Racialized groups have been demonized since the dawn of the United States. In a structure based on white supremacy, the notion of criminality is utilized to define and confine the movements of non-white populations. Thus, a disproportionate amount of blacks and Latinos are under the tutelage of the criminal justice system. The shift toward neoliberalism both exacerbates the demand for punishment and entrenches the methods of surveillance into everyday life. In Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, Victor Rios (2011) highlights the effects of criminalization on individuals by capturing testimonies from its victims.

A Word on Method

In this well-written and timely book, Victor Rios explicates the impact of punitive paradigms on the lives of black and Latino boys. To understand this process, the author returns to the community where he was raised: Oakland, California. The field work draws upon Oakland’s reputation to criminalize young men in an extremely diverse area. The research questions guiding the study are: “How do surveillance, punishment, and criminal justice practices affect the lives of marginalized boys? How do punitive encounters with police, probation officers, teachers, and administrators, and other authority figures shape the meanings that young people create about themselves and about their obstacles, opportunities, and future aspirations?” (7). To answer these thought-provoking questions, Rios mentored, observed, and interviewed 40 boys in-depth between 2002-2005. An additional 78 informal interviews were also conducted.

The Youth-Control Complex

The young men in the study were trapped in continuums of criminalization. Whereas children were once championed as symbols of the future, they are now equated with deviancy. On this topic, Punished makes a strong argument by postulating the omnipresence of a youth-control complex. Specifically, discourses of criminality seep into various realms of society: schools, jobs, families, etc. Black and Latino boys become targets of fear and distrust throughout their entire community. Schools in Oakland became conveyor belts for incarceration insofar as authorities preferred policing to teaching. Minor infractions were hyper-criminalized; leading to legal citations and probation. Even when participants genuinely attempt to follow the rules, they are criminalized in accordance with their culture and style. While both black and Latino boys are victims of criminalization, Rios points out that black boys receive worse treatment.

Gang Violence: A Desire for Meaning and Belonging

The strongest claim made in Punished is that criminality is internalized by marginalized groups and reversed to gain a sense of agency. Failing to achieve dignity and recognition from their social world, the young men turn to seemingly irrational avenues of expression. Robbed of legal opportunities for recognition, crime becomes the only method available for oppressed populations. Dissent against systems of domination is expressed by criminalized groups even through small acts of defiance. A stand-out example is the story of a stolen bag of chips. The author met with a Latino boy named Flaco and three of his friends, who stopped at a liquor store. A sign on the door read: “Only two kids allowed in the store at a time” (105). The prohibition was penned in the spirit of youth criminalization. Disregarding the rule, the boys entered the store. When the clerk threatened to call the police, a friend of Flaco ran from the store with a stolen bag of chips even though he had money. When Rios inquired as to why he did this, the friend stated it was an attempt to get respect. Defiance was an informal type of political resistance. The social landscape in which the boys inhabited routinely undermined their personhood, and rebellious acts were ways of asserting humanity.

Gang violence has the youth-control complex as its backdrop. Contrary to popular wisdom, gangs do not develop in a vacuum; they are created by circumstances of social vulnerability. Since marginalized groups are not protected by the police, crimes against them are seldom acknowledged. Consequently, gangs are organized to protect members of oppressed groups from victimization. The fundamental law of gangs is a code of a street – the idea that demonstrations of strength are pivotal for avoiding victimization. Although this code is steeped in gendered violence and vulnerability, it creates a world of meaning and sense of belonging for gang-members who are starved of recognition by society. The problem is not simply the street gang, it is the larger conditions that call the gang into existence.

Gangs Mirror Systemic Violence

Street gangs have a similar format to the armed forces of the United States. Like the military, gangs wear quasi-uniforms and patrol designated territories – enforcing rules and instilling fear via violence. The main difference between the military and street gangs is at the level of legitimacy. The military has a ‘monopoly on violence’ that normalizes their actions; whereas the gang is criminalized as deviant. Gangs mirror and emulate the violence already embedded in the system; but since they are so vulnerable, they are an easy scapegoat.

Ending the War on Youth

Society needs to have faith and invest in its youth. The forms of social capital that lead to positive credentials should be prioritized by society. The main prescriptive claim made by Rios is the American public must move from a youth-control complex to a youth-support complex. In practice, the youth-support complex requires zero tolerance policies and constant policing to cease and desist. Further, an ethic of care needs to replace the present ethic of justice. We need to completely rearrange our way of life.