Street Gangs

V. Bringing Context Back In

Mercer Sullivan (2006) questions whether studies of gangs distract attention from the larger problem of youth violence. His point is well taken inasmuch as gang research obscures the nature of young people’s associations with one another and the influences that shape their lives. Viewing gangs as “fractals” of crime and violence, as “official” definitions and data would have it, ignores the myriad forms of behavior among gang youth and the conditions under which they behave badly as individuals, clique members, or in large (possibly, named) groups. Understanding such varied patterns requires attention to context.

Toward this end, it is especially important to build on the insights of ethnographic studies of gangs, a few good examples of which must suffice. Ruth Horowitz (1983) carefully documented status considerations within the gang and the complex interplay between gangs and their environments. Other ethnographers, sensitive to process, likewise situate their observations of gangs within broader contexts. Mark Fleisher’s (1998) study of the day-to-day lives of the Fremont Hustlers, a “gang” of white teens in Kansas City, chronicles the changing nature of the group and its influence on behavioral choices by individual members, and how they add to already troubled family and other problems. Researchers such as Sullivan (1989), John Hagedorn (1988), James Diego Vigil (1988), and Sudhir Venkatesh (2000, 2008) document the subtleties and complexities of local social orders in which gangs play an important role.

In addition to ethnographic research, network analyses in Chicago and elsewhere add to knowledge of the social relationships within and between gangs, and the integration of qualitative and quantitative methods offers new insights into the group processes leading to violence and the avoidance of such behavior. Comparative multisite, multimethod, and substantively diverse analyses are also beginning to develop, highlighting the need to understand gangs from more than one perspective.

A. “Levels of Explanation,” “Capital,” and the “Code of the Street”

Attempts to explain gangs take many forms: examination of characteristics of individual gang members or their communities, for example, or the nature of group behavior or the worldwide forces that impact each of these. Such different levels of explanation require different methods of research and data that serve different purposes. Although findings occasionally may seem contradictory, they are, and should be, complementary. Like all other phenomena of interest to criminologists, gangs and gang members cannot be understood apart from the extremely varied spatial, temporal, social, and cultural contexts in which they are embedded.

Among the most important of these contexts in the United States are historical patterns of immigration, migration, social and cultural conflict, accommodation, and assimilation. Following the Revolutionary War, as the country became more industrialized, immigrants flooded into rapidly growing cities and intensified existing problems of social control. Ethnic conflict involving gangs of immigrant Irish (young and old) versus “nativists” were common (Asbury, 1927), a pattern repeated throughout the 19th-century influx of new white ethnic immigrants. Youth street gangs were problematic during this time, but even they tended to follow the paths of their ethnic progenitors, assimilating and accommodating to America as part of an ethnic enclave or without primary ethnic identity.

The historical pattern of ethnic succession characterizing U.S. communities and their gangs has changed a great deal since these early years. Recent immigration streams to the United States have come from a large number of Central and Latin American countries, as well as from Asia and the Near East. Street gang formation and distribution within this country reflect these patterns, showing especially high concentrations among rapidly growing Latino populations. Contrary to trends observed among white gangs, however, the problem of black street gangs only worsened during this period, and Henry McKay’s (1969) optimistic conjecture that blacks in northern U.S. cities would follow the path of their European predecessors (i.e., assimilation into middle-class American society) proved sadly mistaken.

Despite advances in the civil rights of minorities and changed economic conditions that have provided opportunities for the integration of many, those who have been left behind increasingly are relegated to the status of a “permanent underclass” in many U.S. cities. This underclass can be located ecologically in terms of such conditions as unemployment, welfare, educational deficits, and broken families, but William Julius Wilson (1978, 1987, 1996) points to concentrated poverty and isolation from mainstream social and economic opportunities as the defining characteristics of this population and as the primary villains in the production of crime; gang delinquency; “off the books” illegal enterprises; and, ultimately, ineffective social control (cited in Venkatesh, 2006).

Recent empirical and theoretical research linking the structural characteristics of neighborhoods to individual behaviors has helped bridge macro-, individual, and micro- (interaction and situational) levels of explanation. Building on the “social disorganization” thesis of the Chicago School of urban sociology, which attributed contrasting trends among communities to the relative effectiveness of their social control organizations and institutions, Robert Sampson and colleagues (Sampson, Morenoff, & Earls, 1999; Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997) link crime to specific dimensions of neighborhood social capital, including intergenerational closure, reciprocated exchange, and informal social control and mutual support of children. Together, these dimensions comprise what they term “collective efficacy,” a property of neighborhoods and communities based on mutual trust and shared expectations that residents will take responsibility for each other’s children. When neighborhood characteristics hinder collective efficacy, crime and disorder flourish alongside street gangs and other troublesome youth groups. A major consequence for young people in such environments is limited “street efficacy,” that is, the “perceived ability to avoid violent confrontations and to be safe in one’s neighborhood” (Sharkey, 2006, p. 920).

Growing up in deprived neighborhoods and families, capital-deficient youth search for other ways to be somebody. Many young black males find themselves, in Elijah Anderson’s (2008) felicitous phrasing, “against the wall” in American society and, in the interest of survival and the search for self-respect and status, craft a public image out of unique styles of dress, mannerisms, and behaviors compelled under the “code of the street.” Described by Anderson (1999) as an emergent but pervasive value system based on achieving respect through violence, street codes have been documented in a variety of settings, especially the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in which gangs and gangbanging flourish. To outsiders, what transpires in these environments is evidence of depravity and perversity, attributable mainly to personal problems and shortcomings. For those more directly involved, however, adherence to the code of the street may simply be common sense. Reviewing The Violent Gang (Yablonsky, 1962), for example, R. W. England (1965) noted that description of the “Balkans” gang as an unstable “near-group” led by five sociopathic youth can be interpreted just as readily in a manner consistent with the code-of-the-streets thesis:

Like other subcultural adaptations, the code offers to its adherents status criteria that are within reach. Those who succeed are afforded street credibility and given their due “props,” some even rising to the rank of “ghetto star,” “badass,” “O. G.” (original gangsta), or “veterano.” Such street capital is the currency among those lacking in economic, political, social, cultural, and human capital and resources. Gangs are an important part of this picture, offering young people the chance to negotiate, albeit not always successfully, the difficult world around them and their place in it.

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