Born a Crime

by

Trevor Noah

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Born a Crime: Chapter 17 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In the short preface, Trevor recalls shoplifting batteries as a ten-year-old, and his mother telling the security guard to take him to jail so he can “learn the consequences.” The guard lets Trevor go, assuming he must be “some wayward orphan, because what mother would send her ten-year-old child to jail?”
Despite how extraordinarily draconian South Africa’s apartheid police state can be, Patricia is in some ways even more draconian and demanding of Trevor.
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Trevor’s mother is ruthless—like many black parents, she tries “to discipline [him] before the system does.” Getting arrested is commonplace in Alex, and Patricia hates that Trevor hangs out there, especially because “it didn’t pressure [him] to become better.” In university, she argues, the other students would motivate him. She insists that if Trevor gets arrested, she will not help him. It is “the ultimate tough love,” even if “it doesn’t always work.”
Patricia fundamentally believes that Trevor will become what others expect of him: by expecting so much of him as a child, she did her best to make sure he fears authority because South Africa’s authorities do whatever they wish with black men; she also clearly sees how Alexandra is giving Trevor permission to fail because nobody expects anything of anyone else there.
Themes
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Resilience Through Religion, Education, and Humor Theme Icon
One day, Trevor sees an ad for a cell phone clearance sale in the suburbs and knows he and Sizwe can make a profit. So he steals one of Abel’s junk cars, as he has been doing for years, and summarily gets pulled over. Cops never give a reason for pulling people over; they just do because they can. He is more afraid of his mother than the law, but the officer realizes that the car is not Trevor’s and does not match the old license plate he has slapped on it. In fact, it has no clear owner at all. He gets arrested and charged with stealing a car—carjacking happens all the time in South Africa, often along with murder. Afraid of his mother’s tough love and Abel’s violent fury, Trevor decides not to contact them.
Again, the police act first and ask questions later; Trevor is not only stopped merely because the cop assumes he is guilty of something, but also assumed guilty of the worst possible crime that could lead his license plate not to match. But Trevor does not make a distinction in kind between his fear of the legal consequences and his fear of his mother, even though her consistent and principled “tough love” is designed precisely to save him from the arbitrary and sadistic violence that the legal system can use against him.
Themes
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The cop explains to Trevor that he needs to meet a lawyer, because otherwise he could end up awaiting trial in prison for months. He offers a defense attorney’s business card and Trevor calls him, then calls a friend whose father is willing to loan him money for the legal fees. Trevor gets thrown in a holding cell for the night and realizes, “Oh, shit. This is real.” The next day, he tries to look tough—fortunately, the colored gangs are South Africa’s most violent, and he “played the stereotype,” speaking in accented Afrikaans and managing to get the rest of his cellmates to leave him alone. He soon realizes that they are all probably faking their toughness, too. The food isn’t horrible, and Trevor starts to think jail is pretty tolerable, with the free food and a total lack of obligations.
Even though he has been unfairly targeted by the police, Trevor also has distinctive advantages in jail—his capacity to pay for a lawyer and pretend to be tough—which show how much more unfair it could be for someone who is at the very bottom of the economic, racial, and ethnic totem poles. His strange realization that jail offers material comforts with no work obligations reveals the perverse fact that jails and prisons are effectively the only institutions where the government provides anything to South African minorities: the degree of poverty people face in townships is so severe that the prospect of going to jail may actually not be much of a deterrent.
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On Trevor’s third day in jail, “the largest man [he]’d ever seen” gets thrown into his cell and “everyone was terrified.” But the man is speaking Tsonga—the same language Abel speaks—and the guard is speaking Zulu, so Trevor steps in to translate and immediately wins the giant man’s favor. This guy turns out to be “the biggest teddy bear in the world,” a shoplifter hoping to sell some stolen videogames to support his family, not the murderer he appeared to be. They become friends and Trevor increasingly realizes how irrational the law can be—this man spoke no English, had no money or educated relatives to help him, and would probably end up in prison, even though Trevor’s offense was worse.
Trevor again uses language to avoid a potential conflict and bridge people from different South African communities; he soon realizes that the Tsonga man’s appearance of toughness and danger is more a product of his own assumptions about criminality, which shows that prejudice is not just limited to whites or agents of the law, but rather deeply ingrained in even people who become victims of it. This systematic prejudice is also bound to deny this man the opportunities Trevor gets because he speaks English and can afford an attorney. Just like Trevor realized in Alexandra, crime was an act of desperate necessity for this man rather than a sign of moral evil, and without an understanding of this contributing context the legal system is bound to perpetuate rather than fight crime.
Themes
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Resilience Through Religion, Education, and Humor Theme Icon
When it is time for Trevor’s bail hearing, he gets briefly thrown in a holding cell under the jailhouse with a wide variety of people; for the first time, he realizes “the difference between criminals and people who’ve committed crimes.” As soon as he walks in, a man shouts, “It’s gonna be a good night tonight!” in Zulu. Another cries to Trevor about how he has been beaten and raped in jail. The cell is divided by race, and again Trevor does not know where to go—he cannot afford to have the colored gangsters find out he is just pretending, but would he infuriate them by going to hang out in the black corner? It feels like “the high school cafeteria from hell.” Trevor decides to hang out with the white guys, who look harmless.
“The difference between criminals and people who’ve committed crimes” is socialization: the first man, used to being treated as an offender and neglected by the state, becomes the stereotypical image of a hardened criminal; the second, likely imprisoned for the first time, shows the scarring effects of inhuman prisons. The cell’s racial division recalls Trevor’s first day of sixth grade, when he has to choose a side and ends up hanging out with the black kids—but here, it is unclear whether Trevor choosing the white guys means he has sold out due to fear and aligned with the oppressor or simply used his ability to navigate diverse cultural contexts in order to save himself from turning out like the man who cries to him.
Themes
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Trevor gets called up for his hearing after only an hour, and his lawyer and Mlungisi are waiting. The judge asks “How are you?” and Trevor breaks down. The judge gets angry, having asked “who are you?” not “how are you?” Everyone laughs, and the hearing goes quickly: Trevor gets a trial date and goes home on bail. He is elated to be free; his week in jail was “like an eternity.”
Even when the legal system has pushed Trevor to his breaking point, he still receives no sympathy; nevertheless, because he has an attorney and can communicate with the judge in English, he manages to go free until his trial, a fate clearly not reserved for many of the other people he’s encountered.
Themes
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Resilience Through Religion, Education, and Humor Theme Icon
Trevor spends a night at Mlungisi’s place and then returns home, where his mother is silent. He tells her all sorts of stories about spending a week hanging out with Mlungisi, and Patricia is visibly disappointed—she reveals that she paid the bail and lawyer. She obviously knows—the car has been missing for a week, and Trevor’s friend’s father immediately called Patricia when Trevor asked for the money. Patricia reminds Trevor that she is so hard on him because she loves him: “when I beat you, I’m trying to save you. When they beat you, they’re trying to kill you.”
More disappointed that Trevor was afraid to admit what happened than that he spent the week in jail, Patricia clearly distinguishes her “tough love” from the government’s gratuitous violence and shows why Trevor was wrong to fear her more than jail. This contrast between discipline and rage also plays a central role in the coming final chapter.
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