Gangs in the Post-Industrial Ghetto

Over the past decade, news reports and movies have made a broad public increasingly familiar with urban gangs' colors, hand signals, and rap refrains. But to most Americans, the gangs are anything but picturesque. They have emerged as a symbol of a fearsome and depressed urban America and of American economic and moral decline. Gang murders and drug-dealing seem to confirm many Americans' worst suspicions about the dangerous poor, including the idea that self-destructive behavior is now the main cause of poverty. Consequently, the social understanding of gangs is central to the larger debate today about what obligations, if any, Americans recognize toward the poor.

Every major city of the United States has gangs, and everywhere they are feared. In many cities, the interconnected problems of gangs, drugs, and violence have touched off community marches and candlelight vigils, political discord, and anti-police sentiment. In Chicago, gang warfare is "out of control," says the president of Mothers Against Gangs, a support and advocacy group. Gang turf wars have brought Chicago the same kind of deadly street fighting that Los Angeles and the District of Columbia have recently experienced. As in eight other American cities, 1991 promises to be the deadliest in the Chicago's history, even surpassing the bloody years of the Al Capone era. And were it not for modern medicine, homicide rates would rise even higher.

The books reviewed here, all recent studies of gangs in urban America, are based on close observation and interviews with gang members and those who know them. For the past three summers, my students at the University of California, Berkeley, and I have also been interviewing mostly young, gang-affiliated drug dealers serving time in California prisons. Our observations and these books are all consistent in one major respect: gang members are not lazy and indifferent. They are tough and resourceful kids, who have committed violence and had violence committed upon them. Most of their bodies show the scars. In their world, a youngster proves manhood by fighting other gang members or by fearlessly confronting outsiders.

Gangs in the Twenties and Today
The problems of poor youth and their poor prospects for jobs have been seriously affected by the deindustrialization of America's inner cities. Gangs today reflect these conditions. Yet gangs and gang violence are not new to American cities, nor are their causes or consequences novel. The classic work on the subject is still Frederick Thrasher's The Gang, a Chicago study first published in 1927 and still a benchmark for contemporary researchers because in some fundamental ways gangs have not changed. Thrasher interpreted the rise of Chicago's gangs as a symptom of the "economic, moral and cultural frontier" facing young males in the harsh and menacing streets of the Prohibition era. "The gangs," he wrote, "dwell among the shadows of the slum." They were formed by and responded to "a broad twilight zone" of railroads, factories, deteriorating neighborhoods, and shifting populations.

Today, when the economic opportunities of slum youth are every bit as limited as in Thrasher's day, the twilight zone is likely to be a low-income housing project, and the slum is called a ghetto or a barrio. Other similarities are striking. The economic incentives for joining gangs in the 1920s still exist. Most of the gang boys Thrasher studied were thieves. Stealing was the leading "predatory activity," done as much for sport as for economic reward, and was so commonplace that it entailed, Thrasher wrote, "no more moral opprobrium for the ordinary gang boy than smoking a cigarette."

There was, of course, one big difference. Of the youthful Chicago gangsters of the 1920s, few were of Latino, African, or Asian descent (Thrasher counted only 7.2 percent as "Negro"). Located in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, the Chicago gangs were composed of children of European immigrants -- mostly Poles, Italians, and Irish, along with Jews, Slavs, Germans, and Swedes. Yet the functions of gangs for slum youth and the gangs' moral posture seem scarcely different today in what we euphemistically call "the inner city." Now, as then, gangs develop a shared set of moral rules that most middle-class people would find appalling. But, as all of the books under review show, the outlook of the gangs is intelligible in their own social context.

Thrasher belonged to the influential early twentieth-century Chicago school of urban sociology, which held an almost romantic conception of the city. In that vision, modern urban life, while "socially disorganized," also brought novel experience, mystery, comedy, tragedy, and exhilaration as well as despair. Thrasher himself describes the city as a "melodrama" more exciting than the "thrillers'' in the movies. He saw gangs as a component of that vibrant life, primitive democracies that cut through social and racial distinctions. Although no two gangs were alike, Thrasher found they were all formed spontaneously and integrated through rivalry and strife. In time, they evolved singular traditions, internal structures, group solidarity, and awareness, including loyalty, morale, and attachment to a local territory.

The gangs of the 1920s, in Thrasher's view, originated out of the failure of society's "directing and controlling institutions" to provide the boys with wholesome alternatives. He traced the rise of the gangs to the "disintegration" of family life, schools, and religion, as well as to the corruption and indifference of local politicians. The employment opportunities available to these boys usually involved monotonous jobs with low wages that could scarcely compete with the rewards of the gang or with the fun of bonding and stealing. Nor did the "directing" institutions offer the boys much opportunity for "wholesome recreation."

Gangs, for Thrasher and the generations of sociologists who followed his lead, were thus not simply deplorable delinquent and criminal organizations. Formed for perceptible social and economic reasons, they fulfilled comprehensible, even universal, psychological wants. They evolved in describable patterns, met needs, bestowed advantages. Nevertheless, Thrasher was frankly appalled by the disorder and violence that he encountered. He could explain the origins of the stealing and ferocity, but he deplored them all the same and concluded that the gangs were beyond the ordinary controls of police and other agencies. Living the life of a gang member was like surviving on a Hobbesian landscape, in a wild and unpredictable "frontier." Gang youth, he wrote, were "lawless, godless, wild."

Getting Inside Gangs Today
At least in their writing, contemporary sociologists have largely abandoned both the romantic and judgmental vision of cities and gangs. In a sense, they are more faithful to their subject matter than the Thrasher generation, since they know their subjects better and are able to describe the world more accurately from the perspective of the gang member.

The world of the contemporary gang is most comprehensively explored in Martin Sanchez Jankowski's Islands in the Street. (A disclaimer: Sanchez Jankowski is a colleague of mine at Berkeley, and what I have to say here reflects and may be colored by my occasional conversations with him as well as my reading of his work.) Clearly influenced by Thrasher, Sanchez Jankowski improves upon him in at least two important respects. Thrasher learned about the gangs from social workers, court records, personal observation, census data, and personal documents of gang boys and others who had studied gangs. Sanchez Jankowski likewise talked with police, court officials, social workers, and the residents of neighborhoods where gangs prevail. But over a period of ten years he also lived with gangs in Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston. These gangs spanned a rich variety of ethnicities and cultures -- Chicano, Puerto Rican, Central American, Jamaican, and Dominican as well as African-American and Irish gangs. In addition to this wide-ranging, patient, and even dangerous fieldwork, Sanchez Jankowski provides a more complete analytical understanding of gang organization than did Thrasher.

When introduced through the proper intermediaries, gang members will talk with interviewers. But gaining entry to observe is far more difficult. An exceptional ethnographer like Sanchez Jankowski ultimately exploits the social opportunities of the stranger, a role the German sociologist Georg Simmel described as being uncommitted to "the unique ingredients and peculiar tendencies of the group." As a stranger, the ethnographer approaches the members of a group with a paradoxical but useful combination of "distance and nearness, indifference and involvement," not seeking to advance his or her self-interest within the group. Under these circumstances, the group's members may come to appreciate and trust the stranger's objectivity.

Sanchez Jankowski was personally well-suited to gain the trust of gangs. He is a man of unusual warmth and empathy and, although he began his studies in his early thirties, he looked younger. According to his own description, he is "not white" (the Polish segment of his name comes from his adoptive father). He was thus more readily accepted by Latino and African-American gangs than by those who were Asian or white. But to be accepted is only the beginning if one wishes to go beyond interviews and do close observation.

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