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It is difficult to talk about gang membership without including a discussion of race/ethnicity. The two seem invariably linked in our society, both in terms of research and our common perceptions of gang members (Esbensen and Tusinski 2007). Early gang research focused on White ethnic groups, whereas more recently, racial/ethnic minorities such as African Americans, Hispanics, and increasingly Asians and American Indians represent the groups of interest (e.g., Chin 1996; Hagedorn 1988; Major et al. 2004; Moore 1991; Vigil 2002). While the connection between race/ethnicity and gang membership remains in the spotlight in our society, the fact remains that a paucity of information regarding differences between racial/ethnic groups exists, making policy recommendations somewhat complicated.
This research paper will explore the similarities and differences in gang membership between various racial/ethnic groups. As we come to understand the race/ethnicity/gang membership relationship more clearly, the intent is to develop ideas on how to become more effective at preventing gang membership among the various racial/ethnic groups. The paper begins by presenting descriptive information concerning race/ethnicity and gangs. Next, the evidence regarding shared factors for gang formation and membership between and within racial/ethnic groups is examined. Third, it explores the evidence supportive of risk factors that are “race/ethnicity specific” or unique to one or a few groups. Fourth, recommendations to inform programming regarding the connections between race/ethnicity and gang membership are provided.
Race/Ethnicity And Gangs
In our society, gang membership is often portrayed, especially by the media, as a minority issue affecting the barrios and inner cities of the United States (Esbensen and Tusinski 2007). Minority youth do, in fact, represent the majority of gang members. The National Gang Center (2010) reports that law enforcement indicates that 84 % of gang members are racial/ ethnic minorities, with 49 % being Hispanic and 35 % being African American. However, increasing numbers of Whites are reporting gang membership as well (Esbensen et al. 2010; Freng and Winfree 2004; National Gang Center 2010). For example, self-report studies indicate more extensive involvement of Whites, as much as 24 % of gang members, as compared to 9 % reported by law enforcement (Esbensen et al. 2010; National Gang Center 2010).
Another recent development includes gangs becoming more multiracial (Starbuck et al. 2001). In a survey of law enforcement, agencies reported that one-third of gangs were ethnically/racially mixed (Starbuck et al. 2001). This percentage was higher in those jurisdictions that also reported a later onset of gangs. So, for example, agencies that reported gang onset as 1991–1992 as compared to 1981–1985 indicated that 55 % of gangs consisted of racial-/ethnicmixed membership (Howell et al. 2002). As gang membership becomes more diverse in terms of race/ethnicity, it begins to call into question some of our basic assumptions regarding race/ethnicity and gang membership. So, no longer can we exclusively talk about African American, Hispanic, or Asian gangs, as more and more gangs consist of individuals from a number of racial/ethnic groups.
Sources Of Information On Gang Membership
Our information on the race/ethnicity/gang membership relationship has traditionally come from three primary sources: official (law enforcement) data, self-report data, and ethnographies. Each of these data sources provides valuable information regarding gang membership but also offers different pictures concerning the involvement of racial/ethnic minorities in gangs. For example, both official and self-report data indicate that gangs are comprised primarily of racial and ethnic minorities. However, discrepancies between these data sources regarding the extent of involvement of racial/ethnic minorities arise (National Gang Center 2010). Some of this disparity could be due to the fact that the racial/ethnic makeup of a gang tends to reflect the racial/ethnic composition of the community. For example, while the National Gang Center reports that overall 9 % of gang members are White, this percentage increases to 17 % in rural counties and 14 % in smaller cities where populations as a whole tend to consist of larger percentages of Whites (National Gang Center 2010). Likewise, African American and Hispanic gang members are the most prevalent in larger urban areas (National Gang Center 2010). Thus, since the majority of data on gangs is generated from large cities, these populations are often the ones represented, giving the impression that gang membership is solely a minority issue.
The disparities in the estimates between law enforcement data and self-reports are also often tied back to the nature of each of these data sources and the various ways to define gang membership. Although defining a gang may seem straightforward, many definitions abound resulting in significant consequences in terms of informing policy and decisions about resource allocation as well as impacting a community’s level of fear of crime, especially as it relates to race/ethnicity (Ball and Curry 1995; Decker and Kempf-Leonard 1991; Huff 1998; Klein 1969; Miller 1975). Many estimates and policies are based on data from law enforcement agencies; however, some gang experts believe these estimates are “probably conservative because many jurisdictions deny, often for political and image reasons, that there is a problem, especially in the early stages of youth gang development in a community” (Huff 1998, p. 1). Others, however, suggest that policies and practices of law enforcement such as conducting intelligence programs that result in lists of known gang members based on overt characteristics such as tattoos, wearing of colors, and clothing can significantly overestimate the problem. These practices can be problematic and impact data if they are not consistently purged as, contrary to popular belief, most gang members are only in the gang for about 1 year (Thornberry et al. 2003). On the other hand, although research has supported the validity and reliability of self-reports, many argue that they represent an underor overestimation of the problem as well (Loeber et al. 1998). In other words, individuals may claim gang membership when they really might be considered peripheral to the gang, while others might not claim gang membership in an effort to keep that information from law enforcement and researchers.
Adding to the confusion are results collected by ethnographic studies (Fleisher 1998; Hagedorn 1988; Moore 1991; Vigil 2002). These typically concentrate on one particular gang comprised of a certain racial/ethnic group in a specific site. Most of these studies have been completed in large urban areas and with minority gangs, further contributing to the perception that gangs consist exclusively of racial/ethnic minorities and resulting in a tendency to separate gangs into groups such as African American gangs, Hispanic gangs, Asian gangs, and American Indian gangs. By doing this, the intricacies within groups, such as the differences between Chinese and Vietnamese gangs, as well as the multiracial nature of emerging gangs are ignored (Starbuck et al. 2001). Additionally, although ethnographies have contributed significantly to our understanding of the race/ethnicity/gang connection, they restrict the ability to generalize the findings to other groups such as Whites or to other locations such as rural and suburban areas, thus limiting our overall knowledge of how race/ethnicity impacts gang membership.
Reasons For Joining Gangs
The delinquency and gang literature is replete with various explanations as to why individuals from various racial/ethnic groups join gangs. Within this literature, the reasons for joining gangs tend to fall within two main frameworks. The first framework proposes that different etiologies or distinctive causal processes are responsible for racial/ethnic disparities in gang joining. In other words, differences in the types of factors that result in gang membership vary by group. On the other hand, the second framework suggests that the reason for more gang involvement among racial/ethnic minorities relates instead to the differential exposure of minority individuals to risk factors associated with gang membership. While there have been few efforts to empirically assess these specific orientations, the perspectives utilized to explain gang membership allude to both of these types of processes.
Early explanations outlining reasons for why individuals join gangs did not directly address the connection to race/ethnicity. Instead, they outlined conditions related to gang membership to which individuals from various minority groups were exposed, emphasizing the connection to poverty, discrimination, immigration, and urbanization and the resulting social isolation, which are still key concepts today. Theories, such as the social disorganization perspective, propose that community or environmental factors ultimately impact crime (Shaw and McKay 1942). As such, crime and gang membership is not actually related to a group of people (i.e., racial/ethnic minorities), but instead is a result of environments to which minorities are often relegated, characterized by high unemployment, elevated high school dropout rates, deteriorated housing, poverty, a significant number of single parent households, and high mobility rates, as well as industrialization, urbanization, and immigration (Klein 1995; Short and Strodtbeck 1973; Spergel 1964).
Strain and opportunity theory also points to various conditions that are experienced by racial/ethnic minorities that might result in gang membership. These theories indicate that crime is a result of lower-class frustration or strain that develops due to the inability to achieve social and financial success (Cloward and Ohlin 1960; Merton 1968). They suggest that the ability to achieve wealth and power is stratified by socioeconomic class; thus, strain occurs in those areas like disorganized slums where minorities are concentrated and conventional avenues to success are blocked. To relieve strain, people may be forced to use deviant methods to achieve their goals, such as theft, selling drugs, or joining gangs. This is mainly because while legitimate opportunities are blocked for individuals in these areas, illegitimate opportunities are plentiful. Additionally, since the availability of both legitimate and illegitimate opportunities varies across social groups, these theories also suggest that gangs emerge based on the characteristics of the community, not the individuals.
Recent work by Decker and Van Winkle (1996) suggests that threat is a key to gang development. In socially disorganized communities, where social control is at a minimum and where minority populations often live, threat rules the daily existence of individuals in the community. This threat can manifest itself in a variety of ways. One way is to perpetuate the cycle of violence. So, for example, as individuals become isolated from their communities, they become involved in violence, which further isolates them, resulting in more violence (Decker and Van Winkle 1996).
The social learning perspective proposes that individuals learn the norms, values, and behaviors associated with criminal activity from close intimate relationships with criminal peers, including other gang members (Akers 1973; Sutherland 1939). In communities, such as those with concentrated populations of racial/ ethnic minorities, norms, values, and behaviors that are conducive to gang membership are prevalent and in fact have in many instances become entrenched into the community. The youth begin to learn from older individuals, thus perpetuating the attitudes and behaviors, resulting in gang behavior among multiple generations.
Other research examines the effects that concentrated disadvantage, including the changing economic structure and poverty, has had on gang development, specifically among African American groups (Hagedorn 1988; Moore 1991; Wilson 1987). During the 1980s and 1990s, jobs became scarce, and the conditions leading to the urban underclass started to breed gangs that have now become a permanent part of many urban communities. As jobs decreased and became more skilled, minority individuals had a harder time getting productive employment, thus affecting the aging out process. Minority youth no longer were able to achieve success through work because of the deindustrialization of urban areas, and thus they continued in the gang longer, making it more institutionalized within the community. Gangs then became their own social institution and a mechanism by which to “make it” in urban inner city environments (Moore 1991; Hagedorn 1988; Wilson 1987). However, while the gang fulfills the needs and provides resources for individuals in these communities in the short term, long term this involvement alienates youth from society and decreases their economic and social capital (Fleisher 1998). As a result, gang members are not socialized to enter mainstream society and pass this on to their children, thus creating an intergenerational transmission of these issues (Fleisher 1998).
More recently, Anderson (1999) considered these elements in the development of a subculture among African Americans in Philadelphia. While Anderson did not specifically address gangs in his work, his general ideas seem applicable. As with strain and opportunity theory, while not specifically addressing racial/ethnic issues, this view represents conditions that are over-representative of racial/ethnic minority populations and ties violence to structural characteristics such as poverty, unemployment, a perceived lack of quality in basic services, and discrimination. This subcultural perspective deals explicitly with gangs as a group that includes its own norms and values that are contrary to the main culture. Individuals adopt these values and create groups, such as gangs, to deal with the isolation and alienation that they experience. Anderson (1999) suggests that in disorganized minority communities, a code develops among all individuals related to toughness and respect that assists in navigating the streets. The expectation of toughness is entrenched in the behaviors of the “street” kids, while the “decent” kids utilize it to make their way in an environment characterized by constant threats (Anderson 1999). In other words, whether an individual is involved in a gang or not, they participate in and perpetuate the norms and values that are conducive to gang membership.
Explanations focusing on gang membership among African American groups tend to emphasize factors such as economics and poverty, while those examining Hispanic groups often include elements of immigration and discrimination (Vigil 2002). The multiple marginality framework (Vigil 2002) proposes that the historical background of the specific racial/ethnic groups is important in understanding how gangs develop in various communities. For example, African American and Hispanic gangs developed largely due to poverty, while Salvadoran and Vietnamese gangs arose based on migration due to civil war. These individual reasons for gang development result in exposure to various ecological, economic, social-cultural, and psychological stresses creating what Vigil (2002) refers to as multiple marginality. The more of these risks and stresses an individual experiences, the more cumulative disadvantage they face, resulting in marginalization from society. This marginalization process is set in motion by macro-historical and macrostructural factors such as immigration and discrimination, which ultimately negatively affects ecological/ economic factors. As families and individuals experience these various stresses, their ability to exert social control is minimized. Gangs develop in response to this lack of social control and step into this void to provide socialization in the context of the streets. They then become a way of adapting to marginalization and provide a way to cope with the stresses of urban street life (Vigil 2002).
Risk Factors For Joining
Criminological theory and research point to a number of elements that contribute to gang membership among racial/ethnic minorities. However, much of this information still does not answer an important question: Do individuals from diverse racial and ethnic groups join for different reasons? This concern is tied intricately to programming issues as these results have led to different opinions about whether we require race/ethnic specific programming or not. Some evidence that there are different reasons does exist. Freng and Winfree (2004) examined racial/ethnic differences in reasons given for joining the gang. They found that Whites reported joining for reasons such as protection and friends in the gang, while African Americans and Hispanics tended to join more for protection and money and because peers or family were involved in the gang. Interestingly, contrary to popular belief, no group reported that they joined the gang due to force (Freng and Winfree 2004).
Recently, the risk factor approach has moved gang research in a promising direction. This perspective, developed out of the public health model, examines those factors that put an individual more at risk for gang membership or conversely protects against gang membership. The research based on this perspective does indicate some similarities between groups but also points to some differences. However, while the literature on risk factors for gang membership has become more extensive over the last decade, it still remains underdeveloped in terms of the extent to which risk factors remain constant across racial/ethnic groups (e.g., Curry and Spergel 1992; Freng and Esbensen 2007; Freng and Winfree 2004; Hill et al. 1999; Thornberry 1998; Thornberry et al. 2003).
Some researchers (Curry and Spergel 1992) propose that different factors explain gang membership among African American and Hispanic gang members, while others (Freng and Esbensen 2007) have found few differences between African American, Hispanic, and White gang members. African American gang members tend to be more influenced by social or interpersonal variables such as having family members in gangs, gang members in their classes, and friends who used drugs (Curry and Spergel 1992). Hispanic gang members, on the other hand, seem to have more intrapersonal risk factors such as educational frustration and peer and school self-esteem (Curry and Spergel 1992). For current gang members, differences have also been found (Freng and Esbensen 2007). For Whites, ecological and economic factors, such as parents with lower educational levels and increased levels of social isolation, are more important. On the other hand, for African American and Hispanic gang members, social control and street socialization elements, such as low school commitment, poor opinions or interactions with the police, and being socialized on the street, symbolize the significant risk factors. These differences do not appear for those that report ever being a gang member, however (Freng and Esbensen 2007).
Several weaknesses characterize the current gang research, limiting our knowledge regarding race/ethnicity and its tie to gang membership. The primary problem with most of the literature currently available is that it largely ignores race/ethnicity as an explanatory factor. In other words, cross group comparisons examining actual differences between groups remain relatively rare (Curry and Spergel 1992; Freng and Esbensen 2007; Freng and Winfree 2004). Instead, race/ethnicity is largely used as a control factor, resulting in little information regarding actual differences or similarities. Additionally, what little research is available indicates some conflicting results on whether the same risk factors impact the various groups (Curry and Spergel 1992; Freng and Esbensen 2007; Freng and Winfree 2004). Organizations or individuals hoping to address the gang problem are thus at somewhat of a disadvantage in knowing what factors should be focused on for which groups.
Additionally, much of the gang research concentrates on specific gangs in particular urban areas that represent racially/ethnically homogenous groups (e.g., Chin 1996; Hagedorn 1988; Moore 1991; Vigil 1988). While this can present detailed information about African American gangs in Chicago or Hispanic gangs in Los Angeles, for example, it does not provide beneficial information about whether these groups are similar or different in their characteristics, attitudes, or behaviors. Furthermore, the research over the past 20 years has largely concentrated on African American and Hispanic groups, ignoring the increasing problems of gangs among Asians, American Indians, and Whites (e.g., Chin 1996; Hagedorn 1988; Moore 1991; Vigil 1988).
Finally, while the research is limited on racial/ethnic differences in joining the gang, an even greater paucity of information exists regarding racial/ethnic disparities in leaving the gang. As we begin to understand that individuals often spend a short amount of time in the gang, with the average being less than 1 year, this topic becomes even more relevant (Thornberry et al. 2003). While research points to a number of reasons and processes for why and how individuals exit the gang, examinations as to whether these reasons or processes remain consistent across racial/ethnic groups remain rare, if not nonexistent (Decker and Lauritsen 2006). Understanding the intricacies of this relationship and whether it varies for the different groups is imperative in terms of focusing our intervention strategies toward removing individuals from gangs.
Policy Issues And Recommendations
Without fully understanding the nature and extent of the problem, we are unable to thoroughly address it. The only sure way to know how best to address the issue of gang membership is to initiate more research that considers these ongoing issues, expanding beyond focusing on specific racial/ethnic gangs in specific locations, ignoring race/ethnicity as a explanatory variable, and the concentration of certain racial/ethnic gangs to the exclusion of others. This additional research will help to more completely understand the nature of gangs and assist in developing prevention efforts. While the reasons for joining should guide us in developing programming principles, surprising little information regarding differences between racial/ethnic groups actually exists, thus making developing recommendations for strong policy practices difficult. While research and theoretical explanations have focused on the importance of larger, social-structural factors (e.g., poverty, immigration, discrimination, and social isolation) which differentially impact the lives of individuals from different races/ethnicities, programs focusing on these elements would of course be much more costly and complex and thus often do not present realistic solutions. Thus, policies tend to concentrate more on individual factors, which have been assumed to be more manageable and malleable.
When considering preventing gang membership, the defining question is the following: Is race/ethnic specific programming needed? The question asks whether the general prevention programming currently utilized that targets individuals regardless of their racial/ethnic group status is sufficient or if we need more targeted programs that focus on specific factors related to gang membership for the various groups. Some evidence exists that perhaps racial/ethnic specific programming is not necessary, but that general prevention programming with some racial/ethnic group sensitive elements may provide some promising practices in effectively addressing a problem that still largely impacts minority populations (Esbensen et al. 2010). In other words, general prevention programming should be effective, in theory, if individuals from different racial/ethnic groups share similar risk factors. For example, targeting factors such as having family members in the gang, a factor tied to gang membership for African Americans, should also have an impact on gang membership for individuals regardless of their racial/ethnic background.
On the other hand, differences in both the reasons that gang members give for joining gangs and the risk factors associated with gang membership for the various groups are apparent (Curry and Spergel 1992; Freng and Esbensen 2007; Freng and Winfree 2004). This perhaps points to the need for some race-/ethnicityspecific or race-/ethnicity-sensitive programming targeting more specifically those factors tied to gang membership for each group (Esbensen et al. 2010). However, our lack of knowledge of racial/ ethnic differences hinders our ability to evaluate the need for these types of programming. Unfortunately, no evidence-based programs directly aimed at addressing racial/ethnic differences in risk factors for gang membership exist. Additionally, without more extensive evaluation of programs that are currently in place, knowing the impact on gang membership among various racial/ethnic groups is difficult. Currently, little evidence of the effectiveness of general prevention programs for individuals from various racial/ ethnic groups exists (Wilson et al. 2003), resulting in a lack of knowledge of whether the current programs in existence actually work to decrease gang membership among the various racial/ethnic groups. Thus, until more is known about the differences in reasons for joining the gang and risk factors for the various racial/ethnic groups, perhaps it would be sufficient to consider general prevention programming or expand upon existing promising programs to ensure that they are culturally appropriate and relevant.
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