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date: 02 December 2021

Gangs, Crime, and Racefree

Gangs, Crime, and Racefree

  • Roberto R. AspholmRoberto R. AspholmSchool of Social Work, University of St. Thomas


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.


  • Policing
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Crime


Gangs, crime, and race are among the most fraught and politically charged topics in both the realm of social science and in broader public discourse in the United States. This article examines the relationships between these phenomena as they have evolved within the context of the major political-economic transformations of the last century or so, particularly the rise and fall of the urban industrial economy. Making sense of this history will help clarify how issues of gangs, crime, and race have been shaped and reshaped by historical developments and how we might best apprehend their nexuses, both historically and in the contemporary moment.

The first section explores White street gangs from the late 19th century through roughly the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Shaped primarily by the explosion of industrial capitalism, urbanization, and European immigration, White gangs dominated the urban landscape during this period. The second section examines the period from the mid-1960s to the present time, when Black and Latino gangs have superseded their White predecessors. This shift has taken shape within the context of social forces in diametrical opposition to those shaping the preceding period, namely, urban deindustrialization, suburbanization, and Black and Latino migration and immigration to cities. The final section summarizes the lessons to be gleaned from this historical analysis and offers some concluding insights into the relationship between gangs, crime, and race.

White Gangs in the Industrial Era

Industrialization, Urbanization, and Social Disorganization

Though groups of young, mostly male outlaws have long been a feature of human civilization, the modern American street gang arose as an integral feature of the urban landscape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Hagedorn, 2008). This period saw an unprecedented explosion of urbanization, driven by the rapidly accelerating development of industrial production. In 1850, only 15% of Americans lived in cities. A half century later, this proportion had increased to 40%, and by 1920 more Americans lived in cities than in rural areas (Rees, 2016). In the six decades between 1870 and 1930, the collective population of the nation’s six largest manufacturing hubs, New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis, increased nearly sevenfold, from 2.3 million to over 15.5 million. Most of this unprecedented population growth was driven by European immigration. By 1900, roughly three-quarters of the residents of many major U.S. cities were immigrants and their children; by 1920, one-third of all Americans fit this description (Hirschman & Mogford, 2009).

Urban street gangs emerged in step with these developments. The earliest scholarly study of these groups, Frederic M. Thrasher’s The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago, published in 1927, definitively situated the gangs of this era within the industrial urban landscape. Indeed, The Gang was but one in a long series of seminal studies produced by the Chicago school of sociology, whose ecological approach to the study of urban life was firmly rooted in this burgeoning industrial context (Park & Burgess, 1925). “The most important conclusion,” Thrasher (1927) wrote of his gang study, “is that gangland represents a geographically and socially interstitial area in the city” (p. 22). Describing the geographical dimension of this dynamic, Thrasher noted that “as better residential districts recede before the encroachments of business and industry, the gang develops one manifestation of the economic, moral, and cultural frontier which marks the interstice” (p. 23). This geographic zone—the slums—was characterized by a fraught mixture of houses and apartment buildings on the one hand, and factories, warehouses, railyards, rooming houses, and vice districts on the other. This combination, Thrasher argued, normalized the transient presence of nonresidents, disrupted the peace typical of more uniformly residential neighborhoods, and undermined collective efficacy among neighbors. That these dynamics predominated in urban areas with the oldest and most rundown housing stock—having been built quickly, near jobs in industrial districts—exacerbated these issues and fueled residential turnover, as families moved to more stable neighborhoods as soon as they were able to do so (Park & Burgess, 1925).

Yet Thrasher (1927) noted that street gangs were interstitial in other ways as well. Reflecting the urban demography of the era, the gangs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were overwhelmingly made up of the children of ethnic European immigrants, most notably those from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and other Slavic countries. Among the 880 gangs for which Thrasher had demographic data, for example, 747—nearly 85%—were composed of second-generation European immigrants. This distinctly European-immigrant gang paradigm prevailed in other cities as well (Adamson, 2000; Sante, 1991; Whyte, 1943). Gang involvement during this period was also common among the children of Black migrants from the rural South, though on a scale commensurately smaller than their more populous White counterparts. In general, these immigrant and migrant communities faced a range of challenges associated with the transition from a simple agrarian rural life dominated by customs and primary social relations to a complex industrial urban world dominated by secondary social relations (Drake & Cayton, 1945; Thomas & Znaniecki, 1984). While immigrant and migrant groups left behind the traditional institutions of socialization that characterized the former setting, the underdeveloped institutions in the slums of rapidly expanding industrial cities were inadequate for the task of socializing wayward youth (Landesco, 1932). Chicago school researchers described the totality of these dynamics as “social disorganization,” which they considered the necessary context within which street gangs emerged and thrived (Park & Burgess, 1925).

The Chicago school’s emphasis on urban ecology and social disorganization as the drivers of gangs and criminality clashed with predominant notions of biological racism and anti-immigrant nativism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In a series of studies, Clifford R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay (1969) found that levels of juvenile delinquency and adult criminality were highest in slum districts characterized by social disorganization and, crucially, that this remained true even as different ethnic groups cycled into and out of these areas. Levels of delinquency and criminality, in short, were produced by distinct characteristics of neighborhood ecology, which Chicago school researchers attributed to “natural” processes of urban development, rather than to ostensibly dysfunctional ethnic cultures or inborn group traits (Persons, 1987).

White Ethnic Gangs

Interethnic hostilities among streets gangs in cities like Chicago, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia were often fierce, reflecting the broader ethnic, religious, and neighborhood rivalries of the times (Adamson, 2000; Diamond, 2009; Sante, 1991; Thrasher, 1927; Whyte, 1943). In accordance with the blended nature of ethnic residential patterns, however, interethnic gang organization was also rather common. For example, a sizable plurality of ethnic gangs in Thrasher’s study, 351, was interethnic in composition. Blacks, on the other hand, experienced greater relative segregation in the urban North, particularly following the first wave of the Great Migration during the World War I era, and increasingly so thereafter (Osofsky, 1966; Spear, 1967). Accordingly, as a result of both the widespread racist antipathies of the day and gangs’ territorial nature, gangs comprising White and Black members, though they did exist, were relatively few in number. Indeed, as John M. Hagedorn (2006, 2008) highlighted, many White gangs in Chicago, particularly the Irish gangs of the city’s South Side, were virulently racist and served as the violent vanguard of a racially segregated social order. In this sense, these groups functioned with the tacit approval of many adults in their neighborhoods, who viewed them as a protective force from outsiders, particularly Blacks. Black and Latino gangs existed in many cities as well, though these demographic groups comprised a rather limited segment of the urban populace prior to the 1960s and, thus, a similarly limited proportion of urban street gangs (Adamson, 2000; Diamond, 2009; Hagedorn, 2008; Moore, 1978).

Most of the gangs of this era were relatively small and disorganized groups of adolescent boys and young men who engaged in petty criminality and fought one another for access to public space and amenities in severely overcrowded slums. In Thrasher’s (1927) famous characterization, these groups arose from unsupervised adolescent playgroups that “formed spontaneously, and then integrated through conflict” (p. 57). These conflicts involved everything from brawls to gunfights to the use of dynamite and homemade explosives. “Gang warfare is ruthless,” Thrasher noted, adding that “fatalities are only too frequent in clashes between rival gangs” (p. 181). Luc Sante (1991) described turn-of-the-century Manhattan in similar terms, declaring gangs to be the “basic unit of social life among young males,” and noting that, though they engaged in violent conflict, “violence was a normal part of life in their always-contested environment; turf warfare was a condition of the neighborhood” (p. 197; see also Whyte, 1943).

Not all gang violence, however, was of the largely expressive street-corner variety. The rise of the regulatory state, most notably via Prohibition, created markets for bootlegging and other criminal rackets—and for the instrumental violence that often accompanies competition and attempts to regulate such enterprises. Indeed, the “beer wars” of Prohibition pushed national levels of homicide in the early 1930s to heights that would not be seen for another half century (Landesco, 1968; Lombardo, 2013; McGirr, 2016). While the beer wars and other conflicts over rackets were primarily the domain of more formally organized criminal groups, these organizations were essentially extensions of adolescent street gangs, composed of gang members in their 20s and early 30s who had transitioned to the “big time” (Landesco, 1968; Lombardo, 2013).

Thus, while the rough-and-ready street-corner group may have been the predominant urban gang archetype of this period, it was not the only one, nor did these rudimentary groups necessarily remain as such. If industrialization and urbanization created the conditions for the widespread emergence of urban street gangs, these forces also catalyzed the development of machine politics and organized crime syndicates, phenomena in which street gangs also played integral roles.

Political Machines, Organized Crime, and the Industrial Economy

White ethnic gangs often served as the grassroots muscle for the powerful political machines that dominated urban politics from roughly the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. In the most basic terms, political machines won and maintained power through a web of reciprocal relationships with constituent groups, in which votes were exchanged for patronage of various kinds—city jobs, preferential municipal services, access to housing or commercial space, police protection for criminal rackets, personal favors, and the like. These arrangements were facilitated via a vast, disciplined party apparatus organized down to the block level (Gosnell, 1933). In exchange for such political spoils, street gangs (typically referred to as “clubs” in this context) delivered the votes of their members, friends, and affiliates, and performed “various types of ‘work’ at the polls, such as slugging, intimidating, kidnaping, vandalism (tearing down signs, etc.), ballot-fixing, repeating, stealing ballot boxes, miscounting, falsifying returns, etc.” (Thrasher, 1927, p. 477). Gangs not only served as the “strong-arm squad” for these political machines, they also served as the “farm league” from which the ranks of the machines themselves and their various branches in municipal departments were drawn and reproduced (Sante, 1991, p. 198). “The Irish gang,” as Hagedorn (2006) wryly observed, “in effect, was reinvented as the Chicago Police Department” (p. 198). Conversely, pre–New Deal allegiances to the Republican Party of emancipation, racist discrimination, and relatively small numbers meant that Blacks were typically relegated to junior-partner status in the political machines of this era and enjoyed few of their spoils (Erie & Kogan, 2014; Grimshaw, 1992).

This farm-league dynamic characterized the relationship between street gangs and organized crime syndicates as well. In some cases, adolescent gangs collectively and gradually matured into more organized criminality; in others, more talented and criminally inclined individual gang members were recruited into existing adult crime syndicates (Lombardo, 2013; Thrasher, 1927; Whyte, 1943). Importantly, like their adolescent gang counterparts, these syndicates enjoyed protection from police interference and were integrated into the workings of municipal political machines. “The creation of modern-day organized crime,” Robert M. Lombardo (2013) noted, can be located in the “interdependencies between machine politicians, vice entrepreneurs, and criminal gangs” in the late 19th and early 20th century urban landscape: Criminal groups provided financial and electoral support for elected officials, who reciprocated with political protection and patronage. “Not only does the political boss utilize the boys’ gang and the gang club,” Thrasher remarked, “but he enters into more or less definite alliances with the gangsters and the criminal gang,” the latter of which “originates with younger boys who have probably been favored by the politician and who have gradually become criminals, in which roles they are probably even more useful to him” (pp. 469–470). In short, not only were opportunities for upward mobility via machine politics and organized crime available to gang youth during this period, such opportunities were typically predicated on gang membership.

Those gang members who did not graduate to careers in politics or organized crime generally “matured out” of gang life in late adolescence or early adulthood. Within the context of a burgeoning urban industrial economy, job opportunities were often readily available, including for those with little or no education or formal skills, like the typical gang member. To be certain, the urban industrial order of the first third of the 20th century was no egalitarian paradise: Work was often difficult, dirty, and dangerous, and workers were paid poorly and enjoyed few protections. The Great Depression, moreover, cast millions of workers into joblessness. The Depression years aside, however, work in urban manufacturing was typically plentiful, and immigrant families were often able to move out of the slums into better neighborhoods within a generation or two. With the Depression-era resurgence of the labor movement and advent of the New Deal, moreover, industrial employment proved increasingly stable and gainful, as protections for workers and labor unions were expanded and formalized and wages increased alongside workers’ bargaining power. New Deal federal mortgage underwriting, meanwhile, extended homeownership opportunities to growing sectors of the White working class (Lichtenstein, 2002; Self, 2003).

The postwar decades, in turn, represented the pinnacle of industrialism in the United States, a period characterized by large-scale manufacturing, mass production, explosive economic growth, historic rates of unionism, and rising wages and standards of living for workers. These years have been described as the “great compression” as a reflection of the decline in inequality and the egalitarian gains for workers achieved during this period (Stein, 2010). The overall prosperity of these years, however, masked intensifying urban dislocation and the long-term implications of economic restructuring that would create very different circumstances in U.S. cities heading into the 1970s and beyond.

In summary, from the late 19th century up until roughly the mid-1960s, White ethnic gangs dominated the streets of U.S. cities. Like their Black and Latino counterparts of later decades, these groups routinely engaged in collective violence and other criminality, ranging from petty thievery to organized criminal rackets to murder. While business owners, labor unionists, and working-class denizens more generally often loathed these depredations, many of the gangs of this era were also integrated into the broader social, political, and economic fabric of urban life. In many cases, gang involvement actually provided direct entry for working-class youth into careers in local machine politics, municipal employment, and the crooked economic ladder of organized crime. More generally, gang involvement did not typically hinder young men’s life chances in a flourishing industrial economy with an abundance of low-skilled manufacturing jobs. In addition, a reinvigorated labor movement during the Great Depression and the enactment of the New Deal dramatically expanded unionism and wages and protections for workers, effectively creating the American middle class. Federal housing policies, moreover, expanded suburban homeownership opportunities to millions of White workers in the postwar decades.

By the late 1960s, however, the urban industrial economy and New Deal social order in which White gang members, like America’s working class more broadly, had found widespread upward mobility was quickly unraveling.

Black and Latino Gangs in the Postindustrial Era

Suburbanization, Deindustrialization, and the Transforming Urban Landscape

The postwar era marked the beginnings of a fundamental reordering of American life and a dramatic change in trajectory for U.S. cities, in particular. The construction of the federal interstate system and the extension of homeownership opportunities to widening sectors of the American citizenry via Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Administration (VA) mortgage insurance programs facilitated an explosion of suburban residential development (Jackson, 1985). The adoption into federal policy of the private real estate sector’s standards of property and neighborhood assessment in determining eligibility ensured that government-backed mortgage loans would be largely circumscribed to new suburban developments; the codification of the private sector’s consideration of Blacks and racial mixing as threats to property values and neighborhood stability, moreover, meant that Blacks would be effectively barred from FHA and VA housing programs until the passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act (Hirsch, 2000; Self, 2003). Thus, millions of Whites left central cities for the burgeoning suburbs in the decades following World War II. At the same time, the wartime and postwar economic boom and persistent Jim Crow oppression brought millions of Blacks from the South to urban industrial centers in the North (George, 2009). Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in search of economic opportunities, stimulated by wartime “bracero” worker programs, followed suit (Fernández, 2010). In summary, central cities across the country collectively lost millions of White residents and gained millions of Black and Latino residents during the postwar decades.

This White suburban exodus was accompanied by an attendant shift in economic activity away from central cities toward suburbs and small-town hinterlands. Beginning in the 1950s, the U.S. cities that had been the nation’s industrial hubs collectively lost millions of manufacturing jobs, most of which were unionized, paid well, and required little formal education or prior training. Many such jobs were automated out of existence by the mechanization of manufacturing processes. Others were made obsolete by the U.S.-supported industrial development of global allies and attendant free trade policies, which allowed foreign imports to undercut American manufacturing (Stein, 1998). Millions of jobs, meanwhile, moved to suburbs, small towns, and the Sun Belt, where companies could secure expansive tracts of land on the cheap, escape the power of city-based labor unions, secure a more pliable workforce, and evade high central-city taxes (Gordon, 1977; Walker 1981). Just as Black and Latino urban populations were exploding, in other words, the industrial economic base of the working class was disappearing from the urban landscape. These shifts of capital and employment away from central cities, in turn, undermined sources of local tax revenues and the ability of city governments to respond to the increasing crises of structural unemployment and poverty wrought by these very transformations (Reed, 1999).

In addition to these economic developments, the bases for political and organized criminal integration that had served White gang members in previous eras were dramatically weakened following the postwar period. By the late 1960s, urban political machines as they existed in the mid-20th century—much less in the early 20th century—had largely disappeared, weakened by the bureaucratization of city government, merit-based municipal employment policies, the expansion of the federal welfare state following the New Deal, and the growth and suburbanization of the middle class, among other factors (Reid & Kurth, 1992; Sorauf, 1960). While Black political power and access to municipal resources certainly expanded during this period, the capacity to dispense patronage was dramatically curtailed in this new context (Reed, 1999). The decline of urban machine politics and organized labor, the legalization of gambling, the explosion of credit cards, and the rise of the payday loan industry, moreover, largely put an end to the type of organized crime that flourished from the late 19th century through the postwar decades (Jacobs, 2020; Kroger, 2008; Lombardo, 2013; Vaz, 2020).

Like their White counterparts, Black workers benefited tremendously from New Deal labor laws beginning in the 1930s. In addition, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s produced egalitarian victories that, along with ending Jim Crow and outlawing overt racial discrimination, facilitated upward mobility for many Blacks and other people of color. In addition, though Blacks still faced racist discrimination in civic life, by the mid-1980s, many of the nation’s largest cities, including Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Atlanta, and New Orleans, were governed by Black-led and Black-dominated political regimes (Reed, 1999). Nonetheless, these developments took place within a largely unfavorable set of wider circumstances, as the aforementioned political and economic changes were intensifying the submersion of widening sectors of the Black and Latino urban working class, along with the street gangs embedded in these communities. White gangs, meanwhile, lost the battles they waged against racial integration in their neighborhoods, and, aided by the opportunities described previously, increasingly disappeared from the urban landscape (Diamond, 2009; Hagedorn, 2015; Schneider, 1999).

Structural Unemployment, Gang Emergence, and Increasing Violence

As alluded to in the preceding section, U.S. cities were in the early stages of economic restructuring in the 1960s when Blacks and Latinos emerged as substantial urban populations. Urban deindustrialization and the rise of a labor market sharply segmented into low-paid, unskilled services, on the one hand, and high-paid, high-skilled, white-collar jobs, on the other, had a particularly devastating effect on Black and Latino young men—that is, on the very age and gender demographic that has always dominated the ranks of street gangs. The national unemployment rate for Blacks more than doubled in the quarter century from 1951 to 1975, from 5.3% to 13.8%. Black youth, particularly unskilled workers and those in central cities, were hit especially hard by these trends. Over roughly this same period, employment rates for Black males in every age category from 16 to 34 years old declined dramatically, from a one-eighth reduction at the upper end of this age profile to a two-thirds reduction at its lower end (Wilson, 1987). The figures were often even more troubling in urban communities, where the proportion of low-skilled Black men ages 18–50 who were neither working nor in school reached nearly 40% in 1980, double the rate from two decades earlier (Clegg & Usmani, 2019). Notably, the bulk of these dramatic increases in unemployment occurred after the enactment of historic civil rights protections, which were unequipped to address the economic restructuring driving such dislocation (Stein, 1998).

These developments precipitated a historic increase in homicide and other violent crime, the respective rates of which doubled and tripled between 1960 and 1980. While violence increased throughout the country and among all demographics, the increases in central cities and among Blacks were the most pronounced (Clegg & Usmani, 2019). In many cities, street gangs had much to do with these increases. By the early 1960s, Black gangs in Chicago began aggressive campaigns of recruitment and confederation in the city’s rapidly expanding ghetto, as they built their gangs into “nations”—broad-based groups with branches in different neighborhoods that shared some iteration of central leadership—and waged what would become decades-long internecine conflicts (Cooley, 2011; Diamond, 2009; Keiser, 1969). In 1970s New York, gangs in Harlem, Brooklyn, and, especially, the South Bronx resumed widespread warfare following a lull in violence precipitated by the spread of heroin use among gang members during the late 1960s (Schneider, 1999). In Los Angeles, the Crips spread like wildfire throughout the region in the early 1970s, with the gangs resisting their incursions forming a loosely knit alliance that came to be known as the Bloods (Davis, 1990). Los Angeles’s Latino gangs, moreover, a number of which had been founded many decades earlier, began their own processes of proliferation and intensifying conflict (Moore, 1978, 1991; Vigil, 1988). Other cities throughout the country saw similar groundswells of gang activity during this period as well (Miller, 1975).

Increases in gang activity and violence were further fueled by the decline of Black Power, Puerto Rican independence, and other progressive social movements during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many gang members, both individually and collectively, had themselves participated in these movements in cities like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles (Davis, 1990; Diamond, 2009; Hagedorn, 2008; Schneider, 1999). Beyond such direct involvement, moreover, these movements provided a broader context of solidarity and hope that attenuated to some extent the prospect of all-out internecine gang violence. As Mike Davis (1990), John M. Hagedorn (2008), and others have argued, the end of these movements in the early 1970s contributed to intensifying sentiments of despair and an attendant escalation of violent hostilities on the streets thereafter in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago.

The Rise of the Carceral State

The political response to the increase in urban violence during the 1960s and 1970s was a turn toward “law and order” in the form of an increasingly suppressive brand of urban policing and a dramatic expansion of the carceral state. These developments took shape primarily at local and state levels of government, though they were reflected rhetorically—and, later, in policy—at the federal level as well (Forman, 2017; Fortner, 2015). While federal policymakers might have responded to increases in joblessness and violence with industrial planning or an expansion of the welfare state, a commitment to commercial Keynesianism, predicated on investor confidence and assuming continuous macroeconomic growth, ultimately precluded such possibilities (Stein, 1998). Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty thus attempted to address intensifying economic dislocation among Black urbanites via antidiscrimination laws and job training but failed to pursue a public works program or other direct macroeconomic interventions that might have addressed structural unemployment (Reed, 2020). Without the resources needed to combat inequality at the state and local levels, policymakers turned to the most practicable alternatives at hand, namely, policing and incarceration, to address the crisis of crime and violence (Clegg & Usmani, 2019; Johnson, 2017). Thus, between the mid-1970s and the first decade of the 21st century, the number of prisoners nationwide exploded nearly eightfold, from roughly 200,000 to nearly 1.6 million. The number of people in jail and on parole or probation similarly skyrocketed, from a combined 1.5 million in 1980 to 5.3 million in 2016 (Sentencing Project, 2020).

Street gangs were often an essential element in the discourse accompanying this conservative turn. As early as 1969, Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, himself the president of a notorious Irish gang as an adolescent, declared “war on gangs”; in a matter of months, Chicago and Illinois state police assassinated Black Panthers leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark and arrested a number of Chicago gang leaders on trumped-up murder charges (Hagedorn, 2008). Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates, who presided over a veritable reign of police terror against Black Angelenos from the late 1970s to the 1992 riots—themselves fueled by unchecked police violence—was fond of describing gang members as “terrorists” and likening urban policing to guerrilla warfare (Davis, 1990; Felker-Kantor, 2018). Similar moral panics about Black and Latino street gangs unfolded in other cities as well, often in ways that were explicitly racialized (Durán, 2013; Zatz, 1987). “Today’s master symbol for excluded Others—the barbarian hordes threatening to crash the gates and destroy the foundations of civilization—is the gang member,” Dwight Conquergood (1996) observed. “The gang member is our urban savage, an all purpose devil figure onto which we project our deepest fears about social disorder and demographic change” (p. 11; see also Brotherton, 2015). Indeed, “gangs” are often invoked by police and elected officials as a way of pathologizing entire communities and by prosecutors as a means of demonizing criminal defendants, playing on the stereotypes of jurors and judges to secure convictions and maximize sentences (Duck, 2009; Hagedorn, 2021).

Incarceration, however, did not eradicate street gangs; indeed, in many cases, it strengthened them. James B. Jacobs’s (1977) study of Stateville, an Illinois maximum-security prison, details how the emergence of Chicago’s gang nations during the 1960s and the subsequent incarceration of hundreds of their members by the early 1970s led to a complete transformation of the traditional inmate social hierarchy as these groups effectively seized control of the prison. In turn, these gangs grew their ranks dramatically in the penitentiary, as men who were unaffiliated entering prison joined gangs for protection and camaraderie. By the late 1970s, the Illinois Department of Corrections had become the unequivocal epicenter of power in Chicago gangland (Hagedorn, 2015). Similarly, among both Black and Latino gangs in Los Angeles, imprisonment strengthened group organization to the point where, “today, the main source of gang hierarchy is prison” (Phillips, 2012, p. 96; see also Weide, 2020). In New York, where street gangs had effectively disappeared during the 1970s, new gangs emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s on Rikers Island, the city’s main carceral complex, and in the state’s prison system, from which they were exported to the city’s streets (Brotherton & Barrios, 2004).

The Underground Drug Economy

Beginning in the late 1960s, though at different times in different cities, Blacks and Latinos began to take control of the illicit drug trade in their communities, which, to that point, had typically been the domain of White crime syndicates. In Chicago, gang nations like the Vice Lords and Blackstone Rangers wrested control of the drug trade from the Outfit, the city’s traditional organized crime group (Cooley, 2011; Hagedorn, 2015). A similar process took place in New York City, although there the takeover was facilitated by single-minded drug “crews,” which, by the 1980s, had replaced the gangs of the postwar decades as the predominant form of street organization among working-class youth in that city (Bourgois, 1995; Curtis, 2003; Schneider, 1999). Such city-specific idiosyncrasies notwithstanding, by the time crack cocaine hit the streets of urban America in the 1980s, the retail drug trade in Black and Latino communities was run by groups of young people from those same communities.

Like the takeover of illicit drug markets, however, street gang involvement in the drug economy has varied considerably by group, by city, and across time. On one end of the spectrum has been Chicago, whose Black and Latino gang nations reoriented their considerable organizational apparatuses around the illicit drug trade in the 1980s and 1990s (Hagedorn, 2008, 2015; Padilla, 1992; Venkatesh, 2000; Venkatesh & Levitt, 2000). This corporate model of gang-as-drug-enterprise has been found in other cities as well (Sánchez-Jankowski, 1991; Taylor, 1990). In New York City, on the other hand, street gangs have had little reported involvement in drug dealing, which has been controlled by crews organized specifically for the purpose of drug trafficking (Bourgois, 1995; Curtis, 2003). In Los Angeles, street gangs have typically exerted some degree of control over the drug trade within their respective territories, and some members of these gangs are involved in selling drugs, but drug dealing has not constituted a corporate-style gang enterprise (Moore, 1978; Phillips, 2012). Research indicates that this model has counterparts in other cities as well (Decker & Van Winkle, 1996; Hagedorn, 1998a). While the amount of violence that might be attributed to conflicts over drug markets likely varies just as much by group, by city, and across time, the nationwide spike in homicides in the late 1980s and early 1990s and its subsequent decline have been credibly attributed to the rise and fall of such conflicts, particularly as related to crack cocaine markets (Cork, 1999; Johnson et al., 2000; Wendel et al., 2016).

Regardless of such variation, for the vast majority of those involved—gang members or otherwise—working in the underground drug economy is incredibly risky and poorly compensated. Even at the height of the crack cocaine era in the late 1980s and early 1990s, retail-level drug dealers working in some of the most lucrative open-air drug markets in cities like Chicago and New York were earning roughly the equivalent of minimum wage. While their superiors earned substantially more, such positions were scarce and decidedly out of reach for all but a small cadre of those involved (Bourgois, 1995; Levitt & Venkatesh, 2000; Padilla, 1992). More recent research, moreover, indicates that the economic prospects for gang members in the drug economy have deteriorated dramatically, even by these relatively inauspicious standards, a trend fueled by the shift from geographically fixed open-air drug markets to mobile sales practices. These developments have decentralized illicit drug markets away from their one-time base in poor urban neighborhoods and displaced the gang members who once filled the ranks of open-air drug operations (Aspholm, 2021).

Drug prohibition and criminalization, which congealed in the 1980s as the “war on drugs,” have further fueled the carceral state. As key participants in the illicit drug trade in many cities, gang members have been hit especially hard by these trends. While the drug economy has provided a source of subsistence for many gang members and some degree of economic mobility for a select few, the fallout from drug market violence and hyperincarceration have proven largely catastrophic for both those directly involved and the wider communities in which they are embedded. In short, instead of functioning as a springboard for middle-class mobility, the drug game has mostly produced downward mobility in Black and Latino urban communities (Aspholm, 2020; Bourgois, 1995; Hagedorn, 2008; Padilla, 1992; Venkatesh, 2000).

Persistent Dislocation and the Neoliberal Turn

Contemporary street gang involvement, participation in the drug trade, and incarceration are all byproducts of acute, persistent economic dislocation among working-class Latinos and, especially, Blacks. The levels of unemployment and joblessness among urban Blacks today simply have no historical precedent in the United States among any demographic, save for perhaps the Depression years. Consider, for example, Andrew J. Diamond’s (2009) citation of a 10% unemployment rate among Chicago youth ages 16–20 in 1950 as indicative of alarming economic dislocation. By comparison, the jobless rate for working-age Black teenagers in Chicago in 2014 was a staggering 88%; for those ages 20–24, the jobless rate was 53% (Ross & Svajlenka, 2016). At a community level, some areas of Chicago’s South and West Sides have official unemployment rates as high as 41%, jobless rates as high as 85%, and poverty rates as high as 61% (Farooqui, 2017). While Chicago may be something of an outlier in these regards (such community-level analyses of other cities are scarce), similar, if somewhat less pronounced, citywide trends can be found throughout much of the country (Ross & Svajlenka, 2016).

In short, the prevailing conditions in submerged working-class urban communities are exactly those in which gangs and violence most readily thrive, and there are few opportunities by which gang members might transition into a more conventional life. Indeed, not only were employment opportunities much more readily available to the White gang members of the industrial era, but the rough-and-tumble, solidaristic nature of gang life actually translated well to the unionized shop floor of the industrial workplace. “In the sixties, we still had an economy in this country that valued the strength of an unskilled man,” as Mike Davis has pointed out. “If you were a working-class guy—you were tough and loyal and courageous—that meant something in the workplace” (Sloan, 2005; see also Schneider, 1999). This is no longer the case, as many studies have documented the incredible difficulties that gang members face in pursuing conventional employment, difficulties often compounded by contact with the criminal justice system (Aspholm, 2021; Bourgois, 1995; Padilla, 1992). In cities across the country, this has meant a definitive disruption in what was once a rather straightforward process of “maturing out” of gang life during late adolescence or early adulthood. As Cle Sloan (2005), a Bloods member from Los Angeles, observed, “With the jobs leaving, I think what it did, it expanded the [gang] subculture world as being, like, your total world.”

The deindustrialization of U.S. cities that shaped these dynamics beginning in the mid-1960s has been but one dimension of a broader reordering of the political economy since that time. Rooted in a rhetoric of free market rationality, neoliberal capitalism has largely gutted the social order built during the New Deal and Great Society periods via regressive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, welfare state retrenchment, the commodification of public goods and services, and the erosion of protections for workers and consumers (Harvey, 2005). These developments have produced unprecedented levels of inequality in recent decades, with Black and Latino gang members near the very bottom of this highly stratified social order.

In summary, the collapse of the urban industrial economy occurred in step with the massive migration and immigration of Blacks and Latinos to U.S. cities. The urban landscape that these demographic groups inherited was, in myriad ways, fundamentally different from the one their White counterparts navigated up through the postwar decades. These changes and the ascent of neoliberalism have produced a decidedly different trajectory for Black and Latino street gangs as compared to their White forerunners, one that has been characterized by unprecedented levels of incarceration, largely menial work in the illicit drug trade, and persistent economic dislocation.

Making Sense of Gangs, Crime, and Race

This article offers a historically grounded analysis of gangs, crime, and race, the ways that the relationships between these phenomena have changed over time, and why these changes have taken place. This history clearly refutes the notion that street gangs, violence, and criminality constitute inherent characteristics of specific racialized groups, namely, Blacks and Latinos (e.g., Latzer, 2016; Riley, 2014), since these activities were the near-exclusive domain of Whites during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, it is worth pointing out that the Irish, Italians, Poles, and other Slavs of that era were often considered culturally pathological, if not biologically inferior. In other words, similar notions of racial and cultural deficiency were invoked to explain violence and criminality among White ethnic gangs during a period when contemporary notions of Whiteness as a monolithic category encompassing all people of European descent—or, at the least, doing so in equal measure—had not fully coalesced (Diamond, 2009; Reed, 2013). More generally, the idea that culture can be inferred from behavior and, in turn, that behavior is explained by culture represents an insupportable tautology—and in this case a tautology of the most reactionary variety.

But this history also cuts against the notion that the principal factor distinguishing the experiences and mobility of urban Whites of previous decades with those of contemporary urban Blacks and Latinos—and, by extension, the street gangs of these respective contexts—is racism. To be certain, racism has played an invidious role historically in the construction of oppressive social orders and continues to have deleterious effects on the life chances of Blacks, Latinos, and other non-Whites. Yet racism does not explain the economic restructuring that decimated the urban working class and U.S. cities more broadly beginning in the postwar decades: Industries automated jobs and abandoned cities in pursuit of greater profits, not in pursuit of White supremacy. Federal highway construction and mortgage underwriting policies that facilitated the suburbanization of both industry and millions of White Americans were fueled by the political prerogatives of undermining labor militancy and promoting consumer culture (Self, 2003). The racist exclusion of Blacks from federal mortgage insurance, moreover, reflected “New Dealers’ need to accommodate capital” in their promotion of Keynesian growth politics, in this instance via the perpetuation of “racially tiered housing markets” (Reed, 2020, pp. 111–112). Similarly, the decline of urban machine politics and organized crime and the rise of the carceral state can be traced not to conspiracies to undermine urban communities of color or to reconstitute a system of racial subordination, but to discernible political and economic developments.

As various scholars point out, the ethnic assimilation theories of the Chicago school of sociology and other relatively “colorblind” gang scholarship of the postwar era have been unable to account for the trajectory of Black and Latino gangs, particularly in the post–civil rights era (Durán, 2013; Hagedorn, 2006, 2008). But if this earlier scholarship underestimated anti-Black (and perhaps anti-Latino) racism, it also reified an urban industrial order that did not survive postwar suburbanization. Racism has unquestionably been one important dimension of these historical dynamics—in effect, where not by design—but racism in itself does not explain them.

In the end, the mobility of the White ethnic gangs of the early- to mid-20th century, as well as the broader communities to which they belonged, are best understood as the products of a historically particular social order characterized by exploding urbanization, a burgeoning industrial economy, a thriving labor movement, urban machine politics and organized crime, and New Deal government largesse. This trajectory was not facilitated by any particular ethnic or racial culture, group work ethic, or other form of collective bootstrapism as so much revisionist history suggests (Reed, 2020). On the flip side, the striking lack of mobility among Black and Latino street gangs from the 1960s onward, and the continued dislocation of the urban communities in which they are embedded, can be traced directly to the collapse of this earlier social order, especially the unionized industrial urban economy (Hagedorn, 1998a, 1998b; Moore, 1991). At its core, race is a “taxonomy of ascriptive difference” that “help[s] to stabilize a social order by legitimating its hierarchies of wealth, power, and privilege, including its social division of labor, as the natural order of things” (Reed, 2013, p. 49). With this in mind, the disappearance of pernicious stereotypes of ethnic Whites in the mid-20th century on the one hand, and the persistence of racism against Blacks and Latinos since that time on the other, should be comprehended within the context of the divergent political-economic paradigms of those respective eras: the first, a period of broad egalitarian gains for the working class; the second, a period of intensifying inequality for the working class.

In a global study of homicide, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC, 2011) concluded that “the link between homicide and development is one of the clearest,” with higher levels of homicide being “associated with low human and economic development” and “countries with high levels of income inequality” being “afflicted by homicide rates almost four times higher than more equal societies” (p. 10). This is how gangs and crime are best understood—as predictable byproducts of inequality and despair. In some contexts, like the contemporary United States, this inequality is highly racialized within what is understood to be a racially heterogeneous population. But just as often it is not, as countries in the regions with the highest overall levels of homicide in the world—Central American, the Caribbean, and sub-Saharan Africa—tend to have rather homogenous populations with respect to what is commonly understood as race. Regardless, street gangs and other groups of armed young men who find themselves at the bottom of the social order with few opportunities for mobility are involved in a great deal of the serious violence throughout much of the world (Auyero et al., 2015; Hagedorn, 2008; UNODC, 2011).

In the end, the relationship between gangs, crime, and race can only be understood through careful analysis of the political-economic forces shaping urban life and patterns of inequality in a given context. As the forgoing discussion demonstrates, this is as true today as it was a century ago.

Further Reading

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