Street gangs first emerged on a broad scale in U.S. cities in the late 19th century in step with industrialization, urbanization, and mass waves of European immigration. Up until the 1960s, the vast majority of gang members in the United States were second- and third-generation European immigrants. Like their Black and Latino successors, these groups routinely engaged in collective violence, which helped push nationwide levels of homicide to a historic peak toward the end of Prohibition. At the same time, White ethnic gangs were integrated into the urban political machines and organized crime syndicates of that era. Moreover, these groups existed within a burgeoning urban industrial economy in which an abundance of low-skilled manufacturing jobs provided readily available opportunities for gang members to transition out of gang life in late adolescence or early adulthood. New Deal policies institutionalizing protections for unions and workers and expanding homeownership opportunities via federal mortgage underwriting, in turn, greatly enhanced economic security for widening sectors of the working class, especially White workers. In short, political patronage, lucrative illegal rackets, a vibrant labor movement, and New Deal labor and housing policies variously punched a ticket to upward mobility for countless White gang members during this period, and, by the mid-1960s, White street gangs had largely disappeared from the urban landscape.
During and after World War II, meanwhile, millions of Southern Blacks as well as Mexicans and Puerto Ricans migrated to America’s urban industrial centers. Conversely, millions of Whites left these cities in the postwar decades, an exodus facilitated by federal highway construction and housing policies that promoted racially exclusive suburbanization. Industry largely followed this outmigration in search of cheaper land, more pliable labor, lower taxes, and greater profits, leaving many central cities economically devastated and without an industrial base for their increasingly Black and Latino working class. At the same time, the urban political machines and organized crime groups that had once provided mobility for White ethnic gangs were in dramatic decline as municipal governance was bureaucratized and criminal rackets were supplanted by the development and expansion of legalized gambling and revolving credit markets. It is within this context that contemporary Black and Latino street gangs emerged and have persisted since the 1960s. Unlike their White predecessors, today’s gang members have been largely excluded from the conventional economy at the same time that society has abandoned the welfare state in favor of incarceration as its major strategy for managing inequality. Prison, the illicit drug trade, and persistent economic dislocation are among the fundamental realities shaping life for contemporary gang members.
Street gangs, violence, and crime, both historical and contemporary, must be understood against this broader backdrop of societal transformation.