her” (Akers, 2005, p. 153). Therefore, a person who is labeled as deviant due to his/her race, social class, or some other identity is more likely to actually engage in deviant behavior (Akers, 2005, p. 153). Additionally, this societal reaction to deviance makes multiple offenses and recidivism more likely (Akers, 2005, p. 155).
Because the American Dream is out of reach, many turn to illegal activity (drugs, theft, prostitution, etc) to try to secure a higher income, higher standard of living, and better future for their children. As a result of these externally applied labels, members of traditionally marginalized groups are both more likely to engage in deviant behavior and more likely to be arrested and convicted for engaging in wrongdoings.