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. Participant observation" study of gangs is not like a comparable study of a hospital or corporation. Since gangs are routinely involved in illegal activities, fear of betrayal is high. Thus, even though Sanchez Jankowski is the kind of person whom a gang member might value as a confidant, every gang at first suspected that he was not an objective observer but an undercover cop. When he left the gang at the end of the day, he was followed to see where he went. Once, some gang members believed he had informed on them and beat him up. Most of the gangs tested him to see how well he could fight and whether he had the courage for street combat, a fundamental requirement of gang membership and survival. Since Sanchez Jankowski had grown up in the projects in Detroit and subsequently learned karate, most of the testing left only bruises. He was, he writes, "only seriously injured twice."
Making Sense of Gangs
Despite the danger and excitement accompanying his observational adventures, Islands in the Street is more than a lively, descriptive report. It is also a highly polished sociological analysis and interpretive story of why youngsters join gangs, why gangs accept them, how gangs are organized, and how they relate to the community, law enforcement, and the media.
To understand gangs, Sanchez Jankowski argues, one must first understand that their members differ from their neighborhood fellows. Not all youth seek to join gangs, nor are gangs open to every youngster. Relying on Erich Fromm's concept of "social character," Sanchez Jankowski portrays gang members as especially defiant, competitive individualists -- tough, wary, self-reliant survivors who join gangs because they calculate that joining will improve their income, status, and safety. Thus they resist outside attempts to talk them out of gang membership: "they have already considered that possibility." They are, in Sanchez Jankowski's vision, rational decision makers who are responding to their life conditions. The rational understanding that their strength lies in organization explains how a group of defiant loners can hang together.
The gang is also, in Sanchez Jankowski's vision, a rational calculating organization. It decides on how many members it needs, where to recruit, whom to accept. Joining a gang is rather like joining a business. "The act of becoming a member," Sanchez Jankowski writes, "is a two-way negotiation between the individual representing himself and the individual representing the organization." Gangs possess formal structures, but these vary. Some gangs are organized vertically, with a dear hierarchy of leadership, rank, and obligation. Others are horizontally organized, that is, with several relatively equal decision makers. A third type pretends informality but actually has an observable leader who makes the decisions.
While earlier generations of sociologists saw gangs as relatively loose, incohesive groups, Sanchez Jankowski sees them as far tighter and more purposeful organizations. The two visions may, however, be compatible. In interviews with members of two Los Angeles gangs, Crips and Bloods, I have been told that while hard-core members make the gang's decisions, there are neighborhood youth who wear the colors and identify with the gangs but are really not full-fledged members. The sociologist Lewis Yablonsky once called this wider circle a "near-group." For Sanchez Jankowski these peripheral youngsters are not gang members, nor can they float in and out. In his work, the concept "gang" refers to a discernible and purposeful organization conveying a strong personal identity. That hard core is what Sanchez Jankowski means when he uses the term "gang."
Gangs, he argues, have a "delicate and capricious" relationship with the neighborhoods where they are located. In some Chicano neighborhoods in Los Angeles, children, parents, and even grandparents have belonged to the same gang. Although the adults fear and disapprove of the violence of today's gangs, they take pride in the tradition of gang membership. In my own work with police and gangs over the years, I have found much the same kind of community ambivalence toward gangs. People who live in the projects fear the gangs, but gang members are often the sons and nephews of the very people who fear them. Thousands of Oakland, California, residents turned out for the funeral of Felix Mitchell, the Al Capone of Oakland's drug scene, after he was assassinated by rival inmates while in custody in federal prison. In this respect, as Sanchez Jankowski observes, people in gang neighborhoods may identify with gangs and their "resistance" to the authorities. And gangs sometimes perform a service, by protecting the property and persons of community residents from other gangs. Still, the gangs can be brutal to people in the community who resist them or threaten to turn them in to the police.
For the gangs, it pays to maintain positive relations with neighborhood residents. The community provides a safe haven for gang members against their antagonists, the police, and other gangs. Police find it extraordinarily difficult to infiltrate youth gangs, because recruitment takes place among friends, relatives, and "homeboys" within the neighborhood. Police can persuade some gang members to turn on others after they have been arrested, but rarely, if ever, have I heard of local police introducing an informer into a gang, as the FBI has occasionally succeeded in doing with Mafia families.
Sanchez Jankowski's discussion of the relation of gangs to the government is one of his most interesting and innovative chapters. Thrasher had found that gangs performed small services and campaign tasks for local political bosses in Chicago in the 1920s. Sanchez Jankowski found that gangs and politicians maintained direct contacts only in New York and Boston. Politicians in both cities recognized the community ties of the gangs, while gangs recognized that politicians could do favors for them. Even in Los Angeles, where politicians and gangs were distant from each other and often antagonistic, they maintained an "expedient exchange relationship," with each undertaking activities that met the needs of the other. Just as the private security industry is the economic beneficiary of criminal activity, so does gang activity tend to generate public support for social programs, which are controlled by street-level politicians. Contacts between the gangs and politicians are, however, intermittent, since the public image of gangs is so negative.
Gangs, Drugs, and Violence
The image of gangs has further declined as gangs have become more involved in the drug trade. The relation between gangs and drugs is complex. Chicano gangs in Los Angeles are not primarily involved in selling crack cocaine, but they sell other drugs. Their slight involvement in the crack trade is puzzling since cocaine is grown and processed in Central America and transported through Mexico to New Mexico and Arizona by Spanish-speaking smugglers. Yet it is sold primarily by African-American youth who may or may not be gang members.
Not all gangs sell drugs. The Los Angeles gangs, composed of neighborhood "sets" of Crips and Bloods, do not sell drugs as a gang, nor are they hierarchically organized. But many, if not most, of their members do sell drugs, and gang membership offers several advantages to drug sellers. Gang members are expected to protect other homeboys from police or rival gangs. Members can rely on the gang for physical protection if threatened within or outside gang turf and are better able to control markets within that turf. Involvement in the drug trade, according to interviews that my students conducted this past summer, seems to have eroded the loyalties of gang members to each other and their neighborhood. Nevertheless, gang membership still offers advantages, including access to sources of marketing information, such as who is selling which drugs for what price, and where drugs are available. In illegal markets, where there are no commodity exchanges, marketing information is even more valuable than in legal markets.
For gang members, violence is part of life, but it is not necessarily connected with selling drugs. Sanchez Jankowski finds that much of the aggression is directed at others who challenge the honor or seem to "disrespect" the homeboys. In the assertive and lawless street world where gang members live, as in the international world of nuclear weapons, the appearance of vulnerability may invite aggression; consequently, the maintenance of "respect" is strategically sensible. Others in the community, Sanchez Jankowski says, must understand that you do not fear to retaliate if they step over some imaginary line.
Gang members are, as Sanchez Jankowski emphasizes, defiant individualists and outlaw capitalists. Underground social and economic organizations and individuals cannot call the police when they are robbed, or sue when a contract has been breached. They must defend themselves, and like nations that stock an oversupply of nuclear weapons in the interests of deterrence, gang members need to present an impenetrable exterior to those seen as threatening their status, honor, or economic advantages, especially when they are marketing drugs.
The drug trade is harsh and dangerous, and others in the trade are more threatening than the police, who arrest but do not usually kill or maim. Nor does the drug trade routinely bestow the easy money so often portrayed by the media. Lower-rung dealers do not drive BMWs, wear gold jewelry, and get rich quick. They work round the clock, six or seven days a week, for low wages, often enforced by threat of violence.
The drug business of gangs is vividly described by Terry Williams, a sociologist who spent more than 1,200 hours over a period of five years observing a primarily Dominican drug gang in Washington Heights, the upper Broadway locus of Manhattan's drug scene. Williams's book, The Cocaine Kids, is not nearly as comprehensive or analytically ambitious as Sanchez Jankowski's. But by concentrating on one group of "kids" who are middle-rung dealers, Williams is better able to offer an insider's account of the daily round of life, aspirations, and motivations of drug dealers.
While not denying that the "cocaine kids" are anti-social dealers responsible for death and violence, Williams also portrays them as "struggling young people trying to make a place for themselves in a world few care to understand and many wish would go away." The kids have learned a trade, which involves knowing how to buy cocaine, cook it into crack, sell, and survive. In their world of limited opportunity, the cocaine kids learn that trade not only to make money, but to show their families and friends they can succeed at something.
Vanishing Industrial Work
Blocked opportunity is also the theme of People and Folks, John Hagedorn's study of gangs, crime, and the underclass in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Of the three books, Hagedorn's is the most emphatic and systematic in linking gang development and behavior to the decline of the traditional American industrial base. However bad the economy might have been for the black community in Milwaukee during the 1960s and 1970s, the 1980s were worse. Thirty-five thousand jobs were lost to the Milwaukee area between 1980 and 1985. The unemployment rate for black workers in 1985 was 27.9 percent, the second highest in the nation.
Hagedorn argues that it is important to study gangs locally, and it surely is if one wants to understand the natural history of the local gang, as Thrasher did. But the story of the economic and social deprivations of African-American youth in Milwaukee is depressingly familiar and similar to patterns in many other American cities. Between 1973 and 1986, real earnings of black males declined by 31 percent as the percentage of black males in the work force continued to decline. Nearly a fifth of black men in America have spent time in jail or prison, and minorities populate our jails and prisons far in excess of their percentages in the population. In all of the gang studies reported here, the ganging together of youth is fundamentally a response to social conditions. Male bonding groups and delinquency exist in all communities. But gangs are a correlate of impoverishment, blocked economic opportunity, and social disintegration. As Thrasher's work shows, this pattern is long standing. The distinctive element now is an explosive combination of drugs, advanced weaponry, de facto racial segregation, and severely declining economic opportunity.
As we move from an industrial economy that promised jobs to a broad range of workers, to a post-industrial world that increasingly offers rich rewards to skilled professionals but low-paying service jobs to the least educated, we see an increase in economic inequality as well as in poverty. The Reagan years also have reduced such opportunities as "jobs for youth" and other social programs as alternatives for potential gang kids. Commenting on the decline of factory jobs, Terry Williams said recently in an interview: "Without these options they turn to the illegal world. If there wasn't already an illegal market (in this case, drug dealing) they would have to create one."
The risks of drug dealing, as the RAND study, Money From Crime, finds, are quite high, but drug dealers pass on the costs through high prices. About half of the average drug dealer's earnings can be considered as compensation for "incurring the risk of imprisonment or of... a market-related killing." Whether through stealing or, more likely, selling drugs, young, male, outlaw capitalists have found an alternative economic path.
Capitalism offers few, if any, moral cautions against moderate risk-taking -- a point underscored by the peccadilloes of such presumably exemplary capitalists as Wall Street investment bankers and Sunbelt savings and loan executives. Although the wrongs of the rich do not justify the wrongs of the poor, they send a message of widespread rule breaking. Capitalism needs moral and regulatory institutions, whether religious or secular, to restrain risk takers at every rung of the social ladder.
The criminal law is one of these institutions, but it works effectively only when most of us accept it as a moral force. Most of us do not refrain from killing, robbing, and raping because we expect punishment for crime, but because we believe those acts are morally wrong. In the Hobbesian world of gang enterprise, the criminal law must rely primarily on its capacity to deter through threat of punishment. The threat simply does not work very well. Gang members are young and tough, and risks of arrest and imprisonment are already quite high. Moreover, as the RAND study found, "Death and serious injury resulting from the actions of other participants [in the drug trade] may be more important in determining both who participates and what they earn than are risks imposed by the criminal justice system."
Ganging Up on Each Other
By now, we have become all too familiar with the fact that black-on-black homicide is the leading cause of death of black males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four. How that appalling fact came to be, and what might be done about it, is the theme of John Singleton's film Boyz n the Hood. Although sometimes slow-moving and predictable, the film created by the twenty-three-year-old Singleton is a compelling, profoundly disturbing, yet marginally hopeful vision of life in south Central Los Angeles. Unlike the less interesting, more commercial, and violent film Colors, which portrays gangs with mythic, almost comic-book, caricature, Boyz n the Hood pictures gangs as an ominous, ever-looming homicidal threat to the lives and stability of community residents, but mostly to boys and young men.
For those young men, the gang is an enticing, deadly social force accounting for the stark statistic shown at the beginning of the film: "One out of every 21 black American males will be murdered in their lifetime. Most will have died at the hands of another black male." The neighborhood is portrayed as a zone of violence from which there is no escape. Police helicopters buzz overhead, and the cops themselves are a hapless, insulting, and dangerous enemy.
The plot evolves around the coming of age of three friends. At the heart of the story is Tre (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) whose ambitious, education-seeking mother, Reva Deveraux (Angela Bassett), sends him to live with his father, Furious Styles (Larry Fishburne), a strong yet loving disciplinarian. While Tre has been modeling himself on the defiant and aggressive styles of the gangs, his father is intent upon transforming him into an accomplished, middle-class professional, with concerns for the African-American world of his roots. Tre meets and grows up with two half-brothers, Ricky, played as young man by Morris Chestnut, and Doughboy, acted brilliantly by former N.W.A. rapper Ice Cube.
Each boy represents an aspect of young black manhood. Tre is intelligent and thoughtful, the sort of young man who could attend college but is also susceptible to being lured into the world of the gangs. In the absence of a strong father, Singleton suggests, that is where Tre would go. Ricky has the kind of athletic ability that can provide an avenue out of the ghetto. A marginal student, he is just good enough to meet the minimal requirements for an athletic scholarship. Yet Ricky understands that he may not develop into a star in big-time college football. His half-brother, Doughboy, is a gang member and drug dealer, both a protector and a threat to the neighborhood.
Aside from Ice Cube, the most memorable and compelling character is Ricky and Doughboy's mother, Brenda (Tyra Farrell), a single black woman who has had a life of hard times and good times with men and alcohol. Angry, street smart, and street tough, with a vocabulary that might shock a longshoreman, Brenda nonetheless remains warm, caring, and vulnerable as a mother. Unlike Tre's mother, who has made it out of the ghetto to enter the world of the young, urban professional, Brenda typifies the single black mother struggling to raise young men in the chaos of the gang culture and drug dealing of the neighborhood.
For Singleton, the single black woman is the victim of the sexist, irresponsible, and violent culture of the streets. Doughboy, the gang member, is so sexist he doesn't "get it" when his girlfriend asks him why he calls all women "bitches" and "hos," which is obviously also his opinion of his own mother. At the same time, he and the other male gang members are supremely sensitive to any hint of "disrespect." In the movie as in life, this sensitivity heightens the black male homicide rate.
Yet, as the title suggests, the boys are the products of the 'hood, and the neighborhood is the by-product of the larger society. Instead of offering tangible support to women like Brenda, or even worse, to a teenage crack addict whose baby is neglected, the larger society makes the helicopters and occasional police car its primary and ineffectual response. But the 'hood, as shown by Singleton, is by no means all bad. Outside the constraints of gang membership, the boys are complex and even caring. They are disgusted with a young crack addict mother and show concern for the safety of her baby. They are tied by strong bonds of loyalty to one another and generously support each other's needs and aspirations. Yet the film also shows other young African-American men, much like themselves, who are their rivals, waiting for them to make the slightest insult, the punishment for which is death.
The movie's most positive character is Tre's father, Furious Styles, whose very name combines several strains of confident and assertive black manhood. Only seventeen years older than Tre, Furious is determined to discipline him, to turn him into a stellar and achieving person. When we are introduced to Furious, he is lifting weights, and he owns and knows how to use a gun. Furious understands that the 'hood is a dangerous place. Gangs rule the territory, addicts will rob your house, and the cops will not only fail to protect you but harass you as well. Yet he believes in education, particularly in black culture and history, and in taking responsibility for his son and the future of the black community. He is the role model Singleton represents as the future African-American man.
Despite its portrayal of the dangers of the ghetto, Boyz n the Hood is a movie about hope and choice. Tre and his girlfriend, who fears becoming pregnant, make the right choice and go on to college. Ricky's fate is tragic. He does not grasp how much he has already limited his future by marrying young and having a child now being raised by a teenage mother and Brenda. But it doesn't matter, for he is fated to be a homicide statistic. He and Tre run an errand to a local store where they encounter a gang who believe Ricky has insulted them. They kill Ricky, and when Tre and Doughboy carry Ricky's body home Brenda accuses Doughboy of his death. Later we learn that Ricky had scored high enough on his SAT test to qualify for a college scholarship. Ricky had made the right choice to go to college, but the gang culture denied him the opportunity to carry it out.
In a sense, Doughboy killed Ricky indirectly by drawing him into the world of the gangs and their values of defiance, retaliation, and honor. But Doughboy is also a victim. When they were youngsters, Doughboy tried to protect Ricky from a gang member who had stolen Ricky's football. In return, the bully kicked Doughboy viciously in the stomach, teaching him the lesson of strength. According to Doughboy's code, he feels he must avenge Ricky's death. Tre joins the hunt, defying his father, but then backs out and returns home, aware that he is being sucked into a vortex of violence that will soon be inescapable. We know that Doughboy is doomed. He succeeds in killing his brother's murderers but is later killed in retaliation. And so the mad cycle continues. At the movie's end, Tre leaves the 'hood to attend an African-American college.
The Post-Industrial Ghetto
The movie's message of limited choice is similar to the conclusions of the gang researchers. The only escape from the 'hood, from a life of gang activity, drug dealing, stealing, and retaliatory violence is self-help and higher education. Nowhere does the possibility of industrial or craft labor appear relevant to Singleton. Unlike the social realist movies of the 1930s that called for labor unions and the unity of factory workers, this equally social realist movie does not even make a glancing reference to the world of industrial work. Yet the absence of that kind of work means the loss of opportunity and personal discipline. This is no criticism of Singleton; it is the world where this remarkable young filmmaker grew up. The economic and social scene he presents is lamentably accurate. A few will make it to the top through higher education. The rest are consigned to low-paid service work, welfare, or early destruction through drugs or homicide.
Like the gangs it produces, the 'hood is a product partly of racism, but more fundamentally of a post-industrial world of limited choice. The children of the immigrant gangs of the 1920s usually left the gang as they matured. The classical "juvenile delinquent" was said to "mature out" as he grew older. As modern gang members mature, there are fewer economic alternatives. Gang members, as the books under review show, are growing older.
So long as the federal government fails to provide alternatives, either by furnishing real jobs rebuilding America's infrastructure or by paying ghetto youngsters to attend school, as we did with World War II veterans, the 'hood portrayed by Singleton will tragically flourish. Our present policies of warring on drugs and crime may supply a limited number of jobs to minorities as cops and correctional officers, but they do nothing to advance the quality of life and the opportunities of young, poorly educated men. We need imagination and commitment to broaden their range of choice.
The more thoughtful cops I know understand that gangs, drugs, and crime are ultimately a national social problem. "If I had to blame one sole source for gangs spreading across the country, if s the inaction of the Federal Government," Sergeant Wes McBride of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department told The New York Times not long ago. "We need schools, social programs and enhanced law enforcement," he added, "but that costs big bucks, so politicians hate to address the issue." Unfortunately, he's right.