Race and Inequality

An Examination of Black Youth’s Relationship with Law Enforcement

Jennifer Cobbina
Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University
Erin Kerrison
Assistant Professor of Social Welfare, University of California at Berkeley

Key Findings

  • Black Respectability Politics is a concept that looks at ascribed social norms for behavior in public and private spaces, which often disadvantage black youth as these norms are deeply racialized, gendered, and class-based.
  • The existence of such social norms, combined with law enforcement practices that operate within these norms, creates a lethal environment for black citizens to navigate.
  • Black youth diverge from the older members of their communities in that they have identified a system and framework that is broken, and they do not try to fit into this system, but rather try to change the status quo.


In the article, “’Your Pants Won’t Save You’: Why Black Youth Challenge Race-Based Police Surveillance and the Demands of Black Respectability Politics,” Kerrison and Cobina explore black youth’s relationship with law enforcement. Interviews were conducted in June 2015 with 23 young adults who lived in Baltimore, Maryland. The study includes an examination of the idea of Black Respectability Politics, which looks at the ascribed norms for social behavior that are racialized, gendered, and class-based. The authors found that racialized social norms, which include a suggestion of appropriate “hem lengths and waistlines,” reduce young Black civilians’ capacity to trust police officers and undermine their ability to see themselves as fully respected and valued community citizens. Kerrison and Cobbina found that the black millennials surveyed in this study are invested in reforming existing systems and are challenging the agendas of social institutions that dismantle black growth and well-being. The study underscores the importance of the state being held accountable to its people when it comes to just and unbiased law enforcement, and the importance of a commitment to designing lasting criminal justice reform.

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