Race and ethnicity represent a pivotal issue in almost any conversation regarding gang members. These two concepts have been invariably linked in both research and the larger social world. Images of this connection invade our social milieu and appear frequently in movies, television, news, and music. However, academic research also contributes to this perception. Much of the early work, as well as a significant portion of the qualitative work on gangs, perpetuates the continued examination of racial and ethnic homogeneous gangs, with a focus on African American and Hispanic groups. This work ignores increasing problems among other racial and ethnic groups, such as Asians and Native Americans, within the literature. More recently, however, the intricacies of this relationship are becoming clearer, including the growing involvement of White individuals and the fact that gangs are increasingly multiracial. Furthermore, with the development of the Eurogang project in the late 1990s, research regarding these groups in Europe, as well as in other countries across the world, has become more plentiful, further expanding our knowledge regarding gangs and the role of race and ethnicity, as well as immigration and migration.
As the relationship between race and ethnicity and gang membership takes on more meaning, numerous explanations have been developed to account for this connection. Much of the research, both past and present, centers on the association between race and ethnicity and the impacts of social disorganization, discrimination, immigration, and cumulative disadvantage. Community and environmental factors play a crucial role in explaining why gangs thrive in communities often occupied by racial and ethnic minorities. Relatedly, external threats, specifically violence from other groups, can provide the impetus for gang development in neighborhoods marked by disorder; thus, other explanations center on violence and the role that gangs play in mitigating this threat while serving as a protective factor for the youth in the community. The risk factor approach, gaining more prominence in gang literature, investigates individual risk for gang membership, as well as the cumulative effects of risk factors. These various frameworks assist in beginning to understand the underlying factors contributing to gang membership.
With regard to policy recommendations, investigating “race and ethnicity specific” risk factors as well how these risk factors might impact programming remain key. In order to fully comprehend the development of gangs, a number of gang researchers have called for the need to understand the different historical experiences of racial and ethnic groups within the United States. For example, the histories of Hispanic and African American groups impact their experiences and thus may result in different pathways to gang membership. And yet, in many respects, these groups are still treated as single entities, ignoring their distinct histories. In fact, there remains a paucity of information regarding cross-group comparisons that examine actual differences between racial and ethnic groups. Without a closer examination of the relationship between race, ethnicity, and gang membership, effective gang policies and practices will remain out of reach.