Black Men and the Politics of Redemption

This is a long review of a book I highly recommend, Nikki Jones‘s  The Chosen Ones: Black Men and the Politics of Redemption University of California Press (2018)  so let me begin by highlighting the material that struck me most vividly. This is the first piece I have read that stresses the psychological aspects of intrusive “stop and frisk” policing. First, young people are taught by their elders that they must submit and offer no resistance or even disrespect to police. This is for their own safety, so they do not get arrested or assaulted by police. I could not help but think of the rituals of Jim Crow segregation in their requirement of absolute deference and submission in behavior. Young people are being taught that they must embody submission, and this has huge political consequences. Second, Jones’s book is the first work I’ve read that led me to really feel the way in which these police practices degrade and humiliate people, not just inconvenience them. Jones describes a frisk as unwanted touching of a person’s body, often including brushing over genital areas while feeling for weapons or contraband. In some cases, the young people are also taken in for body cavity searches. Jones allowed me to feel for the first time the psychological anguish of the frisk. And the way in which one must exert control and submit and not resist and the psychological toll that takes. The book also engages the hardships created by “gang injunctions” which ban people from even being in certain areas.

But the core of the book is not about victimization, it is about how Black men have agency and construct moral worth in the face of these policies. It emphasizes adults who have worked their way out of criminal activity and into lives focused on acting as social fathers and helping young men. It discusses the roles of different kinds of community actors who are trying to promote peace in troubled Black neighborhoods, contrasting the “credentialed class” with “street brokers.” Throughout, it deeply engages the criminology and sociology literatures on the policing of violence.

The broad context of the book is about how policing, community services and young men interact in a poor Black neighborhood. Each chapter focuses on different aspects of the whole, while making the ties between them clear. I found the book very engaging. I read it through twice, taking notes the second time. As I read over my notes, I realized I could see the overarching theme of the book: men seeking to define a positive masculinity for themselves in the face of contrary social constraints. Most haunting for me is Chapter 3, which stresses the ways in which intrusive policing has been teaching teenage boys that they must submit uncomplainingly to sudden, dehumanizing, and degrading treatment at the whim of police officers and how this both teaches them what Jones calls the crudest versions of masculinity as physical domination and leads them to seek to repair their self-esteem in struggles with each other or sexualized domination over women. The rest of the book focuses on how the adult men are working to construct positive images of themselves as fathers and social fathers and to transmit positive images of masculinity to the teens even as they must teach them to submit to police domination and must even themselves sometimes submit to this physical domination.

The search for a positive relational masculinity in the context of oppression is an ever-present theme in the book but is not hammered ideologically. Instead, the broader context is sketched in terms of shifts in policing practices, the social organization of anti-violence work, theories of desistance, and public discourses about Black fatherhood. An additional distinctive feature of Jones’s discussions throughout are their emphasis on personal development across the life course with an emphasis on adolescents developing into adulthood.

Jones is meticulous in her methodology and is always transparent about her sources.  She lived in the community for two years and maintained contact with it for five years. Her main informants are adult men associated with the group she calls Brothers Changing the Hood, who are seeking to reconstruct themselves as fathers and social fathers. She provides some case material on what she calls the “credentialed class,” the people running the funded violence prevention and community service programs that collaborate with police, but they are mostly seen in public meetings or through the eyes of her main informants. These case materials are supplemented with videos of police encounters and historical and statistical information about the area.

The book opens and closes (Chapters 1 and 5) with extended life histories of two men (Eric in the first chapter and Jay in the last chapter), discussing how they got into the drug trade and then, slowly, worked their way out of it. Eric ended up founding Brothers Changing the Hood and running support groups for men and boys with partial funding from the social service establishment. Jay went to school and was close to obtaining a degree in diagnostic medical imaging and well on his way to a legitimate lifestyle when he was shot and killed visiting relatives in the neighborhood. The stories of how, as teens, they found the easy earnings of selling drugs to be an attractive option given their circumstances are like those that have been told by others.

Jones’s novel contribution is to focus on the process of working one’s way out again. She tells their stories in dialog with the literature on criminal desistance and the personal responsibility discourses in the larger society. She shows that in each case, the threat of punitive sanctions played only a modest role in shifting course, while positive relations with and concern for others was more important. Also important, especially for Eric, was a desire not to kill people and a recognition that killing or being killed was part of the drug trade. Jones also shows that faith and a religious community were important for each man, as were supportive ties to other men.

Contesting images in the desistance literature and “cease fire” programs, Jones argues that exiting the drug trade was a process, not a one-shot choice, where the impetus to change accumulated over time from multiple experiences, and where the men went through a “half and half” stage where they sometimes still sold drugs while building up their legitimate opportunities and connections. She shows that exiting the drug trade did not save men from intense police surveillance or the threat of violence in the community. Jones also discusses the ways in which money earned in the drug trade allowed men to fulfill the provider role as fathers and how the final exit from the trade could be precipitated by losing one’s stash. Unlike many accounts of desistance, where marriage or jobs or school seem mechanistically to pull people out of crime, in Jones’s telling the men have active agency as they think about their situation and reflect on what they want in life. Jones also emphasizes the process of maturation, as the men entered the drug trade when still young teens and worked their way out as adults.

Jones’s methodology in telling these stories is unusually careful. After she thinks she has understood each man’s trajectory, she interviews him to check and refine her understanding.

Chapter 2 discusses the people who are paid to “keep the peace,” to do social service work to prevent violence, and the ways in which they compete for resources and are more accountable to outsiders than to the community. It reviews the ways the programs have shifted over time and gives a thorough review of prior research on how these programs work. Jones argues that there are three groups: the credentialed class, the street brokers, and the activists. Jones gives almost no attention to the activists after describing them as the people who try to connect community violence to the history of the area and broader social structures and reporting that the local news media define them as trouble makers who do more harm than good. Her focus is on the other two groups.

The credentialed class are middle class Black people who are deemed respectable, are connected to and collaborate with police and local officials. They are salaried directors of local programs with reasonable stable jobs. They get the grants, do the paperwork, and are accountable to funders. This makes them focus on “getting the numbers” that will demonstrate that they are serving people.

The street brokers act as intermediaries between the credentialed class and the “at risk” community members. Street brokers have titles and business cards but are typically in unsalaried lower-paying part-time temporary positions that come and go depending on funding levels. Eric is a street broker who runs a small “Brothers Changing the Hood” support group that provides programming for teens in a housing project. Jones describes incidents in which the director of the community center argues that all of Eric’s efforts should be under their aegis, so they can get credit for it, and that they will look bad if they do not know what Eric’s group is doing. Even after he obtains a grant for his organization (with Jones’s help), he continues to be disrespected by the credentialed class, but feels that he really cares about the young people, not just the numbers.

Jones also discusses how these actors responded to a “gang injunction,” a civil injunction backed up by criminal penalties which basically prohibited people on the list from being outdoors in the neighborhood or associating with others. The injunction in some cases prohibited young men from living with or even visiting their mothers. Once you were on the list, it was very difficult to get off. Jones stresses that most of the presentations by the credentialed class were on how to obey the order, not on whether it was a violation of civil rights. As I mentioned above, Jones’s main informants are what she calls the street brokers, and we are not told much about what the world looks like from the point of view of the “credentialed class,” except that several said things that disparaged less educated people and that the person who gave a presentation on the gang injunction appeared to have had cordial conversations with police.

Despite this critical view of the credentialed class, as far as I could tell from the case materials presented in the book, both the credentialed class and the street brokers counseled submission to police and did not offer overt political critiques of the gang injunction.  Overall, I found this to be the least satisfying chapter for this reason. On the other hand, the material distinctions between the two groups in terms of their occupational positions and job security, and the organizational imperative to satisfying the bureaucratic requirements of outside funders, were well documented and fit with what I have seen in my own community. Thus, I feel that everything in this chapter is well documented. But the interactions between these organizational types and the differences in how they work could have been developed in more detail if the goal was to really develop the argument that these organizational relations structured violence and violence prevention in the community.

Chapter 3 focuses on law enforcement and targeted surveillance with the gang injunction. Jones stresses that this intense surveillance of young people coming of age in the 2000s is more extreme than it was for prior generations. After reviewing the changing policies and the literature on the subject, including the fear of the “super-predators” that never emerged and the realities of the problem of crack addiction as well as the Whites at the top of the drug pyramid who never seemed to be discussed, the core of the chapter is ethnographic material describing the social and psychological consequences of this surveillance. Jones emphasizes that the police are key agents of socialization that are teaching these young men that they must be perfectly submissive when suddenly stopped and frisked by police, that they must submit without complaint to being searched, that they must not complain if addressed rudely, that they are at risk of police violence if they resist, and that they must submit to strip searches and body cavity searches. Community workers, both in the better-funded organizations led by the “credentialed class” and in the groups led by Brothers Changing the Hood all stress the importance to youths of not resisting, not fighting back when stopped by the police. Jones argues that this kind of “routine encounter” is a degradation ritual like those designed to break down individual personalities and will in boot camp. She argues that these experiences both train them to recognize the crudest physical dominance as masculinity and are assaults on their own masculinity. She argues that these young men then take it out in on the Black women in their neighborhood with sexualized harassment and assaults. The young men are then blamed for their individual moral failings. Jones notes that after all this intrusion in their lives, the young men are still at risk of violence and doubts whether this treatment reduces violence. As I said above, I found this material to be very disturbing even as it is well documented and fits with all the other evidence from other sources. Jones is distinctive for bringing an adolescent development perspective to this material and emphasizing its important for socialization into gender roles.

Chapter 4 addresses the ways in which Eric’s Brothers Changing the Hood sought to save the neighborhood. The chapter addresses images of fatherhood, and the ways in which the “provider” role was easiest to accomplish in the drug trade, and the ways in which the men sought to lift up the “soft” parenting roles in mentoring and supporting their own children and boys in the communities. They worked as bridges, helping to link children into social programs or schooling or occupational opportunities, and as buffers, trying to shelter them from the police. The men were working to redeem themselves as men by learning to be good fathers and social fathers to others. One particularly vivid incident involves a group of boys being walked from their housing project to a community center a few blocks away, where the boys are afraid all along the way, stressing the very circumscribed geographies experienced by the young men. Another narrative involves a father and his support group successfully working to get a son off probation, and then the two of them being swept up into arrest when another son fails to obey an order to leave a street and a crowd gathers. Even though the judge considers the incident to be trivial, they are both given probation and are back on supervision again. Jones stresses that men’s ability to enact positive fathering is constrained by intrusive policing.

Chapter 5, as I said above, is another life history of a young man seeking to redeem himself and almost succeeding, until he is killed. The themes in this chapter are very similar to those in the first, which is why I discussed them together, but you can see that the point of the book’s structure is to tell the life course story twice, first to set up the discussion of organizations and policing as constraints, and then again to reiterate the same story after we have seen the structure in the middle. Because he is younger, Jay has been more subject to intrusive policing, and the unfairness of the policing itself contributed to his belief that breaking the law was OK.

Jones’s conclusion offers alternate models to intrusive policing as ways to redeem people and promote peace which basically emphasize drawing young people into positive relations and opportunities.

At a more abstract level, the book documents the interplay of agency and structure, although this is not Jones’s preferred language. She lays out the external constraints on people’s lives and criticizes discourses that stress individual morality, but she and the people she writes about refuse to cast themselves as passive victims of fate, nor are they free agents who can make anything they want of their lives. They are active agents who are facing extreme structural disadvantages, but active agents nonetheless who take moral responsibility for their own lives and try to change them, even as they face large oppositional forces while they do it. Moral responsibility is considered developmentally and that the book is also engaging the questions of the conditions shaping moral development of adolescents and young adults. Jones highlights the ways intrusive policing prevents or distorts the moral development of its victims. Gender roles and moral development are also seen as intertwined and distorted by the degrading conditions of intrusive policing.

I learned a lot from this book. I knew about the ways in which “stop and frisk” policies disrupt people’s ordinary lives and lead to resistance, but I had not confronted the ways in which these policies degrade and humiliate people. The images of enforced submission reminded me of the stories of Jim Crow. I had not thought about the impact of these polices on adolescent moral development or the way humiliating young men distorts gender relations. This material on enforced submission is influencing my own thinking as I write about repression and the interplay of policing and political repression. Jones’s distinctions among the different kinds of community activists was also useful, even as I thought it was not as thoroughly developed as it could have been. And her emphasis on personal agency and moral development even in the face of oppression and repression provide an important corrective to dominant social narratives.

Highly recommended.

You may be interested in this blog by Nikki Jones reflecting on the themes in the book Nikki Jones is a professor of African American Studies at the University of California at Berkeley. Her previous book was Between Good and Ghetto: African American Girls and Inner City Violence (2010), published in the Rutgers University Press Series in Childhood Studies (

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