Youth Gangs Research Paper

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1.    Introduction

Youth gangs have been a part of the American culture since  the  eighteenth   century  (Sante  1991,  Sheldon 1898). Gangs  are diverse in American  society; not all gangs  are  the  same.  Traditionally, researchers  have identified poverty  as a common  bond  between members of youth gangs (Miller 1958, Cohen 1960, Moore 1978, Taylor  1989, Curry  and  Spergel 1992). Many gangs today are still largely populated by young people from inner city neighborhoods, characterized by high unemployment, high educational dropout rates, and a general  feeling  of  hopelessness.  Yet,  today,  not  all gangs  share   an  impoverished   background. Youth gangs are springing up in affluent suburbs and in rural areas (Goldstein and Soriano 1994, Spergel and Curry 1993, Evans et al. 1999). At the start of the twenty-first century,   many  traditional  views  about   what   constitutes  a gang are still prevalent.  Defining gangs has been, and continues to be, a problem in the USA. The practice  of defining  a gang  has  become  highly  subjective,  ranging   from  disorganized   noncriminal to highly   organized    criminal    organizations   (Taylor 1989). This diversity continues to be debated  by professionals  in social work,  law enforcement,  education,  and community  organizations.

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The following sections include discussions on the difficulty of defining youth gangs (see Sect. 2), as well as covering  the diverse ethnic  membership  of youth gangs in America  (see Sect. 3). Myths  of gangs and gang members are discussed because society tends to view gangs from a myth-based perspective. In order to understand the problem,  define the problem,  and prevent  the  problem   of  gangs,  a  reality-based   approach  must be found (see Sect. 5). These discussions rely on available gang studies for a broader perspective of the gang problem in the USA today. Following the conclusion,  an extensive reference list is provided  to assist with further  review of the topic.

2.    Defining Gang

Historically,   defining   the   term   gang  has   been   a problem in the USA. Early definitions did not focus on criminal activity, but rather  on delinquent  behaviors. Consensus  of definition  does not  exist today.  Many researchers  have created  their  own versions  of what constitutes   a  gang  (Klein  1968,  Huff  1989,  Taylor 1990, Monti  1993). In  fact,  every organization that comes in contact with gangs has created an operational definition  of the term to suit its own needs. Although law enforcement’s focus, understandably, is on gangs that are breaking  the laws and mores of society, there isn’t one definition for all jurisdictions to follow (Cromwell et al. 1992).

Neighborhoods,  families,  and   communities   also come in contact  with gangs and  must  find a way to define existing groups. Groups  of youth in many communities across America may appear similar to gangs, yet they have no criminal  past or future.  One researcher  called these types  of groups  adjunct,  advocated  political groups,  and underscored that  often they comprise productive young citizens of a particular community  (Taylor  1993).

Gangs vary by membership and activity. Generally, researchers  agree  that  there  are  different  degrees of gang  involvement   and  activity  (Fagan   1989,  Huff 1990, Taylor 1990). Although some young gang members earn a living through drug trafficking, illegal weapons  sales,  and  other  criminal  activities,  others join gangs for noncriminal reasons.  For  example,  a young  person  may join a neighborhood gang to get protection in their neighborhood; another  may join to gain respect they would otherwise not receive at home or in the community;  and still others may join for the camaraderie. Whatever the reason, gang members are as diverse as the gangs themselves.

What  constitutes  a gang  to  some  communities  is clearly not always tied to criminal behavior. Some will choose   to   define  gangs   by  categorizing   them   as organized or unorganized criminal groups. Yet others will be swayed by images that  are often fictional (see Sect. 4).

3.    Overview Of US Youth Gang History

The earliest record  of youth  gangs in the USA  may have been as early as the eighteenth century, at the end of  the  American  Revolution in  1783 (Sante  1991). Some of these gangs were known as Smith’s Vly gang, the Bowery Boys, the Broadway  Boys, and the Long Bridge Boys (Osman 1992). These gang members were not   necessarily   criminals   who   committed   violent crimes, although they did fight with rivals.

Redfield (1941) believed the first gangs in the USA migrated  from Mexico in the nineteenth  century after the Mexican  Revolution in 1813. It was around this time that  the first criminal gangs were formed. These were youth gangs involved in criminal activity, due in part to the economic situation and the increase in population in urban  areas.

The Irish immigrants were the first to form criminal gangs in New York City in the 1820s. The 1850s saw an increase in gang membership as urban government corruption was rampant. During  the early years after the civil war ended, migration  patterns  increased for industrial   centers   like  New   York,   Chicago,   and Detroit. The Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants who came were impoverished  and formed gangs based on ethnicity. It was also at this time that drugs were introduced to gang life.

The early part of the twentieth century was dominated by economic turmoil. Due to the increase in population of the urban  areas and  the decline in the economy,  the  gap  between  the  rich and  poor  grew. According to Thrasher  (1927), there were 1,313 gangs in Chicago  in the 1920s. Many  of these were ethnic gangs. The increase in the number  of immigrants  in urban  areas  continued   throughout this  century.  In particular in the early 1940s large numbers  of Puerto Ricans entered New York City. This fact, along with a growing   African-American  population   from   the south,  contributed to the large minority  populations in northern cities.  While  Irish,  Italian,  Jewish,  and other  Eastern  European ethnic  groups  were  establishing their communities, Puerto Ricans and African-Americans,  including  strong  pockets  of black  West Indians, became a strong presence. Racial conflict was clear in northern big cities such as Detroit, Michigan, where one of the worst race riots in American  history took  place  in  1943.  Groups   of  white  youth  gangs roamed the city attacking  black citizens (Shelden et al. 1997). Around the same time in Los Angeles, the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 were underway. In these riots, white residents  and  visiting soldiers  harassed  and  beat  up young Chicano  men who dressed in the popular zoot suit style of clothing (Moore 1978, Shelden et al. 1997).

Following   World   War   II,   gangs  became   more organized.  As the population in ethnic ghetto  neighborhoods shifted  from  largely  Eastern  European  in the early 1950s toward  African-American and Latino in the 1960s and 1970s, so did the ethnicity of gangs in those  areas.  Weapons,   illicit  narcotics,   and  sexual encounters  came with delinquent  and  criminal  street youth  gangs  in  the  1950s and  1960s.  Urban   cities experienced  poverty,  crime,  and  inferior  education. Some researchers  contend  that  young people, undereducated  and  without  access to  good  jobs,  become frustrated  with  their   lives  and   join  gangs  as  an alternative   to  boredom,  hopelessness,  and  poverty (Shaw and  McKay  1942, Cloward  and  Ohlin  1960, Taylor 1990). Today, the composition  of youth gangs is changing  with the onset  of affluent  suburban and rural youth gangs (Korem  1994, Evans et al. 1999).

During  the 1960s, the connection  between criminal gangs and youth  gangs varied from neighborhood to neighborhood, and city to city. Female gangs evolved from  male gangs in some of these cities. The media focused on youth culture and its music, dancing,  and desire to have its own identity.  Youth  culture defines itself within the context of hip hop, grunge, and other youth experiences and expressions. Many times gangs were  blamed   for  anything   negative  or  delinquent (Miller 1975). The issue of social class is underscored by how some communities responded  to the challenge of gangs. Many  middle class communities  supported recreational programs for youth.  Unfortunately, the concept of positive youth development only applied to the middle class youth  in suburbia.  Inner city youths were  not  included  in  positive  youth   development, instead   youth   detention   was  used  to  regain   and maintain  social control.

The Watts Riots of 1965 did for African-American gangs what  the Zoot  Suit Riots  did for the Chicano gangs  in 1943. Basically,  the  outcome  was that  the media began to portray the youths in a negative light, and  the  youths  began  to  see themselves  differently. They chose to see themselves as defiant  rather  than defeated, and to ‘redefine exclusion as exclusivity’ (Shelden et al. 1997).

For  the most part,  the 1960s saw a decline in gang violence. By the early 1970s, they were back  on the front  page. At this time, drug use in gangs began to decrease while the use of violence began to increase. The gangs of the 1970s, with greater use of guns, were more lethal in their encounters than previously (Horowitz  and  Schwartz  1974, Taylor  1989). By the 1980s, the urban ghettos became overcrowded and the youth  gangs  transformed themselves  into  entrepreneurial organizations with the crack cocaine epidemic of  that   decade   (Sanchez-Jankowski  1991,  Taylor 1989).

The youth  gang problem  in the USA today  affects communities  of all sizes. Although youth  gangs  are more prevalent in urban areas like Detroit, New York, Chicago,  and Los Angeles, they can also be found in affluent suburban and rural areas (Korem 1994, Evans et al. 1999). According  to the 1996 National Youth Gang    Survey,   approximately   31,000   gangs   and 846,000 gang members were active in the USA in that year. The survey respondents reported  that, especially in rural areas, the gang problem  began to effect them in 1994. This study also found that the proportion of Caucasian  gang members was especially high in rural areas.

In looking at youth gangs, it is imperative to include not only those in urban centers, but also those in suburban and  rural  communities.  Gang  membership today is no longer exclusive to school drop-outs from impoverished,  overpopulated urban  areas. It can also include affluent middle-class suburban youths and youths from underpopulated rural areas.

While  it  is easy  to  see the  daily  newscast  about Latino   and  African-American gangs,  the  gangs  of skinheads   and  White  Supremacist   are  not  always defined as gangs. Remembering the diversity of gangs, including  youth  gangs,  is important. Highly  structured,  corporate gangs  can  be found  all around the country;  but not all gangs are corporate-style gangs, some are loosely held organizations, having virtually no leadership (Taylor  1990).

The idea of defining the term gang is good in theory. The problem is in gaining consensus among the organizations and  communities  that  are  effected by youth gangs. Today, gangs are identified based on the needs of the organization that  comes in contact  with them.  Whether  a highly  organized  criminal  corporation  or  a  loose-knit   group  of  friends  that  comes together   for  camaraderie  rather   than   criminal  activities, gangs are too diverse for one definition. Whatever the definition of choice, in defining gangs it is paramount that  the  distinction  is made  between criminal and noncriminal gangs. Juvenile youth gangs could  be  considered  delinquent  depending  on  how their respective communities  view delinquency. However, criminal  behavior  is not  automatically part  of youth  gangs.  Some  researchers  have  promoted the notion  that  all gangs are criminal.  One of the shortcomings of literature  on gangs is the focus on criminality.  Delinquency,  continued  lifetime criminal behavior,   is  well  documented  in  many   academic studies.  Yet, there  is little if any attention on youth gangs, gangs, or gang members involved in noncriminal activities. This lack of focus does not conclude there are no other gang types; it does, however, point to  the  posturing and  approach of  how  society  has viewed youth gangs in America.

4.    Role Of The Media And Cinema

The debate  about  what  constitutes  a gang has been underscored by the portrayal of gangs and gangsters in the media and cinema. Entertainment has become big business  as an  industry  that  promotes  and  sells gangsters, action heroes, and violence.

The media  has been developing  a bio-sketch  of a gang member  since the Zoot  Suit Riots  of 1943 and using it to keep fear of diversity in the minds of all who are willing to be taken  in. The Watts  Riots  of 1965 gave the media more ammunition for its exaggerated view of a gangster.  Thanks  to their  portrayal, many people today believe that a gang member is a Latino or African-American illiterate youth,  who comes from a female-headed  household, in an impoverished  urban area.  The suburban gangster  is not  seen as a threat because he has been portrayed as a literate youth who comes from an intact family with Christian family values,  from  an  affluent   community.   Given  these choices, who would you be afraid  of?

American cinema has a long history of gangster movies. From  ‘West Side Story’ to the more hardcore portrayal  of  criminal   street   gangsters   today,   the cinema has literally been a training  ground  for gang wannabes.  Classic  movies  such  as  ‘The  Godfather’ give an excellent example  of Thrasher’s  (1927) evolution of street gangs, rising from neighborhood playgroups and evolving into successful criminal street gangs.  From  the  portrayal of  rebelling  youth  (i.e., ‘Rebel Without  A Cause,’ Blackboard Jungle,’ ‘Wild Ones’…), to star-crossed  love (i.e., ‘West Side Story’), and   the  hardcore   reality  of  street  gangsters   (i.e., ‘Menace II Society,’ ‘187,’ ‘Heat,’ ‘Boyz in the Hood’), the  youth  of America  did  not  have  to  look  far  for gangster role models.

Society, and  in particular some media  forces,  has been ready to assign responsibility for brutal acts exclusively to so-called vicious gangs. But the reality is that gang members run the spectrum of angels to demons.  According  to the Bureau  of Justice, only 10 percent of gang members are hardcore,  violent members.  Researchers  have found  that  most  are  peripherally involved in violence; more  important, there  is evidence to show that only a small percentage of gang members are responsible  for the violence.

5.    Gang Myths

In  order  to  gauge  properly  the  gang  influence  in a community,  gang myths must be addressed and dispelled. Although there are many myths in existence today,  the following are a selection that  tend to crop up in research (Goldstein and Huff 1993, Taylor 1990, 1993).

Myth 1: All street gangs are turf oriented.

Reality  1: There  are  gangs  that  claim ownership  to a  particular  territory,  but   this  is  not   the   exclusive  reason   for  gang  membership.   Others   include Scavenger gangs (loose-knit,  immoral,  noncriminal), Commercial  gangs  (focused  on  material  gain),  and Corporate gangs  (well organized,  highly  structured, focused on financial gain by criminal action).

Myth 2: Females are not allowed to join gangs.

Reality   2:  Females   are   joining   gangs   in   record numbers.    One   female   gang   supported   research, showed females in autonomous gangs involved in organized  criminal activities.

Myth 3: There are no gangs in my neighborhood.

Reality  3:  Today,   no  neighborhood,  regardless  of economic  status,   is  immune  to  gang  membership. Gangs can be found in rural areas, suburban areas, as well as urban  areas.

Myth   4:  Gang   members   wear  baggy  clothes  and athletic team baseball hats.

Reality   4:  Baggy  clothing   has  become   the  ‘cool’ style of dress and not a uniform that all gang members wear.

Myth  5: All gangs  have  a single leader  and  a tight structure.

Reality   5:  Some   gangs   are   loosely   held   organizations, having virtually no leadership.

Myth 6: Gangs are a law-enforcement  problem.

Reality 6: Gangs  are a problem  for every member of society including parents,  teachers,  and police.

Myth 7: I know a gang member when I see one.

Reality  7: This statement opens  the door  to racism. Using  traditional ideas  of  gang  membership  would mean that only Latino  and African-American youths would be targeted.  It is important to remember  that youth  gang  members  are  diverse  in  color,  style  of dress, activities, and background.

6.    Conclusion

Historically,  youth  gangs began as a group  of young people coming together with a common bond. Today, ethnicity seems to be the bond that is focused on by the media,   the  cinema,   and   society.  The  youth   gang problem continues to grow in the USA. It is no longer an  urban  issue, as shown  by the  current  and  rapid onset of suburban and rural gangs. The gang structure is also changing, with gangs of different sizes engaged in activities ranging from non-criminal to criminal. At the start  of the twenty-first  century,  society needs to define the term gang, taking into account the facts that there are different  types of gangs ranging  from noncriminal to criminal; loosely knit to highly structured; coming from diverse ethnic backgrounds; experiencing different reasons for joining, as well as choice of activities pursued. Youth gangs should be studied and defined by the behavior  that is associated  with gangs. As difficult as it will be to come to one definition of the term gang, some consensus must be reached if there is any  hope  of  identifying  specific prevention   and  intervention  programs.


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