Politics & Law

Punished: The culture of control as seen from Oakland

Jonathan Simon

Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys by UC Santa Barbara sociologist Victor Rios should be on your summer reading list if you are interested in how the culture of control works. Rios closely studied a group of 40 Oakland youths of color as they navigated the terrain of poverty in a city governed through crime. Rios, who himself came up in the Oakland gang scene before receiving a doctorate from UC Berkeley, has an unparalleled set of insights into how the logic of crime control has pervaded the institutions of everyday life in a city like Oakland and come to shape the identities and aspirations of young men of color.

The most powerful insights in the book take us into how routine physical and especially verbal harassment by police of young men of color erodes their often significant positive aspirations and anticipates the pains of formal criminalization and punishment. The police ethno-theory of crime is that young men of color are so full of pride and arrogance that only a constant stream of insults and injuries can dissuade them from delinquency and drift. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is not just, or even primarily racialized assumptions about these youth, but deeply faulty assumptions about the crime risk they (police) themselves face in low income urban neighborhoods, that drives these logics.

The study does far more than critique, however. By giving insight into how the effects of routine degradation push youth toward seeking a more dignified life in gangs, Rios points the way to truly effective crime reduction strategies. It is a cliche, but in this case true, that this book should be on the desk of every police chief, school principal, and community agency director in urban America.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

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