How Kids Just Being Kids Became a Crime
There’s a story that liberals like to tell about “underprivileged” children and the government, a story about how the state has abandoned such kids to historical inequity, uncaring market forces, bad parenting, and their own tangle of pathologies. We talk about the need to “invest” in communities and in the children themselves. Analysts speak of “underserved” communities as if the state were an absentee parent. If kids are falling behind, they need an after-school program or longer days or no more summer vacation. A combination of well-tailored government programs and personal responsibility—a helping hand and a working hand to grab it—are supposed to fix the problem over time. Pathologies will attenuate, policy makers will learn to write and implement better policies, and we can all live happily ever after.
There’s just one fly in the ointment: The best research says that’s not how the relationship works. The state is as present in young Americans’ lives as ever.
For his 2011 ethnography Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, sociologist Victor M. Rios went back to the Oakland, California, neighborhood where he was raised a few decades earlier to talk to and learn from a few dozen young men growing up in a so-called underserved neighborhood. What he discovered was a major shift in how the law treated the young men he was working with.
“The poor,” Rios writes, “at least in this community, have not been abandoned by the state. Instead, the state has become deeply embedded in their everyday lives, through the auspices of punitive social control.” He observed police officers playing a cat-and-mouse game with the kids, reminding them that they were always at the mercy of the law enforcement apparatus, regardless of their actions. The young men were left “in constant fear of being humiliated, brutalized, or arrested.” Punished details the shift within the state’s relationship with the poor and the decline of a social-welfare model in favor of a social-control model. If the state is a parent, it’s not absent—it’s physically and psychologically abusive.
One of the things Rios does well in Punished is talk about the way just existing as a target for the youth control complex is hard work. Simply trying to move through the city—walking around or waiting for the bus—can turn into a high-stakes test at a moment’s notice. Rios calls the labor the young men he observed do to maintain their place in society “dignity work.” The police exist in part to keep some people on the margin of freedom, always threatening to exclude them. Nuisance policing comes down hard on young people, given as they are to cavorting in front of others. Kids don’t own space anywhere, so most of their socializing takes place in public. The police are increasingly unwilling to cede any space at all to kids: patrolling parks, making skateboarding a crime, criminalizing in-school misbehavior.
“Today’s working-class youths encounter a radically different world than they would have encountered just a few decades ago,” Rios writes. The data back him up: According to a 2012 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics, “since the last nationally defensible estimate based on data from 1965, the cumulative prevalence of arrest for American youth (particularly in the period of late adolescence and early adulthood) has increased substantially.” Now, 30 to 40 percent of young Americans will be arrested by the age of 23. When researchers broke it down by race and gender, they found 38 percent of white boys, 44 percent of Hispanic boys, and 49 percent of black boys were affected. (For young women it was 12 percent across the board.)
Dignity work, then, has intensified. It’s harder than ever for kids to stay clear of the law. The trends in policing (increasingly arbitrary, increasingly racist, and just plain increasing) have played out the same way in schools. This is how researcher Kathleen Nolan describes the changes in one New York City high school in her book Police in the Hallways: “Handcuffs, body searches, backpack searches, standing on line to walk through metal detectors, confrontations with law enforcement, ‘hallway sweeps,’ and confinement in the detention room had become common experiences for students.... Penal management had become an overarching theme, and students had grown accustomed to daily interactions with law enforcement.” Interacting with law enforcement is not just work—it’s dangerous work. Especially when the school cops have assault rifles.
There are many explanations for the rise of American mass incarceration—the drug war, more aggressive prosecutors, the ’90s crime boom triggering a prison boom that started growing all on its own, a tough-on-crime rhetorical arms race among politicians, the rationalization of police work—and a lot of them can be true at the same time. Whatever the reasons, the U.S. incarceration rate has quintupled since the ’70s. It’s affecting young black men most of all and more disproportionately than ever. The white rate of imprisonment has risen in relative terms but not as fast as the black rate, which has spiked. The ratio between black and white incarcerations increased more between 1975 and 2000 than in the 50 years preceding. Considering the progressive story about the arc of racial justice, this is a crushing truth.
Mass incarceration, at least as much as rationalization or technological improvement, is a defining aspect of contemporary American society. In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, law professor Michelle Alexander gives a chilling description of where we are as a nation: “The stark and sobering reality is that, for reasons largely unrelated to actual crime trends, the American penal system has emerged as a system of social control unparalleled in world history.”
The rise of racist mass incarceration has started to enter the national consciousness, but though it coincides with millennials’ growth and development, most commentators don’t connect the two. If the change in the way we arrest and imprison people is a defining aspect of contemporary America—and I believe it more than qualifies—then it follows that the criminal justice system also defines contemporary Americans. Far from being the carefree space cadets the media likes to depict us as, millennials are cagey and anxious, as befits the most policed modern generation. Much of what a few decades ago might have been looked on as normal adolescent high jinks—running around a mall, shoplifting, horsing around on trains, or drinking beer in a park after dark—is now fuel for the cat-and-mouse police games that Rios describes. One look at the news tells us it’s a lethal setup.