Policing of young men has reached epidemic proportions. In Texas, elementary school-aged children are being ticketed for what were once harmless school behaviors. In California, youth of color are watched and documented by law enforcement even though they are committing no crime. In a dozen other states, mere association with criminalized young people is grounds for arrest. The lengths police go to to impress a particular brand of order on young men of color in many communities exceeds the limits of the law, civil liberties and indeed common sense. Yet many Black and Latino boys face uncertain futures, where municipalities seem intent on putting children in jail, only to let courts later to sort out the correctness or wisdom of such policing.
For many organizers concerned about issues related to criminal justice, challenging the problems facing the most vulnerable parties are oftentimes only part of the matter at hand. Talking about the complicated intersections of class, age, race and gender are painful for so many communities, many of which have come to accept as normative how profoundly the lives of the young can be dealt life-altering departures in moments.
In Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (New York University Press, 2011), Victor Rios presents welcome though tragically lost facets to debates that have raged in communities of color for generations. How can poor and working-class young men find opportunities and assimilation in cities where education, vocational and university options do not exist? How are cities effectively managing police officers tasked with cleaning up streets during election years, when policing is zealous at best and crosses a legal and ethical line at worst? Rios is brutally honest about so many of these issues. And Punished is a difficult read because those truths are hard for anyone, let alone those whose optimism prompts action.
Through dozens and dozens of stories of young men profiled in his book, Rios gives readers a sense of hope as well as hopelessness. One can’t help but wonder if President Obama would declare a national emergency if the trials faced by economically disadvantaged Black and Latino boys were felt by middle-class white boys. For the former, one would have to think being forced to leave visiting friends or games in the park because those kids have realized police sweeps happen at particular times would be acceptable in their communities as they are for the latter. More pervasive methods of social control, such as pushing non-criminalized youth to distance themselves from criminalized youth to show their loyalty to “positive” lifestyles and shunning of peers, seem at moments in Punished as sinister. Moreover, it is the crafting of punishment into the fibers of daily life for Black and Latino boys which reminds one of the disparities in treatment and the aspirations a society holds for whites versus people of color.
Something that bears special exploration is gender and the schooling of boys of color. Rios delves into male socialization in Punished, but such a topic could easily make up its own book, for how gender identification is pressed by a racial construct in a white supremacist society, and how the male experience is defined as a result, is tremendously critical in the teenage years. Here, Rios is forthright: boys are continually given solutions by adults that don’t match their realities; a Black or Latino boy, often disenfranchised in U.S. society, is pressed to prove worth in other ways, since dominant paradigms do not take consider these youths for their intellectual capacity, and one way is in an ability to command respect from peers. Boys tell Rios that the ones who are not perceived to be hypermasculine face victimization or perception as weak. In this patriarchal world, boys of color, and by extension men of color, who fail to fit into society’s role for non-white males — insert myriad caricatures Black and Latino men have been associated with by the powerful — are considered targets or worse traitors to a culture that has been shaped and directed by white supremacy, but loses sight of such. Rios pens what is at moments a heartbreaking scenario: young men who recognize failing to change will lead to incarceration or death, but who feel reacting to situations in ways that keep them out of trouble will lose them respect and, in turn, make them victims of the violence they are attempting to escape in the first place.
Punished asks dozens of important questions to be considered as institutions and communities determine the direction of education, policing, public policy and, at a deeper level, the moral compact a people are to expect of their government, whether federal, state or city. Rios’ writing is sure to make you see criminal justice in another light, and to extract not only sorrow and indignation, but also an understanding of the gravity of a problem well past its due.