Flashbacks April 2007

Gangland U.S.A.

Articles dating back to the 1800s trace the evolution of America's gang problem.

McPherson’s primary interest was in the relationship between the Rangers and the community. “If anything,” he wrote, “the Rangers seem to represent a certain spirit in their community, a spirit which is adopted by young people.” “But,” McPherson continued, “whether this adoption is voluntary or forced upon young people is one of the major controversial questions that concern the Woodlawn, Kenwood, Oakland, and Hyde Park communities.”  A senior Ranger with whom McPherson spoke conceded that in the old days kids had been forced to join. But by the late sixties, he explained, coercion tactics were no longer needed; the Black P. Stone Youth Center had simply become the only place for kids to go.

As McPherson noted in the second part of his study, the purpose of the Blackstone Rangers, and indeed their continuing appeal, had more to do with generational conflict and with class than with race or politics:

If [the Rangers] believe in any form of black power at all, it’s the physical energy which they are attempting to harness in the black community and the economic power which, they believe, will come through constructive uses of that energy. If they hold any political philosophy at all, it is truly a grass roots one: they want to wrest control of their community not so much from the power structure as from the control of an older generation of blacks. They have a large number of the young people; now they are attempting to expand their source of energy by moving into the black, middle-class neighborhoods.

By the time Mark Horowitz reviewed the autobiography of an imprisoned gang member in 1993, gangs had become so interwoven with race issues that it was “much in fashion to go to gang members in Los Angeles for the authentic voice of black experience—or at least the experience of the black underclass.” Horowitz’s article sought to contextualize the publication of, and the hoopla surrounding, the autobiography of Kody Scott. As a member of the Eight-Tray Gangster Crips in South Central Los Angeles, Scott, a.k.a. “Monster Kody,” a.k.a “Sanyika Shakur,” shot and killed rivals, used and dealt drugs, and committed robberies and assaults—all of which he described in Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gangmember.

Writing at a time when the destructive power of gangs had developed into a significant public concern, Horowitz  noted that Monster’s life story, written in pencil from inside a maximum security prison in northern California, had earned him a $150,000 publishing advance and afforded him a platform for articulating what the book’s promotional material called “the black experience.”  Scott’s central point, Horowitz observed, was that the gang life is inevitable for anyone growing up in his circumstances: in Scott’s words, “everyone does it.” Yet Horowitz questioned this assertion. He pointed to the life stories left out of the autobiography, of Scott’s own siblings, none of whom followed Monster’s violent path. “One thing is certain,” Horowitz concluded: “In a county the size of Los Angeles, not every young man is an active gang member—not even in South Central and not even, for that matter, in Kody Scott’s own house.”

For sociologist Elijah Anderson, the question of whether or not a young man joins a gang boils down to two opposing forces. Writing in The Atlantic in 1994, Anderson identified dual “orientations” that vie to shape the poor inner city black community: a “street” orientation (signifying a sometimes violent quest for peer respect) and a “decent” orientation (signifying an acceptance of “mainstream values” and a strong sense of family).  It was this latter, “decent” orientation that Anderson viewed as the best hope for counteracting the influence of gangs.

But the “street” orientation, he noted, exerts a very strong pull – one that is closely tied to inner city residents’ never-ending struggle for respect.  Known colloquially as “juice,” respect, Anderson explained, “revolves around the presentation of self.” In order for one to obtain “juice,” one must convey that one is prepared, even predisposed, to commit violence if the situation requires. As Anderson noted, there is, in impoverished neighborhoods, “a generalized sense that very little respect is to be had, and therefore everyone competes to get what affirmation he can of the little that is available.”

Anderson suggested that the code of the streets is perpetually fueled by inner-city youths’ “internalization” of “racist rejection.” Feeling rejected by the mainstream system, they commit themselves to an oppositional culture in order to salvage their self-respect. As Anderson concluded:

A vicious cycle has thus been formed. The hopelessness and alienation many young inner-city black men and women feel, largely as a result of endemic joblessness and persistent racism, fuels the violence they engage in. This violence serves to confirm the negative feelings many whites and some middle-class blacks harbor toward the ghetto poor, further legitimating the oppositional culture and the code of the streets in the eyes of many young blacks. Unless the cycle is broken, attitudes on both sides will become increasingly entrenched, and the violence, which claims victims black and white, poor and affluent, will only escalate.
—Matthew Borushko
Matthew Borushko is an intern for The Atlantic Online.
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