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Gangs and Youth Violence

Gangs and Youth Violence







Gangs are primarily made up of groups of male adolescents and youths who have grown up together as children, usually as cohorts in a low-income neighborhood of a city. Oftentimes, the gang is a multiple-aged peer group, with older members in their late teens or early twenties acting as role models for younger members. According to several researchers (Morales 1982, Short 1996, Vigil 2002), only about 10 percent of the youths in most low-income neighborhoods join gangs. Further, gangs are an outgrowth of the strains and stresses that immigrant and historically marginalized populations experience in urban settings, a phenomenon that can be traced back to the nineteenth century. These populations typically face problems with jobs, living conditions, isolation and segregation from mainstream society, and abrasive interactions with public institutions. These situations and conditions tend to be especially persistent when the immigrants are defined as a distinct race from the dominant society based on physical rather than simply behavioral differences.


There are various factors involved in understanding gangs, such as racism and its repercussions in other realms, including socioeconomic segregation, breakdowns in social control, education difficulties, and antagonistic interactions with law enforcement. Los Angeles is a major city marked by these dynamics, and it will serve as the major multiethnic focus here to highlight broader gang issues. Toward this end, long-term racism and persistent poverty have lingering effects on how life is structured and organized, including basic family dynamics. For example, schooling for minority youth and relations with law enforcement both affect family life, particularly because poor people often receive short shrift from authorities in these major public institutions. Schooling problems, in particular, have plagued the lives and careers of blacks and Latinos (and in some cases, Asians) in the United States. These groups have a long and well-documented history of exclusion from or isolation within public schools, along with other forms of unfair and unequal scholastic treatment, such as the racism that affects testing and “tracked” learning programs. In tandem with institutional racist barriers, this has worked to historically establish an oppositional attitude and lackadaisical approach to the dominant culture’s education routines. Remarkably, most families in these communities have been able to weather these conditions and maintain a semblance of stability.

Most of the ethnic (i.e., Chicano, African American, Vietnamese, Puerto Rican, and Salvadoran) communities examined here are made up of members who are, for the most part, physically distinguishable from dominant whites. They have all also faced race-based discrimination, though the impact of race and racism on each group varies. Race, racism, and the attitudes of prejudice that have devalued and disparaged each group, and the groups’ subsequent segregation and isolation into ethnic enclaves, are central to understanding the emergence and perpetuation of gangs. Race and class are both heavily implicated in the marginalization of each of these ethnic groups, and in the resultant social and cultural repercussions that have led to street socialization. Nevertheless, each group has unique aspects. Race has been a more overtly dominant issue for African Americans, among whom it is more pervasive and salient in all aspects of life. The dual nature of Chicanos’ relationship with dominant society—as natives and immigrants—is similarly distinctive, as is the dual relationship of Puerto Rico’s status vis-à-vis the United States.

The entry into the United States of both Salvadorans and Vietnamese entailed global, cold-war political ramifications. Marginalization for many in these communities began before they entered the country. Importantly, similar processes are unfolding in other regions of the globe, as witnessed by the appearance of transnational gangs in places such as Europe and Latin America, where immigration has brought different peoples to urban settings. (In the U.S. context, transnational gangs typically refer to organized networks of peer groups that are connected to one another and operate across national borders.) In addition, the processes of globalization have led to human migration and the marginalization of many families and children.

The street gang dominates the lives of untethered youth in these minority communities because other institutions have become undermined, fragmented, fragile, and largely ineffective. Some of the Los Angeles gangs can be traced as far back as the 1930s, and social neglect, ostracism, economic marginalization, and cultural repression are largely responsible for the endurance of the subculture. Members of these communities have often faced inadequate living conditions, stressful personal and family changes, and racism and cultural repression in schools.


Families do not exist in a vacuum. Even in the oppressive environment generated by the combination of racial prejudice and economic marginalization, most families succeed in raising socially productive children, but a significant number of families cannot. These stressed and overwhelmed families, stripped of their coping skills, often end up in attenuated family arrangements that can include separation, divorce, and single-parent households—which also tend to be low-income households. Home life in poor households or in households undergoing change can be stressful, with parents less able to adequately care for and supervise their children. Street socialization of children emerges in the context of such strained family situations and conditions. Significantly, many of the male children in these situations are raised in a female-centered household, and when they reach adolescence they must learn to contend with the male-dominated street culture. Much of the homophophic nature and organization of the gang stems from the adjustment males make in reconciling these ambivalent experiences and feelings. Most often, they emphasize a hyper-masculinity to compensate for this emotional strain, wiping out any vestige of femininity.


Chicanos were initially spread all over the Southwest in little colonias (Mexican housing projects or neighborhoods) near where they labored in mining, ranching, and agriculture. In the early twenty-first century they are predominantly found in urban areas, where many work in the low-paid service economy. Historically, their children have been compelled to attend schools where instruction was only in English and where speaking Spanish was punished. While children from the more stable households managed to acquire English and a modicum of the “three R’s,” despite the handicaps they faced, others could cope only by sitting in the back of the classroom, ignoring their books, ditching school in a show of resistance, and sometimes joining other similarly harassed Chicanos and Chicanas in “race riots” at Anglo-majority schools. Dropping out is the ultimate show of defiance, nurtured by school officials’ practice of encouraging their departure or expelling students. Early on, education for Mexicans was referred to as an “Americanization” program—with the aim of providing the children with a more “appropriate culture”—but schools were typically kept separate and unequal.

In the case of African Americans, despite the prevalent racism of the 1920s, the black community in Los Angeles displayed unity and relative economic prosperity—more than one-third of the families owned their own homes. The proliferation of neighborhoods with housing covenants and restrictions, however, was an even more extreme attempt at “keeping them in their place.” For this community the problem of street gangs surfaced during the Great Depression and accelerated in the aftermath of World War II, when there was a high rate of immigration from the South. As a result, the problem of ghettoization— of poverty and neighborhood deterioration—soon worsened. Children in overcrowded neighborhoods without sufficient public recreation facilities had no place to play safely. Indeed, only limited opportunities existed for African American youth in organizations such as the Boy Scouts or the YMCA. In the summer, the municipal swimming pools only admitted African Americans and Latinos on special days, after which the pools were drained and then refilled. Knowledge of this historical racism goes a long way in understanding the emergence of gang activity and the state of the African American community in the early 2000s.

Ironically, public housing was introduced to counter the effects of racism by providing decent, affordable housing, but the results only complicated the initial difficulties associated with racism. Living in the “projects” has become a synonym for living in the most destitute, under-served neighborhoods in the city. Most residents are people of color, with only a few public developments of mixed racial groups.

Along with family life being undermined by these patterns of exclusion and isolation, the schools, by incorporating racist assumptions into their teaching and testing procedures, have continually failed to accommodate black and brown youth. The criminal justice system has been an even worse offender, ensuring continued stresses and strains on these communities. Police, courts, and prisons have historically practiced an unofficial type of racism when dealing with racial minority communities, who have harsher treatment, an uneven application of the law, and higher incarceration rates. Los Angeles has been one of the leading centers of this institutionalized legal inequality. This is evident from a recitation of only the best-publicized outbreaks of police-community hostility: the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943, the Watts revolt of 1965, the Black Panther shoot-out in 1968, the Eula Love killing in 1979, and the Rodney King riots of 1992. Statistical data also reveal the disparately high proportion of ethnic minorities arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. Gang members similarly make up a disproportionate number of the imprisoned population. Rather than addressing the roots of gang life, American society has instead attempted to resolve problems associated with gangs by suppression alone. In sum, racism and prejudice in the pre-civil rights decades segregated and isolated most blacks in overcrowded areas of the city, and Mexicans and the new migrants in their neighborhoods all underwent a marginalization process that is still playing out.


In contrast, the Salvadoran and Vietnamese populations in Los Angeles (and in the United States) share a more recent migratory background, in both cases from homelands wracked by civil war. Most of the Vietnamese immigrants and a large proportion of those from El Salvador arrived in the United States as political refugees, beginning in the 1970s. The unraveling of social control actually began for both groups in their home countries, where the United States played a prominent role in volatile military situations. Thus, geopolitical considerations are paramount for both groups.

The Central American populations in Los Angeles are relatively new. These groups had to find their way to the United States during a time of economic instability and an intense anti-immigrant social and political climate. The Salvadorans carry the burden of having had to leave their homeland in the midst of a highly charged civil war, with death threats propelling hundreds of thousands out of the country. In Los Angeles, they settled into neighborhoods with high concentrations of Latinos—mostly Chicanos— and pre-existing neighborhood gangs.

Along similar lines, the Vietnamese are best examined within the context of a war-torn homeland and an especially strife-ridden journey to the United States. Most found their way to the United States as members of a second wave of refugees known as the “boat people.” What they encountered in the United States was racism from both the white population and racial-ethnic minorities. While many entrepreneurial families prospered in their new community, despite the ethnic hostility that greeted them, many of the youth were drawn into loose-knit gangs formed at school to offer mutual support in the face of racial-ethnic hostility. Like the Chicanos before them, they often encountered language difficulties and racist assumptions in school.

Investigations conducted over several years by graduate students at the University of California, Irvine have shown that relations with police were also difficult. Gang members noted that they received high levels of attention from police. In a recent study of Little Saigon, many informants complained that they have been unjustifiably harassed and even beaten by police on several occasions (Vigil, Yun, and Chang 2004). One twenty-year-old explained: “Sometimes when I drive a fixed-up car, they stop us for nothing. Just because we’re young and Vietnamese. We’re driving normally, like everybody else is, but they just pull us over. They be searching us, search the car, and we don’t have anything. They treated us like shit” (p. 212). African Americans and Chicanos understand this experience all too well, often referring to it as being stopped for DWB, or “driving while black (or brown).”


Racism and other adjustment issues in the educational context have only fueled the sense of hopelessness and alienation that many children in these minority communities have already experienced. In the face of unpredictable forces and inadequate support structures, the gang comes to be perceived as a bastion of dependability for children with inadequate nurturing in the home and an inability to overcome the barriers they encounter in school. In the eyes of similarly situated children facing an incredible array of challenges, the gang comes to hold appeal as a provider of affiliation, material well-being, protection, and guidance. For many, it is an all-too-scarce source of security and comfort.

The costs that the gang imposes for providing a secure self-identity and sense of belonging, however, can be very high, not only for the individual youth but also for the entire community. While many activities that gang youth engage in together are no different that those pursued by others their age, the alienation to society engendered and nurtured by street socialization also provokes gang activity that has violent consequences for gang members and others. No matter how understandable the motivation for engaging in such “gangbanging” is, the collateral costs to neighborhoods and families are lost on these tough, young gang members. In this self-centered scenario, communities are decaying from the inside out. While larger forces of racism and poverty provide the impetus for such transformations, the gang members themselves unleash great damage on the community, and their violence exacerbates the other problems the community faces.

SEE ALSO Criminal Justice System; Cultural Deficiency; Latinos.


Anderson, Elijah. 1990. Streetwise: Race, Class, and Change in an Urban Community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

_____. and Douglas Massey. 2001. Problem of the Century: Racial Stratification in the United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Bass, Sandra. 2001. “Policing Space, Policing Race: Social Control Imperatives and Police Discretionary Decisions.” Social Justice 28 (1): 156–173.

Esbensen Finn-Aage, and L. Thomas Winfree Jr. 2001. “Race and Gender Differences Between Gang and Nongang Youths.” In The Modern Gang Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Jody Miller, Cheryl L. Maxson, and Malcom W. Klein, 106–120. Los Angeles: Roxbury.

Gibbons, Don C. 1997. “Review Essay: Race, Ethnicity, Crime, and Social Policy.” Crime and Delinquency 43 (2): 358–380.

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Vigil, James Diego. 2002. A Rainbow of Gangs: Street Cultures in the Mega-City. Austin: University of Texas Press.

_____. Steve Yun, and Jesse Chang. 2004. “A Shortcut to the American Dream? Vietnamese Youth Ganges in Little Saigon.” In Asian American Youth: Culture, Ethnicity, and Identity, edited by Min Zhou and Jennifer Lee, 207–220. New York: Routledge.

James Diego Vigil

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