The Criminalization of Racialized Youth

The United States leads the world in incarceration, and many individuals in certain communities are inducted in to the criminal justice system at a very young age. This punitive state existed long before the 1980s but Reagan’s ‘War on Drugs’ served to solidify the U.S. as a pioneer of using social control to achieve mass incarceration. Children are inducted in to this system through the process of labeling, which Rios describes as “a process by which agencies of social control further stigmatize and mark the boys in response to their original label”.

In school settings, children labeled as troublemakers end up in a punitive cycle, where not much is expected from them and in turn they learn not to expect much from themselves. This immediately made me think of the school to prison pipeline, which describes the way in which at risk children are pushed out of schools and in to the criminal justice system. The American Civil Liberties Union has a fact sheet that describes exactly what this term means:

In addition to policies set forth by schools and the type of punishments children receive; there are many examples in our society where children of color do not get to experience real childhood because they are consistently viewed as adults. An example of this is the Tamir Rice case, where at twelve years old, this child was perceived as an adult threat by law enforcement, which resulted in the loss of his life. In Rios’ text this example takes shape in the form of Tyrell, who at 12 years old appeared to be much older due to his height and physical appearance. Police then took his physical appearance as reason to perceive him as a threat and therefore make him a target. He describes constantly getting stopped by police who would accuse him of having drugs on him. He recounts, “At first I was scared and told them I was only twelve. They didn’t believe me and kept asking me where I was hiding the drugs”. Eventually, Tyrell decided that if he was going to be constantly accused of selling drugs even when he wasn’t, that he may as well go ahead and start selling.

This reminded me of Michelle Alexander’s book ‘The New Jim Crow’ where she describes how the system of mass incarceration in this country is akin to modern day slavery. She makes the point that it is not abnormal or surprising when a severely stigmatized group embraces their stigma. In this case Tyrell, after being accused of selling drugs decided to become a drug dealer. Because it was what was expected of him, he embraced the stereotypes placed on him as a way to carve out his identity; but as Rios states “labeling is also a process by which agencies of social control further stigmatize and mark the boys in response to their original label”.

When a young person commits a crime we as a society are not shocked, and even the parents of these youth are sometimes complicit in the criminalization of their children because of the societal pressures and controls they themselves are under, in addition to the fact that they are constantly receiving the message that they don’t matter. Many people claim that minority youths have embraced ‘gangster culture’ because they enjoy the criminal lifestyle. In her work Alexander argues that this is the wrong way to look at this phenomenon. Black and brown youth embrace gangster culture and the violent music and actions associated with it because it is what is expected of them and they often embrace the stereotypes placed upon them as a way to carve out their own identity.

As Alexander states “there is absolutely nothing abnormal or surprising about a severely stigmatized group embracing their stigma” (171). She does argue however, that embracing these stereotypes is self-defeating and harmful; it gives people an excuse to continue associating criminality with blackness/brownness, because young minority men have accepted the stereotypes. She does however feel that “As a society, our decision to heap shame and contempt upon those who struggle and fail in a system designed to keep them locked up and locked out says far more about ourselves than it does about them” (176). There is no way to escape this vicious cycle until the issue of labeling children in the classroom, and how this in turns affects their lives as a whole is addressed, and the school to prison pipeline is abolished.


Alexander, M. (2012). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press.

Rios, V.M (2011). Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys. New York: New York University Press.

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