Understanding gangs and the control of their behavior has become much more complex as a result of social change at global, national, and local levels. Immigration continues to change the face of this country, as people come from all over the world in search of a better life. Most will be welcomed and assimilate rapidly, adding to the growth of the country and American culture. Some will do much worse, contributing to and confirming stereotypes that both fuel and reflect intergroup conflict and competition over scarce resources.
To young people facing the impacts of such broad changes in society, in school, at home, on the streets, and in their communities, gangs represent an attractive means by which to negotiate and capitalize on their daily lives. In return for the often high, sometimes deadly, costs of “putting work in,” gangs offer protection, friendship and belonging, status, and material comforts. David Brotherton (2008), long-time student of the Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation street gang in New York, suggests that gangs also provide members and associates with opportunities for political resistance against oppression and social control. This contrasts sharply with the history of Latino gangs elsewhere, and with the work of Thrasher (and Asbury before him), who documented the participation of white ethnic street gangs in the service of politicians in Chicago and New York. Latino and white gang histories, in turn, contrast with the history of failed attempts by black street gangs to achieve political power. Despite the apparently sincere efforts of some gang leaders and their followers to “go conservative,” continued violent and other types of criminal behavior by gangs and their members made them easy targets for Chicago officials threatened by the prospect of politically organized black gangs.
Whatever their consequences for the politicization of gangs, it is clear that arrest, prosecution, and incarceration did not make gangs go away back then, and they are unlikely to do so today. These are strategies for dealing with the problem of individuals. Gangs are part of ongoing processes played out in the lives of young people, but heavily influenced by the world around them. Insight into these processes has been slow to develop, but decades of hard work have brought them into much clearer focus. More hard work is needed, however, to bridge levels of explanation and existing gaps in knowledge. Problems of youth violence and troublesome youth groups (including street gangs), and what to do about them, will always be present. The least that can be done is to try to better understand them.
- The ERP consensus definition is this: “A gang is any durable, street-oriented youth group whose involvement in illegal activity is part of its group identity” (Klein & Maxson, 2006, p. 4). Although durability is subjective, this stipulation is meant to distinguish street gangs from ad hoc groups or milling crowds that engage in delinquent, criminal, or other types of troublesome behaviors.
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