Gangs composed of young persons, as distinct from organized criminal syndicates, arose in America by the mid-19th century and were a concern for city leaders from the time they first appeared. The first serious piece of research on the subject did not come until Frederic Thrasher’s book The Gang was published in 1927. Since then, research on the subject has become quite prevalent.
Though not easily summarized, there appears to be consensus on two points. First, gangs are far more likely to be found in “disorganized communities.” These would be places that have few, if any, homegrown institutions and groups to guide and constrain their residents, especially their young people, so they will behave in more “conventional” ways. A corollary of the disorganization hypothesis is that the people living in “disorganized communities” are likely to be members of a minority population, be overwhelmingly poor (or certainly not well-off), and have unclear or questionable values. Second, the only way to control gangs is to cut off the supply of members or break up the groups. Efforts to suppress gang activity often combine a variety of carrots (e.g., programs that attract youngsters to conventional groups and styles of behavior) and sticks (e.g., police harassment and incarceration). Sometimes the whole neighborhood or community at risk is the target of these initiatives. On other occasions, it is the gang or its members that are targeted.
Although local people sometimes help implement plans to discourage gang activities, it usually is outside agencies and experts that assume most of the responsibility for fashioning intervention strategies and carrying them out. That is because much of the money to support these programs comes from one or another federal, state, or local government agency, and the noncriminal residents inside the targeted “gang areas” are often thought to be almost as problematic as the gangs and their members. Be that as it may, most gang intervention programs have not been effective. In some cases, the use of repressive tactics actually emboldens gang members or makes gangs more attractive to young persons. In other instances, gang activity flares back up once programs intended to discourage gang activity or help children stay out of gangs are curtailed or, in the case of legal efforts to incarcerate gang members for a period of years, members are released from jail.
In the 1990s there was a renewed sense of urgency to do something about youth gangs. That is because many new minority populations arrived in urban areas, and their children formed gangs that both mimicked and diverged from gangs formed by earlier ethnic groups. Although not as much is heard today, as compared with the end of the 20th century, about gangs like the “Crips” and “Bloods,” those organizations are still out there, and new gangs and confederations of local gangs have emerged in the 21st century. Armed with even bigger weapons and seemingly less concerned than ever about the havoc they create in the neighborhoods where they are located, contemporary gangs are considered every bit as dangerous as, and perhaps even more indiscriminately violent than, their late 20th-century counterparts.
Historically, some gangs have had a “gang tradition” in a particular neighborhood where several generations of gang members are tied to members of their own families and closest neighbors (e.g., in some Hispanic and Chinese gangs). Others have been more independent and not as well tied in to the ongoing routines of their community or its conventional adult-run groups (e.g., gangs composed of African American youth and more recent Asian immigrants). Some, like many white working-class gangs rooted in older ethnic enclaves, have a tradition of defending their neighborhood against “outsiders.” Others, like the drug-dealing gangs affiliated with the Crips or Bloods, are viewed more as predators than defenders of their community. There are ample variations around each of these patterns, to be sure, with gangs sometimes being more protective of the people living around them and on other occasions holding people as virtual hostages in their own neighborhood.
Other changes in gangs occurred in the late 20th century. Girls are now creating their own gangs instead of serving as the female auxiliary to boy gangs. Gangs have also appeared in suburbs and even small towns located some distance from any large city. Some gangs are now more deeply involved than ever in serious illegal activities; use deadly force to solidify their control over an area more readily than they did earlier in the 20th century; and are more mobile, too. In short, the number and variety of gangs has grown, and there appears to be little that can be done to curtail them much less remove them from most of the communities where they take root. One well-known expert at the end of the 20th century had grown so despondent over the prospect of finding any intervention strategy that would work that he recommended abandoning the pretense of trying to curtail gang activity in major urban centers and focusing instead on smaller cities where gangs were just beginning to emerge.
To the degree that gang experts are right (and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that their assessment of the spread of gangs is not wildly exaggerated), something important is going on in American culture. To begin, it would seem that the social disorganization hypothesis is either wrong or now can be extended to cover virtually every kind of American community. On its face, the latter explanation seems implausible. True, American intellectuals at the tail end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st were prone to see American culture as worn out, if not altogether corrupted, and its civic routines as being suspect. At the same time, however, most Americans were not moving to small, out-of-the-way places or out of the country, and those who did were not making those moves to escape youth gangs.
There is an alternative explanation for what has been going on in American civic life and with American youth. Basically, civic routines and values may not be as worn down as social critics imagine, and young men and women, boys and girls may not be as problematic as many observers think. By extension, youth gangs would not be so alien a creation as people have been led to believe.
The foundation of this alternative way of looking at youth gangs is laid in the work of American scholars who have studied the rise of different kinds of unscripted and disruptive forms of civil unrest (e.g., mobs, protest marches, boycotts, and gangs) in European history. It turns out that virtually all these seemingly unscheduled and upsetting displays of public discord and the groups that use them are not as irrational, unorganized, and threatening as many persons have theorized and feared. Indeed, these activities have many features in common with those undertaken by more conventional groups, meet similar needs for their members, and do not discourage members from becoming “normal” adults. The boundary line between conventional and unconventional groups, individuals, and behavior is a lot fuzzier and easier to cross than had been imagined.
That is why so many youngsters “mature out” of gangs as they age. Most young people who live in communities with gangs do not belong to such groups, even though they may be on very good terms with youngsters who are. And most young people who join gangs do not become career criminals; rather, they grow up and out of gangs and move into more conventional adult roles like “employee” or “parent.”
Gangs fit in this cultural landscape in a very important and telling way. Over the past 200 years, they have managed to change or keep up with the ways other unconventional groups have changed and managed to “fit in” with the larger, more conventional culture. They do this by combining elements of so-called primitive forms of corporate action (e.g., feuds and brawls) with “reactionary” kinds of civic disturbances (e.g., hostility toward “outsiders,” particularly powerful outsiders, who might threaten customary ways of doing things) and, more recently, more “modern” types of corporate action (e.g., labor and union unrest) that are designed to garner new resources and rights for those groups initiating the actions. Gangs cannot be compared to labor unions or political parties. However, many contemporary youth gangs mimic modern corporations by forming far-reaching confederations and making lots of money, even as they defend their market or “turf” with a great deal of seemingly “primitive” brawls and feuds. It is the act of combining different kinds of unconventional and even violent behavior in the same groups that distinguishes Americans’ use of disruptive community acts from those thought to be used by Europeans, which and has rendered them more conservative and less upsetting of the status quo than their European counterparts.
Contemporary youth gangs carry on the European tradition of forming age-segregated youth cliques. They do this by providing their members with opportunities to make their presence felt and their arrival as full-fledged “adults” known to a much larger and potentially indifferent public. Gang members, like teenagers generally, have presented themselves increasingly in adult-like ways, like assuming the right to take a life, despite being unprepared to accept the responsibilities that come with the assumption of such prerogatives. Thus, in their stylized dress, ritualistic declarations of brotherhood, indecipherable graffiti, harshly violent ways, and crude capitalization of home-grown entrepreneurs, contemporary youth gangs are, in a broadly cultural sense, a cruel parody of 18th- and 19-century male fraternities.
The point is not to dismiss the dangerous activities and harm that a gang does or to embrace gang members’ views of the world; it is rather to appreciate the ways in which gangs and gang members fit into a long and surprisingly conservative tradition in the uses of group violence and displays of public bravado. It also is to recognize this singularly important way in which young people from very different backgrounds and in all kinds of communities have come to assume the rights and prerogatives of adults without being prepared by adults to accept the obligations and consequences that come with such privileges.
From what is known about the conduct of gangs and gang members in different settings, several conclusions can be drawn about the relation between gangs and the communities in which they are rooted. First, communities with relatively stable working-class or lower-middle-class populations have fewer gangs, and the gangs they have act in more restrained ways. Second, communities with a lower or higher economic profile and less stability in their population (i.e., people move in and out with great frequency) have more gangs, or the gangs they have act out in less-restrained ways.
What stands out most clearly about the relation between gangs and the communities where they are found is that the wealth and status of the persons living there are not the most critical factors in determining how gangs will act. What matters most is the ability and willingness of adults working through informal groups, voluntary organizations, and local businesses to engage their young people in more constructive ways. This is the most effective gang intervention strategy. It will not “save” every youngster, but it will make the transition between childhood and adulthood smoother and kinder than it has been for many young people.
The frightening thing about this assessment is that social scientists had very strong hints that this was the case as early as Frederic Thrasher’s pioneering study of youth and adult gangs in 1920s Chicago. Millions of dollars have been spent since then in efforts to create more and better ways to suppress gang activity and lead gang members down a more conventional path to adulthood. The irony is that even as more and more expensive remedies (which ultimately do not work) are suggested and tried, the answer—having adults engage youth in more constructive ways—continues to be ignored.
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