The Gang as an American Enterprise, by Felix M. Padilla, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 198 pages, $14.00
Going Down to the Barrio, by Joan W. Moore, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 156 pages, $14.95
Do or Die, by Leon Bing, New York: Harper Perennial, 277 pages, $10.00
Islands in the Street: Gangs and American Urban Society, by Martin Sanchez Jankowski, Berkeley: University of California Press, 324 pages, $13.00
The literature of gangs occupies a unique place in American academia. Since the 1950s, literally dozens of books have been written on this topic. All of them pretend to be saying something new, and all repeat the same thing.
The model was set by Thomas Merton, the American sociologist who wrote in the 1940s. Merton premised that every society offers a basic set of goals and values to the individual. Each individual then responds through one of five different pathways: conformity, creativity, withdrawal, resistance, or rebellion. Merton hypothesized that those who inherit the basic tools to deal with society usually respond through the first two, while those who are handicapped or excluded by society respond through the latter three.
In 1963, Richard Coward and Lloyd Ohlin published a slim volume called Delinquency and Opportunity, which still stands as the fundamental text of the academic approach to gangs. Without presenting a shred of evidence or firsthand information, Coward and Ohlin posited that what was then called "juvenile delinquency" was a perfectly rational and justifiable response to the lack of opportunity afforded to low-income groups in American society. Low-income groups, they argued, shared the American desire for wealth, power, and prestige. But the traditional routes for advancement—education, good jobs—were not available to them. Therefore they turned to gangs and crime, both as a protest against their deprived condition and as an alternate route to success.
American sociology has barely changed since. After a relative lull in the 1970s and '80s, the recent emergence of murderously violent gangs, particularly in Los Angeles, has once again brought the subject to the fore. Yet while the gangs of today are noticeably different—they are far more violent—the literature remains the same. "Opportunity theory" prevails.
There is, of course, some truth to this approach. Gangs are unquestionably concentrated in lower-class neighborhoods. Gang members do indeed act in a kind of "protest," defying authority, hassling the police, irritating neighbors, committing crimes, and so forth. They also enjoy some success: Gangs are often the locus of auto-theft rings or street-corner drug dealerships. Gang members who do well may eventually be recruited by the Mafia or other ethnic organizations that control the drug trade.
The problem with opportunity theory is that it's so passive and nonjudgmental that it quickly becomes an apology for gang activities. The secret admiration of the book-bound intellectual for the rough, tough "existential hero" of the street gang filters through in page after page of gang literature.
Yet is this all there is to say? The perennial conclusion of gang books is that "we" should give "them" more "opportunity." There is never any explanation of how "we" got to be so successful in the first place. Are middle-class people successful simply because they are more expert at robbing and exploiting other people, as gang lore explains it? Are the police really "just another gang, except they've got uniforms"? Or are there perhaps some behavioral consequences that make this bland "middle-class" temperament a route to success, while the "defiant individualism" of the gang member remains a prescription for failure?
Felix Padilla's The Gang as an American Enterprise does little to address these questions. Based on a six-year study of Chicago Hispanic gangs, Padilla's thesis is revealed in his title: Gang activity is just as American as apple pie. "The story told in these pages," writes Padilla, "is about a group of young men and their struggles against a system of domination whose function, they believe, is to keep them at the very bottom of society. There young people joined the gang in pursuit of economic advantages."
Following the lead of sociologist William Julius Wilson, Padilla argues that the "loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs in central cities…, which once constituted the economic backbone of these cities and served as the springboard for opportunities among the working class," has led these young people to join gangs. Yet these were the very same "dead-end jobs" that supposedly caused the last generation of young people to join gangs in the 1950s.
Fortunately, Padilla, like most contemporary researchers, has done a lot of legwork and gives us plenty of direct quotes that undercut his theory. Here is the way one young informant explains why he joined a gang: "We were just tired of factory jobs. We were supposed to go to school and receive an education. For what? To be employed in factory jobs? We were tired of that. At the same time we were watching these other guys making a lot of money [in crime], so we said, 'Hey, let's follow these guys. Let's do what they were doing.'"
Or as another young hoodlum puts it: "The gang seemed to control the things I wanted. I was kind of a dork when I was in elementary school. I was really into my studies, and I didn't get involved in any stuff that the gang was doing. But then I began to see that they had the girls, that people listened to them, and stuff like that….And even though my parents and older brothers were always telling me to stay away from those guys, I kind of admired what they stood for and the way people used to like them."
Padilla is also willing to admit that the gang ends up treating its recruits no better than the larger society does. Enlisted into the drug trade as street-corner dealers, gang members find themselves working at barely the minimum wage. When they are arrested, their "main men" post bond for them but then force them to pay it back through a series of payroll deductions. Most street dealers end up "owing their soul to the company store," just as if they were working for the most exploitative employer. As Padilla sadly concludes: "Instead of functioning as a progressive and liberating agent capable of transforming and correcting the youngsters' economic plight, the gang assisted in reinforcing it."
Writing about Los Angeles in Going Down to the Barrio, Joan Moore also looks for a positive side to urban gangs. Among Mexicans, she notes, gangs have long played an important social role in the community. Harking back to the "Zoot suit" riots of World War II (when Navy recruits about to be shipped to the Pacific took offense at Mexican youth parading around Chavez Ravine in fancy clothes), Moore makes the predictable complaint that the media never get exercised about gangs until the violence spills over into the larger society. She also takes offense that Hispanic gangs are often confused with black gangs, which are far more violent. She concentrates on showing how Hispanic gangs are "significant agents of socialization for a small fraction of youth in these neighborhoods."
Moore's major effort is to include young women in her study. This results mainly in a tendentious insistence that girls can be just as tough as boys. But she does come up with some nuggets.
For example, Moore's research repeatedly confirms that marriage is the way out of gang life. "You know what helped me a lot?" says one ex-member who married at 22. "My wife. I still wanted to get high and everything. But my wife. You know how they are when you first get married. They don't want you to be the same. And I married a pretty decent girl. She was pretty well off. More than we are. [And she kept you from getting in…]—trouble and all that." (Brackets in original.)
Women who abandoned the gang usually followed the same route. Moore feels her research underestimated the number of former girl gang members, since as mature women they were reluctant to talk about their "wild past." But the pattern is the same. Marriage and child rearing usually meant giving up the gang (although single motherhood often meant going back to "the life" with a vengeance).
If academia seems stuck in the same rut of offering weak justifications for gangs and youth crime, journalism does not have the same privilege. That is why Leon Bing's Do or Die is such an extraordinary contrast to the verbal conundrums of sociology. With a minimum of interpretation, Bing, a reporter for Harper's, presents a lengthy series of interviews with members of the Crips and the Bloods, the two black gang empires that have splashed their blood all over Los Angeles. Bing's lean style and unobtrusive reporting are so charged with tragic overtones that they hardly need further comment:
"Gloria…took a snapshot from her wallet and handed it to me: a pair of twelve-year-old boys in freshly washed blue-and-white baseball uniforms stand grinning into the camera. Behind them, across a patch of grass, the brick wall of a school building is splashed with gang graffiti. Gloria pointed to her son, a chunky, dimpled kid. The boy standing next to him was his best friend, she told me. That boy went into the Crips; Gloria's son became a Blood. Both boys were dead before they made sixteen."
Without any academic overlay, Bing presents the Homeric lives of black teenagers who cannot imagine anything outside their Beirut-like neighborhoods. Here are Sidewinder and Bopete, two 14-year-olds, a Crip and a Blood, as they chat in a California youth detention center:
"[Bopete:] 'Sometimes I think about not goin' back to bangin' when I get outta here. I play in sports a lot here, and I….'
"Sidewinder's laugh interrupts. 'Sound like a regular ol' teenager, don't he? I sound like that, too, after the drive-by. I got shot twice in the leg, 'cause they was shootin' at the car, and when that happen I didn't want to 'bang no more, either. Makin' promises to God, all like that. But when it heal up….' He is silent for a moment; maybe he's thinking about a freedom he won't taste for a while. Then, 'I tell you somethin'—I don't feel connected to any other kids in this city or in this country or in this world. I only feel comfortable in my 'hood. That's the only thing I'm connected to, that's my family. One big family—that's about it.'
"'In my 'hood, in the Jungle, it ain't like a gang. It's more like a nation, everybody all together as one. Other kids, as long as they ain't my enemies, I can be cool with 'em.' Bopete lapses into silence. 'I'll tell you, though—if I didn't have no worst enemy to fight with, I'd probably find somebody.'
"'Ye-eeeeeeeeh.' Sidewinder picks it up. 'I'd find somebody. 'Cause if they ain't nobody to fight, it ain't no life. I don't know…it ain't no….'
"'It ain't no fun.'
"'Yeah! Ain't no fun just sittin' there. Anybody can just sit around, just drink, smoke a little Thai. But that ain't fun like shootin' guns and stabbin' people. That's fun.'"
As Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block puts it in a wind-up interview: "What scares me more than anything else is not merely the level of violence, but the level of tolerance for violence….We have only one next generation at a time."
Journalism is not the only source of useful observations about gangs. Some scholars manage to break through the conventions of sociology. Consider Islands in the Street, which emerges as a truly original effort in the literature of gangs. Martin Sanchez Jankowski, chair of the Chicano/Latino project at the University of California at Berkeley, still has many of the old academic habits. He is vaguely sympathetic toward gangs and all too willing to justify their actions. (After 10 years of hanging around gangs, car theft probably seems no more controversial than brushing your teeth.) Yet Jankowski, in the true spirit of scholarship, is willing to follow his observations to the point where the old molds break down. The result is a totally new perspective.
To put it simply, Jankowski finds it much more fruitful to think of gangs in the context of politics than in the context of crime. Gangs carry on a very taut, intense dance with their communities. Sometimes they are resented for the drugs and violence they bring. But just as often, they are looked upon as neighborhood heroes, particularly when they drive out some alien force, which they often do. When gangs become wholly predatory and murderous, as they have in black Los Angeles, it may not be so much a function of gangs as an indication that the neighborhood itself is breaking down.
Jankowski begins with an eminently sensible observation. Gang members, he says, are not the romantic rebels or existential heroes that intellectuals are always discovering. "There have been some studies of gangs that suggest that many gang members have tough exteriors but are insecure on the inside," he notes. "This is a mistaken observation."
Instead, gang members generally embody what he calls "defiant individualism." They are wedded to the physical side of life, often fighting simply to test their own mettle and toughen themselves. (Jankowski himself was beaten twice during his sojourn.) Gang members are intensely competitive, generally mistrustful, extremely self-reliant, and ostentatiously defiant; they have a social-Darwinian view of the world that leaves them in isolation. Generally, they believe the world is a vicious place run on the same principles they find in themselves.
Once formed, however, gangs are very careful to assess their place in the community. In particular, they are cautious not to commit petty crimes—robbery, burglary, auto theft—among the people they know. Instead, they judiciously export their crimes. Within their own neighborhoods, they specialize in services of a strong-arm variety. Gangs will torch buildings for landlords, carry out contracts against undesirables, offer "protection" to storeowners, and run small gambling rackets (when not yet into dope dealing).
As Jankowski puts it, they are the "neighborhood militia." They protect local residents from outside criminals (many Mafia neighborhoods are extremely safe from street crime) and generally defend against what they perceive to be alien forces. Jankowski recounts the story of one Boston gang that repulsed gentrification by vandalizing a condominium building that was going up on the block.
This is why gangs always have some support within their communities—and why the police often find themselves frustrated, even hated, when they try to "crack down." As one 52-year-old New York housewife put it: "I think the police don't like them because they are jealous that the gangs do a better job of protecting us than they do."
It is not surprising, then, to find that gangs eventually reach up into politics. Of the 37 gangs Jankowski studied over 10 years, every single one had established some kind of relationship with local politicians. These contacts, always extremely circumspect, generally involved "get-out-the-vote" efforts. The reward was money or participation in public programs, plus an occasional dubious promise to call off the police for a while.
So the conclusions of many sociologists are generally correct—with some important disclaimers. Gangs do indeed play a role as alternative socializing institutions. They appeal to those least likely to succeed, even within their own neighborhoods—people of a basically antisocial nature who operate on the principle that might makes right. Although they maintain an uneasy peace with their community—and are often looked to for help—the gang is essentially a dead end. Very few graduate into organized crime. Most eventually stumble into family life, although some never give up gang life and become dissolute.
Only in black neighborhoods have gangs turned in upon themselves, compressing the emotions and ambitions of a lifetime into one brief, furious adolescence. The awesome, death-dealing psyches of the 14-year-olds in Do or Die are not necessarily the product of gangs. They are more an indication that adult life itself is breaking down in these communities.
Contributing Editor William Tucker is a writer in New York City and author of Vigilante: The Backlash Against Crime in America.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Hangin’ with the Homeboys".