Jacked Up and Unjust

By Katherine Irwin and Karen Umemoto, author of Jacked Up and Unjust: Pacific Islander Teens Confront Violent Legacies

This guest post is published in advance of the American Sociological Association conference in Seattle. Check back every week for new posts through the end of the conference on August 23rd.

On June 11, 2016, the nation was rocked by a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Florida, leaving 49 people dead and another 53 injured. Within a month, more fatal violence erupted. Two separate incidents of deadly police force against black men – one in Baton Rouge, LA and the other in Falcon Heights, MN – were quickly followed on July 7th by a mass shooting in Dallas, Texas, where five police officers were killed. Given these hate-filled, violent incidents, few can argue that racial, religious, and sexual politics are trivial matters in the United States.

Unfortunately, much of the public discourse and the policy solutions responding to these killings promise greater fissures, more hatred, and a continuing cycle of violence. Media reports covering mass shooters pique public concerns about deranged, would-be killers lurking within our communities. In turn, policy makers respond with a familiar tool at their disposal, namely stiffer criminal justice penalties for violent offenders.

I examine the topics of racism, harsh criminal justice punishments, and the use of violence to enact vengeance in my co-authored book Jacked Up and Unjust: Pacific Islander Teens Confront Violent Legacies. Teens in this study spoke of the U.S. as an inherently racist country—a place where the police, teachers, and school administrators are out to punish them and where they have few chances to thrive. As Keith, a teen in the study, summed up, “The States is jacked up, the whole United States system itself is jacked up and if you cannot see that, you’re dumb and you’re stupid.” The fact that most of the teens who acted violently in this study had at least one family member who had been incarcerated reinforced the idea that the “U.S. system” was much more likely to target than to help them.

The story that teens shared during the nine years I spent researching violence in public high schools in Hawaii taught me some lessons about using harsh criminal justice sanctions to solve deep-seated problems in the U.S. As we know, America’s reliance on harsh criminal justice sanctions over the past few decades has made us the most incarcerating nation in the world and has led to the pronounced racial disproportionality in our arrest and incarceration rates. What I learned during this study with Pacific Islander teens is that the punitive turn in the U.S. has also left a lasting legacy in the psyche of many young people. Not only did these teens feel the sting of poverty, racism, and political neglect, but they also came to avoid adults and adult institutions in fear of punishment. If they had a problem or needed assistance, the youth believed that they needed to rely on themselves to get by. Violence was a common solution when teens faced challenges on their own.

However, there is good news revealed in Jacked Up and Unjust. High school staff and community leaders provided extensive support services to youth. Kids who started out their school careers as tough fighters, willing to “throw down” at the slightest provocation, eventually became less violent and more engaged in school. The teens attended voluntary weekly support group sessions and had foster parents, therapists, and other adults who listened, counseled, and offered steadfast support. Alika, who went from being incarcerated for assault to earning straight As,in high school described what helped him: “I stressed out so many workers who tried to help me. The only one who did not give up was the school counselor, my therapist. I gave him hell. But, I find out he loved me. He just kept working and didn’t give up.”

The takeaway lesson from Jacked Up and Unjust is that young people who behave violently are not heading for a lifetime of pathology, hate, and brutality. Marshaling support services and providing spaces for youth to feel connected, cared for, and listened to can change lives. Given these findings, I wonder where is the national conversation about providing more violence prevention programming rather than more punishment.

For more information about the book, see https://jackedupandunjust.wordpress.com/

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Katherine Irwin is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa. She is the co-author with Meda Chesney-Lind of Beyond Bad Girls: Gender, Violence, and Hype.

Karen Umemoto is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa. She is the author of The Truce: Lessons from an LA Gang War.