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Youth Gangs in the Twenty-First Century: Back to the Future

This is the first in a series of blogs adapted from the 4th edition of Youth Gangs in American Society by Shelden along with Sharon Tracy and William Brown (Cengage, 2013).

Santa Ana Gang Unit

Photo by 888 bailbond | flickr creative commons

Looking at the social conditions of present-day America, with widespread inequality and poverty, it appears that we have, in effect, gone “back to the future.” Not much has changed since the nineteenth century. Gangs are still with us, living in the same slums as their nineteenth-century counterparts, with mostly African Americans and Hispanics. The inner city is frequently envisioned as an area constituted predominantly of these two minority groups. Policymakers communicate their concern about the plight of the inner city. However, one question continues to surface from the center of this political concern: Are policymakers actually concerned about the social conditions of citizens residing in our inner cities, or are they simply worried about their ability (or inability) to contain this lower-strata population (not to mention getting re-elected)? Perhaps this “concern” is little more than a superficial reflective response—catering to dominant-class demands driven by the fear that their domain is threatened by inner-city inhabitants who want to flee the gang-occupied territories. How else might one explain, in a humanistic context, their reluctance to institute structural changes that offer real hope and opportunities to inner-city residents? Instead, they pass scores of legislative rubbish that foster the social control of an underclass, particularly those elements of the underclass who find themselves trapped within the inner cities of America—ethnic minority groups. For decades, American society has been successful in its geographic isolation of these disenfranchised groups.

One example of this segregation is provided by two studies conducted by Jonathan Kozol who found abundant evidence of the isolation and segregation of inner-city schoolchildren. This is done with two of his books written 13 years apart: Savage Inequalities (1992)and his follow-up Shame of the Nation(2005).What is most important here is the subtitle of this latter book: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.The data reported by Kozol in the latter book show that in places like Chicago, Washington, DC, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Boston, Los Angeles, and New York City, the proportion of public school enrollment that was black or Hispanic ranged from 78 to 95 percent. His research found that some specific schools were almost 100 percent black or Hispanic. In a New York City school where Kozol once taught, there were 11,000 children enrolled in 1997, and among these, only 26 were white—in other words, 99.8 percent were minorities. As Kozol notes: “Two-tenths of one percentage point now marked the difference between legally enforced apartheid in the South of 1954 [this was the date of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling] and socially and economically enforced apartheid in this New York City neighborhood.”

Keywords: economy, gangs, Randall Shelden

Posted in Blog, Social Justice

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