At age 15, Michael Alexander Allen was arrested for an attempted carjacking and subsequently served an 11-year prison sentence. Three years after being released he was shot and killed. In Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A. (Liveright, Sept.), his cousin, Harvard government professor Danielle Allen, seeks to understand why he died.

Describe your cousin’s life up until he went to prison.

Michael was a bright, energetic child who loved the outdoors. His earliest years were tough—his mother was a hard-working single mom—but reasonably stable. Then, when he was ten, his mother married a man who, unbeknownst to her, had a violent history. The family moved to Mississippi and the marriage didn’t last. Michael went through five schools in five years. Michael began to pilfer—cookies from the school cafeteria; an episode of shoplifting a radio. And then things suddenly accelerated.

What was your role in Michael’s life when he first left prison?

I was the cousin-on-duty, the one with the time and money to try to help Michael with re-entry. I was also his friend. Someone there for him each day in those first months out. We had worked together on his education and his plans while he was in prison. We were trying to make real the dreams we’d been sketching for years.

You write that Michael, and others like him, grew up within a toxic urban “parastate” that led him—despite a loving extended family—almost inevitably, to a violent death. What do you mean?

Often, when I hear people talk about the challenges of trying to improve the life chances of disadvantaged young people, I hear them focus on the need to take them to visit college campuses or to intern in law offices. The idea is that if their horizons can be broadened, they will see possibilities they hadn’t imagined and be inspired to better themselves. What this line of reasoning fails to take into account is the power of the thing those young people need to free themselves from. It’s not as if nothing pulls them in the other direction. There’s an organized world of social relations, rituals, languages, and communities. There’s also the economic power of the drug business, and the intense sanctioning regime it uses to manipulate and control its labor force. It turns the black market of narcotics into something that operates along side the legal state. It’s a state of its own kind with rights and responsibilities, rewards, and sanctions, for its members, which operates alongside the legal state.

What can we learn from Michael’s life?

Talent is everywhere. Whether a life blossoms depends on an individual’s own choices and, thanks to how we have organized our society, on the degree of difficulty that attaches to the life path a child encounters at birth.