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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.
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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