Acceptable Social and Cultural Capital in an Unfair Society

Small crimes and acts of resistance are often survival skills used by underprivileged youth denied the social and cultural capital necessary to succeed professionally.

Graffiti Respect

In feeling excluded from a network of positive credentials, education, and employment opportunities, young people develop creative responses that provide them with the necessary tools to survive. Some, like the boys I studied, develop practices that seem to embrace criminality as a means of contesting a system that sees them as criminals.


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Ronny was called in for a job interview at Carrows, a chain restaurant that served $9.99 sirloin steak and shrimp. He called me up, asking for help. I loaned him a crisp white dress shirt, which I had purchased at a discount store when I worked as a server at a steak house during my undergraduate years. I convinced Ronny to wear fitted khakis, rather than his customary baggy jeans. He agreed, on the condition that he would wear his white Nike Air Force Ones. These shoes had been in and out of style since the early 1980s. By 2002, a famous rapper, Nelly, created a popular song named “Air Force Ones,” and famous basketball players such as Kobe Bryant wore these shoes during games. Black and Latino youths in Oakland sometimes even wore them to more formal events such as high school proms, quinceañeras, and weddings. I asked Ronny why he insisted on wearing these shoes in a professional setting. He replied, “Because professionals wear them.”

Many of the boys I worked with in my research believed they had a clear sense of what courteous, professional, and “good” behavior was. Despite their attempts to present themselves with good manners and good morals, their idea of professional behavior did not match mainstream ideas. When the boys displayed a genuine interest in “going legit,” getting a job, or doing well in school, adults often could not recognize their positive attempts and therefore criminalized them.

The boys had grown up in an environment which had deprived them of the social and cultural capital they needed to progress in school and the labor market. Therefore, they developed their own. Despite being well-intentioned, though, these efforts were often not well received by mainstream institutions.

I continued to prepare Ronny for his interview, helping him develop “acceptable” social and cultural capital. The day of the interview, I walked into the restaurant separately from Ronny. He looked sharp: a professionally dressed, athletically built, charismatic, tall, African American young man with a charming dimple every time he smiled. I was certain he would get the job. I sat down for lunch at a booth, in an attempt to observe Ronny being interviewed.

Ronny tried to use his charisma to connect with the manager, but she kept her distance and did not look at Ronny, seemingly uninterested in what he had to say. At the end of the interview, Ronny stood abruptly and walked away, with no handshake or smile. I ordered my burger to go, paid my bill, and met him in the parking lot. As I headed to the door, I turned to look in the manager’s direction, and she was greeting a white male youth. She smiled, gave him her hand, and offered him a place to sit. Ronny’s first contact with her was not this friendly.

Ronny told me that he had a good feeling and that the manager seemed to like him. I asked him to walk me through the interview. “Why didn’t you shake her hand when you left?” I asked. “Because it was a white lady. You not supposed to shake a white lady’s hand. They be scared of a nigga. They think I’ma try to take their shit or fuck ‘em. I just said thanks and walked out.” Ronny did not get the job.

Ronny did all he could, but the limited resources at his disposal for showing respect may have kept him from getting the position. In this case, he believed that not shaking the manager’s hand would show respect. Ronny told me that his white female teachers had asked him to keep his distance, white women on the street would clasp their purses when they saw him walking by, and white female store clerks would nervously watch him when he walked into an establishment. Ronny had been socialized from a young age to overcompensate around white women to show he was not attempting to harm or disrespect them.

Ronny applied for multiple jobs. After about a dozen applications and three failed interviews, he became discouraged. He reported being asked by other managers about his “drug habits” and “criminal background.” Ronny decided to abandon the job-search process and instead invested $20 in pirated DVDs; a few hours later, he’d made $50 from the illegally copied movies. He reinvested the $50 in a backpack full of pirated DVDs, and after a few weeks, Ronny had made enough to buy a few new pairs of glossy Air Force Ones. However, the six to ten hours he spent in front of the grocery store, waiting for customers for his DVDs, made him a measly $20 or $30 a day—certainly not worth the risk of getting arrested for a federal offense.

Still, Ronny, like many of the other boys, preferred to take on the risk of incarceration in order to avoid the stigma, shame, and feeling of failure that the job-application process produced.

Reactive Acts of Resistance

In feeling excluded from a network of positive credentials, education, and employment opportunities, young people develop creative responses that provide them with the necessary tools to survive. Some, like the boys I studied, develop practices that seem to embrace criminality as a means of contesting a system that sees them as criminals.

The young men in my study constantly participated in everyday acts of resistance that baffled teachers, police officers, and community-center workers. From the perspective of the adults, these transgressions and small crimes were ridiculous: the risk of being caught was high and the benefit was miniscule. This frustration led adults to abandon empathy for the boys and to apply the toughest sanctions against them. “If they’re going to act like idiots, I am going to have to give them the axe,” explained one of the gang task-force officers.

Many of the adults I interviewed believed the boys’ defiance was “stupid.” Sarcastic remarks often followed when a youth purposely broke a simple rule, leading him to be ostracized, kicked out of class, or even arrested. Why would the boys break the simplest of rules knowing there would be grave consequences? For the boys, though, breaking the rules was resisting a system that seemed stacked against them. In many ways, criminality was one of the few resources the boys could use in response to criminalization.

Stealing a Bag of Potato Chips

One fall afternoon, I met with 15-year-old Flaco, a Latino gang-associated young man from East Oakland. We joined three of his friends as they walked to their usual afterschool hang out, Walnut Park. They decided to make a stop at Sam’s Liquor Store. I walked in with them, noticing a sign that read, “Only two kids allowed in store at one time.” Flaco walked up the candy-bar aisle—keeping a good distance between himself and the Snickers, Twix, and Skittles, to show the clerk, who was already staring him down, that he was not attempting to steal. He grabbed a candy bar, held it far away from his body, walked a few steps, and placed it on the counter. Many of the boys in this study often maintained their distance in the candy or soda aisles at stores to show they were not attempting to steal. Store clerks in the neighborhoods I studied were always apprehensive of customers: they watched people from the moment they walked in, had surveillance cameras set up, and one clerk had taped up pictures of himself holdingaan AK-47. The clerk at Sam’s may have been concerned that too many kids in his store meant that he could not keep an eye on all of them.

The clerk pointed to the door and yelled, “Only two kids allowed in the store at a time!” The three youths in line to pay for their items looked at the clerk and at each other. Mike, closest to the entrance, responded, “We ain’t doing shit.” The clerk replied, “I am going to call the police!” Mike grabbed a 25-cent bag of Fritos Flamin’ Hot chips, lifted it up in front of the clerk’s face, and said, “You see this? I was gonna pay for it, now I ain’t paying for shit, stupid mothafucka.” He rushed out of the store with the bag of chips, as the clerk called the police. The rest of the youngsters dropped the snacks they were in line to purchase and ran out.

I was not able to track down the boys until a few days later. When I ran into Flaco, he informed me that the police had arrested Mike that day for stealing the 25-cent bag of chips. After interviewing the boys and observing the store clerk’s interactions with them in the days and weeks after this event, I found that Mike’s “irrational” behavior had actually changed the way the store clerk interacted with the boys. The boys believed the clerk had begun to treat them with more respect—he avoided provoking negative interactions with the boys, even if it meant allowing a few more youths into the store than policy allowed. Flaco thought Mike overreacted, but because of Mike, Flaco felt respected by the store clerk the next time he went in the store: “Mike fucked up. He was acting hyphy [crazy] that day. He should have paid the guy … But because of what he did, me and my dogs go into the sto’, and the guy don’t say shit. We all go in like five deep—like ‘what?’—and dude don’t say shit no more.”

When I asked Mike why he had stolen the bag of chips, he responded, “The fool was trippin’. He should’ve come correct. I was gonna pay him. You saw, I had the money in my hand. … That fool knows not to fuck with us anymore. … I did get taken in for that, but it don’t matter. They gave me probation and shit. I’ll just keep it cool now since that fool will keep it cool now too.” In Mike’s worldview, fighting for dignity at the cost of giving up his freedom had paid off. Though Mike’s actions resulted in his commitment to the criminal justice system, he was very aware of this risk when he stole the bag of chips. He had grown frustrated at the treatment he had received at school, by police, and then at the store. This frustration, and a deep desire to feel respected, led Mike to willfully expose himself to incarceration. In the end, Mike lost his freedom, coming under the supervision of the criminal justice system. Nonetheless, Mike gained a sense of dignity for himself and his peers.

Mike wanted to prove a point to the clerk: “Not to fuck with me.” It wasn’t about saving a quarter or stealing because he was poor and wanted to eat a bag of chips. In the end, despite facing further punishment, Mike and his friends felt that their actions were not in vain; they had won a small battle in a war they were so tired of losing.

A Sense of Control

Watching interactions between the boys and authority figures was often like watching a life-sized game of chess, with a rook strategically moving in response to a queen’s movement. A police officer would get out of his car, the boys would posture; an officer would grab a young man, his friends would prepare to run; an officer would humiliate one of the boys, and the boys would respond by not cooperating or cursing back. As one side moved to repress, the other moved to resist. The boys were almost always captured and eliminated from the chess board, but not before they had encroached on the opponent’s territory, changing, if even subtly, the game.

In mocking the system, these young people gained a sense of empowerment. However, these same strategies added fuel to the criminalization fire. Many realized that they were actively stoking that fire, but they believed it was worth the negative consequences. Maintaining a strong sense of dignity—feeling accepted and respected—was a central struggle. The boys consciously chose to fight for their dignity, even if it meant risking their freedom.

Almost all the acts that led to an arrest for violating probation were committed as conscious acts of resistance; in the boys’ accounts, they knew they were facing severe consequences but decided to break the rules to make a point. In an environment in which there were few formal avenues for expressing dissent, they developed forms of resistance they believed could change, even if only temporarily, the outcome of their treatment. The boys believed they had gained redress for the punitive social control they had encountered by adopting a subculture of resistance based on fooling the system. Their crimes of resistance, which made no sense to the system, were fully recognizable to those who had been misrecognized and criminalized.  

Victor M. Rios is in the sociology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This piece is adapted from his new book Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, and was excerpted from Contexts (Winter 2012), a quarterly magazine that makes sociology interesting and relevant to anyone interested in how society operates.