Book Review–“Punished” and “Hidden Truth”

I just finished two books in anticipation of assigning one in my “Sociology of Men and Masculinities” course next semester: Victor Rios’ (2011) Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys and Adam Reich’s (2010) Hidden Truth: Young Men Navigating Lives In and Out of Juvenile Prison.  Both deal broadly with masculinity, youth, race, class, inequality in urban spaces, and criminalization and incarceration.  I talked about the books recently with a colleague who suggested that both offer a glimpse into what might have happened next in the lives of Ann Arnet Ferguson’s “bad boys.”

Ferguson’s book is so powerful because she manages to show how those who are there to help these young African-American boys in school (teachers, principals, school staff) often play an unintentional, but integral role in reproducing inequality.  Rios and Reich illustrate the ways in which it is not only schools that play this role in young, lower-class, and often non-white boys’ lives.  The spaces in which they work, play, live and learn are shaped by structures and discourses of “punishment” that constrain these boys’ likely futures, but simultaneously provide the seeds of enabling the critical thinking necessary to move beyond them.  Both authors show, in different ways, how young boys navigate hostile social spaces that might claim to be designed to help them stay off the “wrong path,” but also seem to systematically make finding a “right path” all the more challenging.

Victor Rios documents the pervasiveness of a “youth control complex” in Oakland, CA and its effects on the Black and Latino boys.  Rios was himself a member of the community as a boy and the data he collected speaks to his insider status in the community.  With care and compassion, Rios illustrates how each aspect of the youth control complex on its own might not produce the same results as all of them working together.  “While being called a ‘thug’ by a random adult may seem trivial to some people, when a young person is call a ‘thug’ be a random adult, told by a teach that he or she will never amount to anything, and frisked by a police officer, all in the same day, this combination becomes greater than the sum of its parts” (Rios, 40).  Lower-class, young, non-white men today come of age in an era of mass incarceration.  The labeling of young, poor, non-white boys is not seamlessly producing their participation in criminal behavior, but it plays a critical role in diminishing opportunities for social mobility.

The young men in Rios’ study internalized these messages, believing they were “inherently criminal” (Rios, 52).  And, as Rios illustrates, it’s a difficult message not to internalize–difficult at least in part because it comes from so many different directions.  It’s not that adults (teachers, parents, police officers, etc.) are colluding to ruin these boys lives.  Yet, Rios illustrates how well-intentioned adults throughout their lives help to criminalize this population, such that “[t]heir subjectivities are partially constructed by punishment” (Rios, 75).  As police officers categorize young men as “gang members,” these categorizations bleed into the rest of their lives and affect the ways their teachers, social workers, community members, and even some of their parents treat them.  Yet, Rios argues that these punitive approaches fail to teach young men how to refrain from criminal activities through self-control as opposed to external threat.

Adam Reich’s study is different, but deals with similar issues.  Reich writes about his participation at a juvenile prison in Rhode Island.  He worked as a writing teacher, ran weekly workshops, and helped some of the young men publish their own newsletter–Hidden TREWTH.  The men in Reich’s study are struggling with similar issues to Rios’ participants.  Reich starts out with a paradox: “[Y]oung men involved in crime are simultaneously some of the most institutionally powerless young men in U.S. society, and they serve as potent cultural symbols of masculinity” (Reich, 16).  These are men who seem simultaneously all-powerful and absolutely powerless.  Similar to the men in Rios’ study, Reich shows how poor, young, primarily non-white men are caught within two competing systems of rewards or “masculinity games.”

Reich invites theoretical insights from Bourdieu into masculinities studies, particularly with his game metaphor.  The correctional facility Reich studied pitted two ideologically opposed “games” against one another: what Reich refers to as the “game of outlaw” and the “game of law.”

The game of outlaw offers young men status and (limited) resources for certain performances of masculinity, temperaments, and styles of behavior.  Through fighting, having sex with women, and buying things, the game of outlaw enables these young men to retain a sense that they are in control over their lives.  But, the identity work in this game also compounds existing systems of marginalization and inequality.  Reich frames this game as, “a way of feeling power in the face of powerlessness… ignoring the real sources of oppression” (Reich, 75).  Significantly, masculinity in the game of outlaw is derived from other young men’s recognition, respect, and fear.

The game of law is the ideology pushed by the correctional facility in which Reich studied.  This game intends to get men to invest status and meaning in masculinities that obey the rules and follow orders.  Masculinity here is not defined by peers, but rather, from groups of men with institutional power. Tellingly, many of Reich’s interviews with staff at the facility conflated issues of “rehabilitation” and “discipline.”  Masculinity, within this perspective was about becoming rehabilitated through an ideology that stressed discipline to a set of behaviors and ideals intrinsically at odds with the game of outlaw.

Both books argue, in different ways, that young, non-white, poor boys and young men’s interactions with systems of punishment and institutions of incarceration have the ironic effect of providing a foundation for critical thought and practice.  Here’s how each author frames this neo-Marxist process of reflection:

Ironically, this system of punitive social control, historically developed to control dissent, ends up developing the conditions by which some of these young people become politically conscious and politicized. (Rios, 35).

This code switching–a self-conscious relationship to each game as a game–seems to facilitate reflection about both of the games within which one is engaged and makes possible a sort of creativity [and critical thought and practice] that cannot emerge through participation in one game alone. (Reich, 178)

Yet this critical practice requires spaces in which to be realized.  This is the challenge.  I believe–as do both Rios and Reich–that individual “rehabilitation” makes little sense disconnected from a concern with the collective rehabilitation of the societies and communities in which these young men live.  Both books illustrate the cracks in ideologies of punishment and control and how these cracks open up opportunities for meaningful protest and critique.  And both examine spaces in which young people develop meaningful critiques of their structural positioning and systems of inequality.  Whether we will provide a space for these critiques to be heard is an issue unresolved.

Both are incredible studies.  I can’t decide which to assign next semester, but I’m sure my students will be reading one of the two.  Suggestions are welcome…

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