The Subculture of Gangs - Why do They Abound? Cultural Capital, Camaraderie and Conformity.
It's a New Jack nation.
Why? What can we do about it?
Gang membership has become such a standard of course in America as to have been glorified in popular culture mediums from film to music, magazines and even fashion.
This article will examine exactly what the attraction of the gangland lifestyle is.
The examination will illustrate that regardless of the gang in question, the factors that suck our youth in like a rabid vortex remain constant from biker gangs to urban street gangs and others.
While examining enticements, we will also cover social pressures and negative stimuli applied to individuals in a covert effort to get them into gangs.
Is it cool or is it a message?
Why is gang membership growing at such alarming rates?
Why do you think the majority of youth join gangs.See results without voting
To understand the allure of gangs, we must first understand the types of potential members.
Gangs love to start recruiting soldiers young. Yes. I do mean soldiers.
Successful gangs are run simularly to military operations, large corporations even. What many consider all violence and crime has a good bit of thought and power behind it.
To really check it out, we need to understand that potential recruits fall into one of two basic categories. There are those guys and gals that want to get into the gang. Secondly, there are those that don't.
We must further understand that not all gang entrants have a choice.
Since gangs have been around, steadily growing in America for decades now, there is a significant number of members that are what is called "blessed in."
Basically, this means their parents had them initiated at birth or shortly thereafter. Many of these kids are marked and none have any choice in the matter at all.
What do I mean by marked?
These poor children are tattooed at birth or as very young kids.
Not until reaching adult status, if they survive that long and want to, can they have it removed.
Removal often comes with peril of death.
This is the art American children are exposed to most.
The kids are getting it, both those who join and those who don't.
Out of the mouths of babes.
The young man in the video above is a high school student. He points out how administrative policies and prejudices about gangs, justified or not, are hurting all students.
He further points out that in what is most likely a very typical American high school, two of his classmates are now dead due to local gang activity.
What makes me qualified to address this serious topic?
You won't find too many references floating around here but I am uniquely qualified to examine this issue.
First, as a behavioral science major with multiple degrees, I studied the topic extensively and did many a research project, statistical analysis and wrote more papers on the topic than you can imagine.
Do I agree with all the theories spouted by the textbooks?
Not really, though I will be using one theory that nails the heart of the matter. More to come on that in a bit.
More importantly, I have way too much real time field experience dealing with gang members.
I taught for 11 years in a Title 1 high school. Basically, that means more than half our students were dirt poor. Gang members outnumbered non gang members.
As a several year member of our school's crisis team, every time there was a serious behavior blowout, I was one of three people that got called out of class to deal with it. I've seen more gang violence than I want to remember.
During that time, I saw up close and personal just what the gang lifestyle is doing to many a kid as young as 14 and as old as 22.
I saw it through the eyes of the parents, the educational profession, the criminal justice system and society at large.
It's really not working out well for anyone, save those at the top. I met a few of them too. Smooth and scary are the words.
Lastly, when I first began my college career, I paid for it by bar-tending at a biker bar. I've partied with them, been friends with them, saw them at their best and at their worst.
Years later, it always struck me how similar the social dynamics are within motorcycle gangs and youth street gangs.
Gangs in Schools by Captain Mike Rudinski of the Hyattsville, Maryland Police Department
How many gang members are there in America?
While this question may seem pretty straight forward, actually, it's complex. First, we must consider how a gang is defined. That definition determines who gets counted and who does not.
Different studies provide different numbers as per usual in any such social aggregating endeavor. Further mud is added to the waters when one considers that some studies look only at street gangs, others at biker gangs, prison gangs, all types and kinds may or may not be included in the figures.
So, basically we don't have accurate information to start with but let's check out what's available.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
1.4 million members
ABC News report
600 thousand members
Helping Gang Youth
1 million members
In your face or in the woodwork?
What percentage of your local school's student body population do you think is involved in gang activity?See results without voting
Basically, it's a boatload of people. The number of gang members in America is larger than some nation's armies.
No matter what figures your going with, there's no arguing the fact that we are talking about a ton of young people here.
It's not just the young. Never forget, gangs have grown over the years not just in numbers, but also in sophistication. The folks at the top for most of the larger gangs be it street, biker or prison are adults. Kids are just the pawns, the soldiers for the most part.
Is that to say no kids run gangs? Not at all. For many local street gangs, minors are running the show. While we might like to think this makes them less dangerous, perhaps more easily reached, don't bet on it. Many of these so called kids are murderers, flat out.
When did this happen?
By the very definition of the word gang, they have been around a lot longer than they have been getting media play.
There were gangs of youths perpetrating crimes on the streets of New York back in the early 1900s.
In America, numbers have been blowing up since the sixties.
Interestingly, we can see the same escalation in several other numbers too, like divorce rates, women working outside the home, a declining belief in God and a decline in literacy among American youth.
So, what's the pull? Why are so many people joining gangs?
There exists three broad reasons that cover why people join gangs, young and old, male and female.
The three reasons we will examine apply to both groups of potential members, those that want in those who do not.
- Cultural capitol
The first reason is one of cultural capitol. This is a theory developed almost 20 years ago by Phillippe Bourgois in his book, In Search of Respect - Selling Crack in El Barrio. Next, the last two reasons are much less textbook based, yet still applicable. They are camaraderie and conformity.
While it sounds a bit broad to really explain the phenomenon, it isn't. The big three here really fit the bill.
Let's look at this.
Money isn't the only thing that spends or buys.
What part of the country you're in determines how stupid you sound.
That saying is loosely paraphrased from the movie Smokey and the Bandit. What the character meant when he said it holds true to this day.
Different things have various meanings in other places, social settings and groups.
For instance, when a parent says something is bad, they mean it in a negative, don't do it kind of way. Often, when a teen says something is bad, they mean it's really cool.
The word fag in Europe means cigarette. In America, the same word is a derogatory and inflammatory word.
Coming from one environment and having to use the term in another without knowledge of the difference usually ends up making one look bad. In some cases, it even leads to violence.
First up, people join gangs because of cultural capitol.
Huh? What the heck is cultural capitol?
It's a very easy concept. Let's skip the over done text book definitions and jump to the essence of this idea.
Cultural capitol is exactly what it sounds like. It's capitol, a form of currency.
In this case, instead of money, it's the knowledge of how to interact, what's expected, how to succeed and have power within any given culture. Such knowledge includes all things ranging from language to fashion, morals to work ethics and even how work is defined.
We all have this. We do not all have the same form of cultural capitol.
Think of it this way, it's like capitol that only works in certain places. For instance, rubles and yen can not be exchanged for goods and services typically outside the countries they are the standard accepted currencies for.
I can't use Chinese money to buy a hamburger with cheese at McDonald's in Texas.
Similarly, cultural capitol is only good for anything in the cultures it comes from. Knowing how to survive in the hood isn't going to help you get a job in high society. Being the prime diva in your exclusive country club won't count one whit towards helping you survive in a biker bar.
What helps in one cultural environment hurts in another.
Most of us get the vast majority of our cultural capitol through the normal socialization process of growing up. Where we grow up dictates most of our capitol.
For instance, a kid that grows up in the backwoods of Mississippi and spends most of his time hunting and fishing is most likely not prepared socially for high tea with the Queen of England. Chances are high he will make some social mistakes, such as using the wrong spoon or not holding his little finger correctly that will make him look a buffoon.
On the flip side, the Queen probably can't hang with just a buddy or two in the wilderness for a few days with nothing but a knife. That Mississippi boy will have a blast and excell in the same circumstances.
It all comes down to fitting in where one is, pecking order and believe or not, jobs.
No one wants to feel like they don't fit in.
The more cultural capitol one has in any given environment or social setting, the better prepared one is to not only fit in, but to move up in the ranks.
Humans are social creatures. We tend to do many things in groups and no one wants to be perceived as being on the bottom of the totem pole, so to speak.
How does this relate to jobs and gangs?
When a young person with a boatload of cultural capitol in the gangland lifestyle, the drug subculture and such tries to move outside that particular group, they normally don't fit in so well in other groups.
Kids that grow up in gang infested places know the gangs from an early age. They don't know much else because they have little exposure outside the subculture they live in.
The only place the capitol they have does them any good is in a gang. Think of it as following the path of least resistance in regards to social and vocational venues.
Basically, it's human nature.
Labor force participation rates by sex since 1950.
Popular media and changing family dynamics have exacerbated this problem.
As more and more women have left the traditional role of staying home and raising children, more and more kids are socialized primarily through peer groups and popular media.
Media has a programming effect upon young people. Those who watch more of it are more prone to buy into the concepts promoted even though they can tell you it's pretend.
Fewer families stay intact. Increasing numbers of American children have no father in the home, no male role model to look up to as an example. Where do they look? They look to movies and their own neighborhoods. When one repeatedly sees that those who are the most successful are those living the gang life, it becomes almost impossible not to buy into the idea at a very young age.
We must remember the young base most decisions on surface level observations. When the richest, coolest, most powerful guy around is the local drug dealer, they notice no matter what we may say to illustrate how that reality is only part of a much larger picture.
The Big Lie; Family (uploaded to Youtube by Attorney General Ken Cuccinell)
Can you spot them?
What's the most dominant means of gang affiliation in your area?See results without voting
Works like this are more common than not.
Next up, people join gangs for camaraderie.
This holds true for all kinds of gangs and all ages of members to varying degrees. Cultural capitol either gets one in the group or admittance is believed to increase cultural capitol. While that is certainly appealing, it's not the only pull.
We have all heard the old saying there is strength in numbers. Nowhere is this fact illustrated better than in American schools and prisons. Think about the irony of that combination for a minute.
Prison gangs tend to be organized around race. Many a member joins for the perceived safety associated with being part of the group. It's a camaraderie not necessarily based on friendship, but on increasing what one believes will allow one to survive in that environment.
The same principle holds true for young people both in schools and neighborhoods. In places where gangs dominate, kids who do not join are marked as targets just by not belonging.
Schools often try to combat this with dress codes, not allowing students to wear gang colors.
It never works. They always find a way. I've seen stickers on shoes as signs of membership, certain color backpacks, a bandanna hanging out a certain pocket or knotted in a certain way, many, many subtle means of identification. Those who do not display said forms of identification are easily identified just by not having it.
One might think this is an easy fix. Just wear it, but don't join. It's just a sticker, a bandanna, a whatever. Kids have tried that. Kids have died for that. It's interpreted by the actual gang members as one of the ultimate sins. Posers don't live long.
Sugar and spice got upgraded to stone cold and lethal.
Most know better than to incriminate themselves.
We need to always remember two things when watching videos of gang member interviews. First, who wants to admit to committing crime on tape? It's a great way to land in prison. While many do, it's a pretty safe bet they are skimming the surface of a much deeper iceberg of bad.
Secondly, those who really want to move up the ranks, run the hood and rule the day will not be consenting to being interviewed. We are shown only the briefest glimpse, cleaned up and spun, just like any other interview.
It broke my heart.
While teaching in Texas, I saw something one day during standardized testing. I was on overflow duty, meaning babysitting hundreds who where not taking that particular test for whatever reason in the gym.
I caught two young girls in a corner having sex. They didn't like each other. They were not gay. They were entertaining the boys in the gang.
They were not upset, concerned or appeared unsettled in any way. They were so conditioned to such demands as to take it as a matter of course.
Camaraderie is a huge pull for girls.
Back in the day, females in gangs was kind of out of the ordinary. Sure, many hung out and partied, but they were not soildiers, not typically official members.
That has so changed. For females, especially the young ones, the pull of an automatic acceptance to a powerful social group is compelling.
We have all heard of the in crowd, the A list, the cheerleaders. Such mostly female comprised and run groups have been the pinnacle of social elevation for teenage girls for decades. Much of the reason these groups held such attraction was the exclusivity factor.
Girls know it's much easier to make the gang than the A list.
Not only do they get acceptance, a peer group to watch their back, and often a means to make money, but more importantly to many of them, they gain social elevation.
The numbers of gang members has increased in America to such levels that in many schools these days, some of these gang banging girls are more popular than the cheerleaders. What would have been called the A list back in the day lives in fear of them.
Make no mistake, these girls get into the violence, just like male youth gangs do. Be it an all girl gang or an inclusive one, the girls are fighting, robbing, selling and shooting right along with the boys.
It is of note to bring up that membership for females in a gang that is mostly male may bring social elevation for the individual outside the gang, but in the gang, she's a piece of meat to be shared and used.
Some girls do move out of that basic sex slave role. It's done through being the baddest around. If you meet one of these, know you are meeting a very dangerous individual, indeed.
Lastly, people join gangs to conform to perceived expectations.
That makes no sense. Society doesn't want people in gangs. This is just not true. Parts of society doesn't want this and parts of it do. The gang image and lifestyle created in popular media has portrayed a glamorous and exciting image. Sure, they usually show the danger but danger is often appealing to the young.
Many young think what they see on media is what is expected by society. When one sees the real people in one's life doing well emulating the gang portrayed media image as opposed to those existing more on the family programming side, one automatically gives more credence to the gangland image. It seems more real.
Further, for so many children growing up in areas containing high numbers of gang members, it is expected that they will join, almost as some form of a duty. For those born into a gang, there's no almost about it. They have no choice at all other than to run far away, die, or pay one heck of a physically high price to get out, if they are lucky.
Cash cows for biker gangs:
Manufacturing and distribution of crystal meth
Trafficking and transporting for other criminal groups
Sex slave trade
Hostage contracts/adult kidnapping
How to know if your child is in a gang uploaded to Youtube by Howcast.
The conformity side of gang appeal is a double sided coin.
While many a young person joins to conform to the expectations of his or her peer group, neighborhood, fellow students or family, many do it just for the opposite reason.
Kids love to rebel. Within the youth culture, rebellion is a form of conformity. It doesn't conform to what the perceived establishment wants but rather to the group expectation of behavior that separates it from the larger and more powerful society.
This typically applies to youth where gangs exist, but are not dominant by numbers. To a white bread American teen that gets it in their minds that rebellion is conformity to their age group, joining a gang looks really good. It gives them a peer group that by definition must be cool because it is the opposite of what they are told is good.
While many would like to think these children would be the easiest to save, start their own gangs and really do not know what they are doing, it doesn't work that way. These want to be members learn very fast and typically have a very large bank of information on gangs before getting into or trying to start one.
Frequent means of income generation by prison gangs:
Drug sales, manufacturing and distribution
Distribution of all contraband items in prisons
Thoughts on containment.
How do you feel about minors being held legally accountable for crimes committed in relation to gang activity?See results without voting
Lastly, the money end of things has to be taken into account.
While some join gangs because they want to be cool, have a peer group that accepts them, or because it's the lifestyle they know best, for others, it's just flat out a money and/or survival thing.
One of the main values in America, across subcultures, is the acquisition of money. For some, it becomes a desire for more and more with the money being used as a means of keeping score. For others, they need the money to eat. Either way, said individual is through joining doing their best to fulfill that need, to conform to that value or to find some semblance of conformity that used to be provided by the family unit.
So many kids are in homes with no love, sometimes no food, abusive or neglecting with nothing appealing to go home to. They know that's not the way it is supposed to be. Many use the gang as a substitute for the family support they are not getting or perceive themselves not to be getting. They conform to the expectations of the group that provides for their needs just like children raised in loving homes usually conform to parental rules.
For others, it's almost the exact opposite but has the same effect. Often, children from loving homes join gangs to make money to help support their families. Again, they are conforming to the expectation of providing for one's family the fastest way they think they can. This is seen a lot in young boys.
Favored cash generating options of female gangs:
Petty theft such as shoplifting
Cash generating tactics favored by youth street gangs:
Robbery - Stereos and such out of cars, car chopping, jacking.
Drug sales - This is one of the largest cash generating options utilized by most youth street gangs.
Extortion/Protection money - A simple strong arm tactic of pay me and you will be safe or don't and I'll hurt you.
Prostitution - As more girls join gangs, this continues to escalate.
While the appeal of joining is one thing, why gangs exist and are growing is a totally different matter.
Gangs exist because they are making a lot of folks tons of money. It's not just the members or even the often highly educated folks on top for the more established gangs. Its law enforcement, Hollywood, the music industry, fashion, counselors, community activists and the list just goes on and on.
While many of these groups such as law enforcement, counselors and sometimes activists work towards helping folks get out of gangs or in some way trying to curb negative influences of gangs, they still are getting paid primarily because the gangs exist.
Gangs have become so prevalent as to have become a huge part of our economy. When something generates jobs and profit for so many groups, chances are high it's not going away anytime soon.
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What can we do about it?
I'm not sure how much any one of us can do one a large, national scale. We can, each of us, help on a local scale.
- Volunteer your time and love a child. I don't mean in a sick romantic way. I mean provide empathy, supportive guidance, a shoulder and an ear, a meal, a pair of shoes, whatever they need that you can. Let that kid know you are there for them and stay that way.
- Get involved in your community. Know the graffiti of the gangs in your area and what each symbol means. Keep your eyes open for what they are saying. Work with local law enforcement by helping them identify new areas of gang activity.
- If you are a business owner, consider hiring some of these kids. Sure, they are rough but they aren't dumb. Many want another way. Sadly, they just don't see one. Spend the time to train them and show them how they can make a better life for themselves and their families.
- Be realistic with these people. Chances are high they will have to leave the area altogether to escape. There are several underground networks of caring adults that help move these kids, ex cons and others that want out. They also have folks at the other end to help them get set up when they get there. Help out.
- Stop feeding the media machine. As long as people are buying, media will be selling. Allow not such movies, music and media that glorifies gangs in any way in your home. Harder, but still so necessary, don't let your kids buy it. Contrary to the new way of thinking, parenting is not always about being friends but about protecting and raising.
- If you are a parent, really get to know who your kids hang out with. If they have friends in gangs, no matter how big the fights, end it. Do not allow these members in your home even if they look like an innocent little boy that needs a friend. He might be and you, as an adult, might really be able to help him. Your child is not in that position and is in danger by being near him.
- Join your local neighborhood watch. Many gangs continue to thrive through community intimidation. Take yours back. Find like minded people and stand up. There may be violence. There already is. Remember, a bully will abuse you just as long as you let him.
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