We learn in the opening pages of Laurence Ralph’s new book that Luis Alberto Quiñonez, known as Sito, was shot to death nearly five years ago while sitting behind the wheel of his car on a residential street in San Francisco’s Mission District. Soon enough we learn who killed him. It is Ralph’s challenge to extract meaning from a killing that was at once senseless—the shooter most likely believed that Sito was responsible for a murder when he was in fact innocent—and almost perfectly predictable.

Murder is second only to accidents as the leading cause of death in the US for Latino males between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four; it is the leading cause of death for young Black men. When he died on the evening of Sunday, September 8, 2019, Sito was on his way to have dinner with his girlfriend and her mother. At that moment, Ralph writes with an air of inevitability, “death caught up to Sito.” He was nineteen.

Sito is the latest book to depict how violence shapes, permeates, and all too often ends the lives of young men of color. In Between the World and Me (2015), Ta-Nehisi Coates is haunted by the death of his Howard University classmate Prince Carmen Jones, killed by a Black police officer in an unforgivable instance of mistaken identity that was nonetheless promptly forgiven by the legal system. Danielle Allen writes in Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. (2017) of how her cousin, arrested at fifteen and released eleven years later into a world he was unable to navigate, was “ensnared” by gangs and murdered at twenty-nine. In The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (2014), Jeff Hobbs recounts the murder at age thirty of his Yale College roommate, who grew up in a troubled family in Newark and could solve complex math problems in his head but whose drug dealing precluded a safe and stable adult life.

Each of these lives was profoundly different, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. Prince Jones, who had never been in trouble with the law, was the son of a prominent doctor. Robert Peace’s father was in prison for murder. But what links all such accounts, including those of people who, like Coates himself, managed to prevail, is the constant presence of fear. “When I was eleven my highest priority was the simple security of my body,” Coates tells his son in Between the World and Me. “My life was the immediate negotiation of violence—within my house and without.” In an earlier memoir, The Beautiful Struggle (2008), which is in some ways more powerful than the book that made him famous, Coates writes of his older brother Bill’s friends, who were from a nearby neighborhood that was just rough enough to be tantalizing:

They did not live in squalor. Their mothers tried their best. But still they had to confront the winds of the day. The most ordinary thing—the walk to school, a bike ride around the block, a trip to the supermarket—could just go wrong.

For that reason, Bill and some of his friends, still teenagers, began carrying guns.

The fear these narratives depict is all-consuming and corrosive. Academically gifted boys quickly realize that they can’t be both smart and safe. If academic success takes work, so does masking its evidence by projecting a streetwise attitude. “Newark-proofing” himself, Robert Peace called it. Cedric Jennings, the young man from inner-city Washington, D.C., profiled by Ron Suskind in A Hope in the Unseen (1998), avoided the honor assemblies at his high school, where half the students failed to graduate, rather than endure the jeers of “nerd,” “geek,” and even “whitey” that accompanied the frequent calling of his name from the stage.

Growing up in Atlanta and Baltimore, Laurence Ralph, the son of immigrants from Guyana, learned early that he should be afraid of both gangs and the police. “As a teenager, I felt that fear constantly,” he writes in Sito.

Ralph is now a professor of anthropology at Princeton, where he and his wife, Aisha Beliso-De Jesús, also an anthropologist, direct the multidisciplinary Center on Transnational Policing. He calls himself a “gang scholar,” his field of expertise the role of gangs in the lives of inner-city Black youths. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he spent nearly all his time for three years among gang members, with a focus on the disabled survivors of gang violence in a neighborhood on the city’s west side.

Ralph’s professional perspective is one element that distinguishes Sito from similar books by journalists and others. His first book, the product of his graduate school project, was Renegade Dreams: Living Through Injury in Gangland Chicago (2014). A “renegade dream,” in Ralph’s telling, is “an aspiration rooted in an experience of injury that reimagines the possibilities within injury.” The young men whose stories he relates, consigned to wheelchairs by bullet-inflicted spinal cord injuries, find meaning in preaching against gang culture and its violence to vulnerable boys no different from the frightened children they themselves once were, “when just walking home” required “a certain vigilance in order to stay alive.”


References to Renegade Dreams run through Sito, which might in fact almost be read as an afterword to the earlier book. Sito first came under a gang’s seemingly protective wing at fourteen. Protection was something every young boy needed in the Mission District, where he grew up spending alternate weeks with his mother and his father, a former gang leader who had done time for drug dealing and eventually devoted himself to trying to turn young men away from gangs. The Mission was a violent place where numerous gangs controlled precise, if unmarked, territories that outsiders entered at their peril. When Sito wandered into unfriendly territory, he had to fight his way out. He was quick to anger, perhaps as a mask for the fear that was his daily companion.

By the end of his short life he was physically whole but deeply wounded emotionally by the five months he had spent in juvenile prison on a murder charge that was dropped when a surveillance video showed that he was not the killer. He knew the killer’s identity but refused to cooperate with the authorities, knowing he could not survive prison as a “snitch.” Sito was a natural suspect because the murder victim was a schoolmate with whom he had fought regularly. The real killer, by contrast, was a visitor to the neighborhood who quickly disappeared. Once the case against Sito fell apart, the police lost interest and stopped looking for anyone else; almost a year later, in the wee hours of the morning of December 9, 2015, the actual killer was gunned down in what Sito’s father describes to Ralph as “street justice”—violence begetting violence.

Was Sito’s injury, like the spinal cord injuries of Renegade Dreams, irreparable? Quite possibly. “His experience in juvenile hall shaped the rest of his life,” Ralph reports, noting that PTSD is common among young men who have spent time in juvenile prison. Sito went through the days following his release in a haze, searching for a goal and feeling that he had no purpose. He drank heavily. Toward the end he found something he believed in: the prison abolition movement. Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, an abolition organization that welcomed him, became a “lifeline,” Ralph writes.

Months before Sito’s death San Francisco became the first major city in the country to close its juvenile prison, replacing it with “home-like and rehabilitative centers,” according to an ordinance passed by the city’s board of supervisors. It was a renegade dream fulfilled, perhaps, but too late for Sito, and not without irony. His death was a twisted act of revenge by Julius Williams, the younger brother of the boy he had been wrongly accused of killing five years earlier. Williams is serving a four-year juvenile sentence in the “less punitive” facility provided for by the prison reform that Sito championed.

In both these books and in another that came between them, The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence (2020),1 Ralph has been notably concerned with the search for meaning in lives beset by conflict and crisis. An unexpected dimension to Sito, both for reader and—it seems safe to say—author, is that one of the seekers turns out to be Ralph himself. As he follows the trail of calamity that was Sito’s life, Ralph begins to wonder about his own utility as a scholar-witness. “I sometimes think my scholarship is only suitable for analyzing problems,” he writes. “I was finding it increasingly hard to be an objective third party to grief.”

What propels these doubts is that Sito was not a randomly chosen ethnographic subject. He was, in a sense, family: the half-brother of Ralph’s stepson, related neither to Ralph nor to his wife by blood or marriage, but part of a blended Black and Latino family tightly bonded across differences of class and achievement. Ralph had met Sito only once, but he knew his story well.

As a young teenager Ralph’s wife had given birth to a son by an older teen who had offered her protection from San Francisco’s gangs and whose family took her in after learning that she and her mother, who struggled with drug addiction, had been evicted from their apartment. The relationship ended after a few years, and with her son, Neto, in tow, she embarked on a path that led eventually to a Ph.D. and marriage to a fellow Ivy League professor. Her former partner, Rene, remained involved with Neto’s upbringing, and when he had a second son, Sito, the family circle simply grew to encompass the new baby and the baby’s mother. Eventually Ralph became part of the circle as well.


Sito’s murder and the years that led up to it affected the family deeply. Trying to be helpful, Ralph meets with the district attorney and attends Julius Williams’s sentencing hearing. Sito’s family had hoped the seventeen-year-old Julius would be tried as an adult, permitting a much longer sentence than the four years allowed for juveniles under California law. To his dismay, Ralph found himself in sympathy with that wish. “I was overcome, once again, by the feeling that my ideals were betraying me,” he writes.

I never saw myself as someone who would sit in an ivory tower and produce my work in isolation from everyday people’s problems….

Even though I was always careful to question my own authority, the way I understood social problems still revolved around my identity as a professor. At Julius’s sentencing hearing, that barrier no longer existed—or at least not to the same extent. I was watching the hearing as Neto’s stepfather, Aisha’s husband, and Rene’s confidant. Without a professional shield to protect me, I felt naked, exposed—especially when Julius’s advocates took the stand. All of them noted that his life had been transformed by his older brother’s murder, which had implicated Sito.

It was disorienting, nearly shattering. A book about a murdered nineteen-year-old becomes the cri de coeur of a scholar in his early forties at the peak of a successful career:

For a long time, I thought my mission as a researcher was to show that so-called bad kids weren’t born that way, which meant that a mistake they might’ve made shouldn’t scar them for life and dim their prospects. I wanted my work to speak to the beauty and brilliance of who I knew they could be. Back then, I wouldn’t let myself believe that those teenagers’ time in juvenile hall would hover over them like a dark shadow. But perhaps that optimism served my interests—not theirs. Did my research really reflect the hardships that they, and their loved ones, were living through?

Today, I can’t be sure.

What seems to trouble Ralph is that he had expected to tell Sito’s story as one of redemption: bad things happened to a boy who nonetheless managed to emerge with understanding and purpose. But as Ralph looked closer, what he saw was stigma and pain:

Ever since Sito died, I’ve realized that the narratives I once cherished often failed to acknowledge the consequences of being at the epicenter of a moral panic. When society labels young people as criminals, then turns its back on them, that label follows them like a shadow they can never shake off.

Ralph quotes a speech during the 1996 presidential campaign by Hillary Clinton, then the first lady of a president who was busy triangulating and appeasing the right. Read today, her words are shocking. Clinton said that the 1994 Crime Bill, a signature piece of legislation from her husband’s first term, would protect the public from “the kinds of kids that are called superpredators—no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first, we have to bring them to heel.” (Twenty years later, running for president herself, Clinton said she regretted using the term “superpredator.”)

I think Ralph is being too hard on himself. Of course stories of individual lives need to acknowledge the broader social and political forces that contributed to shaping them, or to deforming them. But individual narratives can have great power and raise deep questions. How did Ralph’s wife and fellow Princeton professor, homeless at the age of twelve and pregnant at fourteen, prevail against such odds? She has published an academic book about Santeria, the Afro-Caribbean religion in which she was raised, and her new book focuses on race and police violence.2 I hope she will publish the story of her own life someday.

How might Sito’s life have turned out differently? He was first arrested at age twelve, when he grabbed a cell phone a woman had left on a restaurant table and ran off with it, the woman’s scream of “Thief!” alerting a nearby police officer. Sito was sent to a group home for a month. Might a different sort of intervention have set him on a different path?

Nicholas Dawidoff’s The Other Side of Prospect: A Story of Violence, Injustice, and the American City (2022) is an account of another boy arrested for a murder he didn’t commit. Unlike Sito, Bobby was convicted at age seventeen on the basis of a false confession and spent nine years in prison before an energetic lawyer got the conviction overturned; the state even paid a substantial financial settlement that included “life restoration” money for health expenses, education, and job training. But like Sito, Bobby had great difficulty finding his footing after his release. He was still the boy who observed that by sixteen he had attended “fifty funerals and one school graduation.”

The book’s title refers to Prospect Street in New Haven, Connecticut, the dividing line between the comfortable residential neighborhood that extends out from Yale’s campus on one side and, on the other, the Newhallville neighborhood—a remnant of what had been a solid Black working-class community during New Haven’s now-vanished industrial past. Dawidoff’s portrait of the forces of dysfunction that swept up an innocent teenager is a powerful one. While the adult Bobby survives, his post-release life is tentative and disordered. A happy ending eludes Bobby and the readers who hope, as Ralph did for Sito, to see redemption in action.

And then there is Ron Suskind’s A Hope in the Unseen, now standard reading in many high schools. While Cedric Jennings’s journey from a failing inner-city high school through Brown University is, of course, inspiring, what stands out are the many points along the way at which the journey could easily have ended in failure. Cedric, who after graduation became a clinical social worker, was determined to succeed, but determination didn’t easily overcome the educational and cultural gulf that separated him from many classmates. Nor did it shield him from the reality of his life back home, where his father was in prison on drug charges and his mother was barely a step ahead of eviction from the apartment she and Cedric shared. Strength of character made a great difference, and a few helping hands at crucial points did the rest.

The thin, permeable line that separates success and failure, safety and danger, for those who have few resources of their own is a theme that runs through these books. For these young men, there are rarely second chances. This ultimately is the lesson Laurence Ralph takes from Sito’s short life.

Early in Sito he refers to an episode in Renegade Dreams in which a sixteen-year-old boy named Derrion was brutally beaten and killed by a group of other Chicago teenagers. “The notion that there is an innate difference between Derrion and his assailants, I argue, hinders our ability to understand urban violence,” Ralph writes. “We must come to terms with the fact that youth of color are both highly susceptible to experiencing violence and therefore extremely likely to enact it.” Sito invites us to regard the Sitos of the world with a bit less judgment and a good deal more humility.