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Victor Rios: The Consequences of Mass Incarceration of Black and Latino Boys

Victor Rios on the Consequences of Mass Incarceration of Black and Latino Boys

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The Brothers of A.B.L.L.E. (Achieving Black and Latino Leaders of Excellence) present a lecture by Victor Rios, associate professor at UC-Santa Barbara and prominent scholar in juvenile justice, masculinity, and race. Rios speaks about how young Latino and African American boys develop their sense of self in the midst of crime and intense policing; politics that reinforce school-to-prison pipelines, and the role that college students play in promoting social justice. This lecture is intended to challenge and inspire the ways in which we approach activism and advocacy work.  

Rios' research topics include inequality in America, school-to-prison pipeline, urban ethnography and law. His 2011 book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (NYU Press), analyzes how juvenile crime policies and criminalization affect the everyday lives of urban youth. He has published on juvenile justice, masculinity, and race and crime in scholarly journals such as The Annals of the Academy of Political and Social SciencesLatino Studies, and Critical Criminology. In 2011, Rios received the Harold J. Plous award at UCSB and in 2010 he received the Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research. Professor Rios teaches courses in juvenile justice, sociology, ethnographic methods, and justice, law, and inequality.

Audio Transcript

Victor Rios: I have to say, this is one of the warmest welcomes I've ever gotten, so thank you very much. Yesterday, I gave a talk at Penn and I have to tell you, that was not a warm welcome. No offense, but you guys really have provided me a really warm welcome. I have to tell you, I've traveled the country, I've talked to different universities, different local governments, different school districts, and I have to say, I'm very, very impressed with the sort of synergy that's taking place here, particularly with the students of color that came together to organize this event, and specifically with ABLLE. Let's see, Achieving Black Latino Leaders of Excellence.

Let's think about the status of men of color in this country, young men of color, and let's think about the fact that one out of every three young men, young black men, one out of every three young black men that's the age of the young black men in the audience today, college-aged young black men, in this country, one out of every three is either locked up or under the supervision of the criminal justice system. One out of every three. So it is a dire, dire crisis in the black community, and also in the latino community. Latinos don't suffer as much as African Americans in terms of incarceration, but they do suffer more than Anglo Americans, so they're sandwiched in between. For Latinos, it's one out of every six, and for whites, college-aged white males, it's one out of every 12.

It's a dire crisis. In California, to give you an example, there are 22,000 college-aged black men in college, but 44,000 college-aged black men in prison. It's not a question of whether young black and latino men are more criminal, more prone to crime. It's a question of how we choose as a society to think about and label these young people. Specifically I want us to rethink, even those of us that are progressive and going out and working with young people in the community, how we label them. Because how you label someone determines how you treat them. If you label a young person as at-risk, how are you going to treat them? As a what? As a risk. What do you do with risk? You let it free? Let it roam around the Swarthmore campus? You contain it. Right? And that is the history of mass incarceration in our country. We've seen and labeled young black, latino, and poor youth as risks, and therefore we've decided to invest more in incarceration than in higher education.

A lot of people like to think that Pennsylvania and California don't have a lot in common. But I'll tell you one thing they have in common: for the first time in the history of both states, we spend more on prisons than we do on higher education. As a society we've decided consciously, our politicians have, voters have, decided, hey, we need to spend more tax money, taxpayer money, on incarcerating people than on educating people. We spend $30,000 a year on average in this country to lock up one adult. Sometimes, in some states, like California, we spend $200,000 a year to lock up one juvenile.

The work I do with some of the youth out in the community who are in the neighborhood, these young men that I studied right here. I asked them all in Oakland, California ranked the second most dangerous city in California, ranked the 8th most dangerous city in the country, I asked these youngsters, I say, "Hey, they spend $30,000 a year on locking up an adult. One of you when you turn 18." I said, "If I were to give you each $30,000 a year, hypothetically, $30,000 a year to stay away from crime, drugs, violence, and to stay in school, would you do it?" All of them said, "Hell yeah."

And it is about economics. It is about support, it is about feeding young people. I've worked with some of the kids who are considered some of the roughest, most thuggest, most gang banging individuals in the communities I've worked in. FBI has come in and gathered them up and imposed some racketeering and reco charges on them because they're so criminal, right? When I go out there to visit them and I'm hanging out with them, I bring a bucket of chicken sometimes. These are tough kids who have a lot of pride. Do you think they eat that chicken? I didn't think they would. Bring out a bucket of chicken and I hang out in this alley with these guys.

At first they're like ... and then 10 minutes later, one of them grabs a wing, one of them grabs a leg, one of them grabs a breast. And before you know it, that bucket is empty. What's my point here? That some of these youngsters are just trying to survive. They're trying to eat. And as a society, we've labeled them as these big time criminals who don't have the capacity to change. The only way we're going to help them to change is to provide them basic needs like food and shelter, and then the next level of basic needs for those of you who have taken Psychology 101. The hierarchy of development. First you need food and shelter, then you need to feel belonging. And when these youngsters don't feel belonging because of how we treat them as a society. And then you can reach self-actualization.

We're not providing the very basics. What makes us think that they're going to want to go to college? So we have to start from a very basic foundation when we work with some of these young people. This is the question I've been asking, and I wrote this book, I'll pass it around for you to check out. Trying to answer this question: what does it mean to grow up in a time where we invest more in prisons than we do in education? What does it mean for a young person who's growing up in the inner city where policing and zero tolerance is more important to people than actually educating? After I wrote the book I took it to the youngsters I was studying. I gave it to one of them, I said, "I want you to be honest with me. Tell me what you think." He started reading it and he said, "It's alright. But it don't speak to me."

My heart dropped because here I am trying to write a book about these youngsters for these youngsters, and it doesn't speak to them. That becomes a problem for us at the university. For us college students. When we go out and we bring in youngsters from the local community but we don't know how to speak to them. So I decided to write a book for them. It's a very basic book, it's my life story with little messages in it for them. So I'll pass this book around for you to look at. Now, to the young people in here, you're at some fancy college with this square. Some of you might be saying, "Man who's this clown in the suit trying to talk about the inner city and the struggles that young people face?"

Well let me tell you. I'm not supposed to be here. I'm not supposed to be the author of two books. I'm supposed to be dead, six feet under with a bunch of the homies I had to bury growing up. I'm not supposed to be a college professor in California right on the beach. I'm supposed to be shooting up heroin, snorting meth with a bunch of the friends I grew up with who are out there right now as I speak robbing, stealing, just to get their next high. You see young people, I'm not supposed to be here because from a young age I told myself school is not for me. Why do I want to go to school if it's not helping my mom, my single mom, pay the bills? I never even met my father growing up.

So I gave up on school and on life from a young age and I decided to just hit the streets and survive on the streets. Before you know it, as a teenager, going in and out of juvie. Before you know it, I experienced a lot of violence. Before you know it, my best friend gets murdered in front of me. Shot in the head at age 15. It's at this moment where I tell myself I'm either going to end up in prison, dead, or maybe, just maybe, I could try to change my own life and the life of my family and my community and my people.

I started meeting these college students. These nerds that would go out into the local community and bring a van and pick us up and take us to go see some people talking about some random stuff. At first I used to call them the Mormons because they would be like the Mormons that showed up on Sunday knocking on your door, trying to convert you. They were trying to convert me, they were trying to take me out of my hood and take me to college, and I wasn't having that. But then little by little, I started to pay a little bit of attention. I started to realize this struggle, this thing about going to college is not about someone telling you, "Go to college it's good for you." It's about you telling yourself that you want a change in your life, in the life of your family, in the life of your community, and that you will become someone important in life because that prominence that power that you get from an education, allows you to make the changes that you need to make in this society.

Little by little these college students started to mentor me. And little by little I started to think about what it would be like to go to the university. I started going back into school, got my high school diploma, applied to college, one college, the college students helped me apply to a state school. I get a letter a few months later and it says "Congratulations! You've been admitted to California State University." I had to rub my eyes and said, "Man what are these people smoking, admitting me into college?" Then below it said, "You've been admitted under probationary status." I said, "Probation? I'm already on probation. That don't matter." They weren't talking about a cop following you around the classroom, they were talking about a special program that if you get a C or below you end up getting kicked out of the school because they're giving you a second chance.

That's my point. My point is this, it has to do with second chances. If we have this crisis which I told you about, then what does it mean to provide young people with second chances? Someone provided me a second chance and I ran with it, I flew with it. And what does it mean for you college students who are here and the resources and the privileges that you have, to be able to spread them around? You see, you shouldn't feel guilty as college students, for having privilege. If you're white, you shouldn't feel guilty for being white. But you should feel a knowledge and understanding of your white privilege and with that white privilege do things that are right for people. Those of you students of color at the college who come from the oppressed community? Guess what? You have privilege too. So you need to acknowledge your privilege.

If you were to boil the world down to 100 people, only one out of those 100 people would have a college degree. So every single one of you in here who are enrolled in college and about to finish up, you have a privilege that surpasses many people in this world. With that privilege comes an obligation. The obligation to help others. The obligation to empower the powerless. The obligation to acknowledge our privilege.

Before I move on I'm going to show you a couple minute little video clip that talks a little bit about my experience and what the media has done with this experience.

Video Anchor 1:  Now, another in our series on the nation's high school drop out crisis. Tonight, one man's journey to gang member and drop out to professor and his efforts to keep other young men from making his mistakes. Ray Suarez has our American graduate story.

Video Victor:  My name is Victor Rios. In 1994, this was me. I was introduced to the nation in a Frontline documentary, I was a gang member, a juvenile delinquent, and a high school drop out.

Video Anchor 2: But in the 18 years that followed, Victor Rios earned his high school diploma, finished college, earned a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, and wrote two books on his life and his research on juvenile delinquency. He now teaches sociology at UC Santa Barbara and helps at-risk youth navigate the perils of adolescence. [crosstalk 00:19:07]

Rios is also a family man, with a wife, Rebecca and three children. Life is constantly busy.

Video Victor:   To be this far into the future I feel like I've lived two lifetimes.

Victor Rios:  There it is. Two lifetimes. And that's what it's about, it's about taking these kids who are represented in the media as these criminals, these monsters, and providing them those second chances. Let me give you just a little bit of history on when we begin to really expand mass incarceration and lock up a whole generation of youngsters. This isn't old, okay? It's a new thing. Mass incarceration is a new thing.

African Americans have been punished in different ways for the last few hundred years. Slavery, Jim Crow, oppression in the ghettos, brutality. But, incarcerating an entire generation of young black men is a new thing. This begins back in the 60s when we're trying, the country is scared of these black radicals, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X who are talking about taking over. So this fear makes the government expand the criminal justice system to contain these radicals. Well you fast forward 20 years, and this is where we get so many people locked up.

In the 1990s, we still weren't locking up enough juveniles. It was just adults we were locking up. So some politicians that wanted to run for president and wanted to make a career for themselves said, "Hey, there's a whole other avenue to exploit. Let's start attacking the juvenile criminals." These two professors John [inaudible 00:21:21] and William Bennett created this idea of the super predator and they said that young kids in the ghetto were super predators and that they would come and kill everyone, and rob banks and beat people down if we didn't do something about it. So all these magazines around this time, the media picks up on it and says, "Hey the super predators are here, scary kids around the corner, a teenage time bomb." It was making reference to black and latino kids in the inner city. So how do we change this? We have to relabel people. Instead of labeling them a risk, we label them as a promise. A young person who's living in marginality is a young person that has promise if we provide the right kinds of resources.

What does society think of these boys that I work with in Oakland? Does society think they're at risk or at promise? At risk. Now, I'm going to show you some pictures of some of the kids I've worked with in Southern California now. So I went from Oakland to close to the LA area, and on this day, looking for these boys I'm studying, there's three of them and these officers have assault rifles pointed at them, and then I took a picture and the assault rifle got pointed at me, and then the officers are like, "Hey, sit your ass down right here. Right next to them." So I became the fourth person sitting down on that curb. Here's a picture of one of the boys taking a picture of an officer taking a picture of him. They were doing photo voice where they would go out and take pictures of things that impact them in the community. Surveillance is taking place in many communities.

Let me tell you the story of a young man named Tyrel to give you an example of what happens with some boys who get labeled and marked from a very young age. This young man, I met him when he was 15 and I followed him for three years. In 5th grade he gets harassed by the police for being too tall. One day the police officer stopped him and he said, "Imma search you for drugs," and Tyrel says, "Officer, I'm only in 5th grade, how why I have drugs on me?" He's like, "You're in 5th grade? You're too tall, man. You look like a drug dealer. Here, let me search you." And then from then on he would search him every other week to see if he had drugs on him.

Then in 6th grade, he was in a bad mood and he kind of mean mugged the teacher, just gave her a crazy look, she called the cops on him. In 8th grade he decides to sell drugs because he says, "If Imma get treated like a criminal, I might as well act like one." And here's the worst part. His family was pretty stable. His mom was living in public housing, but one day the government decides, this is during a democratic president Bill Clinton, he decides to eliminate welfare for the poor in this country. When he eliminates welfare, the poor no longer get public housing, at least not as much as before. So his mom gets evicted from public housing, so she hits the streets trying to survive, and before you know it she gets addicted to crack cocaine. Tyrel tells me, "Man, my mom smokes so much crack she calls herself Bubbles."

It's tragic. We blame it on people, we say, "Oh, those people, they're ignorant. Those people, the don't take care of their children. Those people-" Guess what? We need to take accountability of what the state, the government has done to poor people. Not providing them resources, networks, housing, and deciding these people are lazy, so let's take welfare away from them. This is what gets created.

Tyrel was so upset that his mom was addicted to crack and that the police never got rid of the crack dealer from this alley, this is [inaudible 00:26:39] alley. He was so upset at the crack dealer that he said, "Imma take justice into my own hands and Imma beat this guy down and kick him out of the alley." So he beat the guy down, the guy left, two days later he came back and shot and killed his little cousin. So on this day, Tyrel is mourning for his little cousin and on his pants you'll see right now, he has "Rest in Peace Shug." His little cousin.

So when the state isn't there to protect us, when the police aren't there to protect us to get rid of that crack dealer, but instead are harassing us every day for just being kids growing up in the wrong place at the wrong time, there's a crisis. Because the police are there when we don't need them, but they're not there when we need them. That's what many residents tell me.

This is a national crisis. Young Trayvon Martin, you remember this little young man from Florida that got shot by some random neighborhood watch guy? You remember that? Yeah, it's a national crisis. And what does the media say? Instead of the media saying "Oh poor kid, this guy you know, he deserves to go to jail for killing this kid," the media says, "This kid was too tall." Look at this. ABC News says, "Hey, even though he was 17, he was 6'3" so it's almost like he was an adult." Another media guy, Geraldo Rivera, claiming to be Latino, that man ain't Latino, claiming to be Latino, says, "It was cause he was wearing a hoodie he got killed, he shouldn't have been wearing a hoodie."

That is cold. Look at this. Two, four, six, eight, nine officers. They go and pluck little guys, smaller than these guys, little 12 year old guys from the line, the merry-go-round, and lift their shirts up and humiliate them in front of the whole fair. This is at the fair. Checking for gang tattoos. So these little youngsters are growing up not feeling safe around police, but feeling violated by police.

As citizens, we need to hold police officers accountable for doing this kind of stuff, and the officers who are actually doing the right thing connecting with the youth, we need to give them incentives. Give them a raise. Promote them. Because there are a handful of officers out there that do know how to interact with the community in the right way. But the crisis is the majority is not doing the right thing.

Youngsters are, this is a monitoring device for a youngster who's on probation. I asked them to take pictures of the things that affected them in the community and they kept coming back with pictures of police. More police, more police. Here a group of kids just like you guys [inaudible 00:30:05] youth, I brought some youth out to UC Santa Barbara, and guess how we got welcomed? By getting pulled aside by the cops and getting searched. Shirts off and everything. So I went up to this officer, the university officer, my coworker, right? I'm like, "Hey uh, officer I'm a professor here man. These kids are with me." He looked at me he goes, "I don't care who you are. You need to leave before I arrest you."

 Remember earlier I was talking about power and making change with that power? I went to the chancellor of the university and complained. I said I want to be on the, they were hiring a new chief, I want to be on the hiring committee for the chief of police. He put me on the hiring committee, we hired a new chief, when the chief arrived the first day on campus I met with him. I said, "You have a problem officer." He said, "Dr. Rios, I'll take care of it." The guy's no longer on campus.


This is why we get an education. This is why we go and become professionals. Not to show off, but to help make change even if it's little by little. To help make change and improve the conditions that young people live in.

 Who is this guy? Kind of random. Does anyone know who this is? He looks like Poseidon. He's a relative of Poseidon.

Audience Member:  Proteus.

Victor Rios: Yeah, who said that? Tell us about Proteus.

Audience Member:  [inaudible 00:32:18] the shape shifter.

Victor Rios:  The shape shifter. Oh wow, okay. What's that mean?

Audience Member: Well, he can turn into whatever he wants.

Victor Rios:  He can turn into whatever he wants. Why do you think I'm bringing him up?

Audience Member:  Change.

Victor Rios:  Change. Change. See, some of us who have resilience, some of us who are able to survive in different environments, the street. The university, school, are able to do so because we have a kind of shape shifting ability. And every young person has that ability out there, and it's up to us to help them hone in on that ability and to help them develop that ability to be like Proteus. To shift depending on the environment and the context in which you're in. To be like a chameleon.

You could be on the street and in your neighborhood and feel comfortable there, and be proud of being who you are, but then you could come into the university and be an intellectual, but then you can go into the professional world and be a professional, and that it's okay to be who you are and where you come from. That is a solution.

So Proteanism, do you know about proteanism?

Audience Member: Yeah.

Victor Rios:  You do?

Audience Member:  Well I guess it's being like Proteus.

Victor Rios: It's being like Proteus. Man, this place has some smart students.

Audience Member:  Proteanism is the ability to constantly change oneself in order to adapt to ones environment. If we could hone in, if we could create programs that help young people constantly shift so that they could adapt to their environment, then we're getting a step closer.

A lot of people say, "Well Dr. Rios, you keep saying the kids need to change, the kids need to change. What about the system?" Well we change youngsters so that they can change the system. Because I can't do it by myself. I'm not even going to do that.

So how did I change my life around? My mentors helped me, my teachers helped me, what did they know that I didn't know? What did they know that many of us don't know? They knew that to help a youngster you've gotta understand their social location. Let me ask the students here, of all these college students that brought you here, how many of them hang out in your neighborhood?

None of them? How many of them go to your school? None? Do college students ever come to your school to tutor? Mentor sometimes? No? Not at your school? Y'all should be ashamed of yourselves. In order to help young people out, we have to understand where they're coming from, and the only way to understand where they're coming from is to be where they're at. So you need to take some field trips, college students.

Genuine interest. I know I'm putting you down, I know some of you go to the prison and help inmates out. I know some of you go to other communities, so I want to acknowledge the work you already to, but also push you to do a little bit more, right? Demonstrate an interest in young people's learning, that they have the potential.

I'm speaking to young people right now, half of them are asleep. But guess what? Even in her little dream right now, I'm going to whisper in her ear some knowledge, and she's at promise to me. So what that means to me is that half of that message will get in there, and it's a little seed I'm planting. And that one day it'll just click. It'll just click. I'm not upset that these youngsters are sleeping, you know why? They're showing me they're so comfortable around me, right? I'm giving them so much love that they can feel like they could take a nap and feel safe. How many of you can claim that?

Consistency. We have to be consistent. If you're going to claim to go help young people out, you gotta be there. Many young people who live in environments where resources are scarce, they're used to people coming in and out of their lives. Parents, a program that's going to come save them, the Mormons. I apologize, no disrespect to any Mormons in here, just talking about the ones that come by on Sunday and try to convert me. We have to be consistent, we have to make a commitment to be there. To see them through.

Nurturing. We have to nurture them, we have to give them that love. We have to accept them for who they are. This little youngster's still sleeping. I gotta be patient. I gotta embrace them, I gotta be nurturing, I gotta be unconditional.

My teachers and my mentors believed in me so much that they tricked me into believing in myself. We have to believe in people so much that it oozes out of us and it gets transposed onto them. For those of you college students who are struggling, who are looking for an identity, who are on academic probation, who don't know what you're going to do with your life. For those of you, I tell you, believe in yourself and you will accomplish the unbelievable.

You too need a little nurturing sometimes. But keep doing the good work that you're doing. Keep believing in the fact that a liberal arts education will truly help you to change the world. Maybe I am supposed to be here giving you this message, telling you about my studies, telling you about the young people I work with, but also telling you that everyone in here has that potential to make change in local communities. In people's lives. For the young people in here, I'm very honored that you came. Thank you for paying attention, listening, being here present, and I look forward to seeing you in college one day, and maybe even being your professor.

Thank you very much for your time.


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