The Racial and Ethnic
Composition of Gangs
"Youth gangs have
always been made up of members of the ethnic groups occupying the lowest
rung on the American socioeconomic ladder. Today's gangs are
primarily black and Asian, along with those Hispanics living in conditions
no better than those of their grandfathers."
1992, p. 25)
A British intelligence officer told me that "In all of London there are about 400 languages spoken. In
Lambeth [one community in the Greater London area] there are 160 languages spoken.
The population of Lambeth is
Three years of wandering through gang-dominated neighborhoods introduced
me to a wide diversity of people. A drive along Independence Avenue in Kansas City,
from the west side of the city to the east, took me progressively through a series of neighborhoods
inhabited by Hispanics, African-Americans, Somalians, Russians, Asians, and back into another
Hispanic neighborhood. Although divided by only a street (also the
geographic dividing line between the states of Kansas and Missouri), the
Hispanic gang youth in Kansas City, Kansas, don't get along with Hispanic
gang youth on the Missouri side of the city, nor to the Asians get along
with the Hispanics, and so on.
|Field Note: Two days after completing my research in Kansas City I was informed
by police that a group of four Hispanic gang members were found
driving a van from the Kansas to the Missouri side
of the city at 6:00 in the morning.
The four youths, all under
16 years of age, were reportedly wearing bullet-proof vests and carrying
automatic weapons. The gang unit officer told me "We
caught 'em just in time. I think we just prevented another
This situation is developing in communities across the United States and in other countries as
well. The inability of people from different nations or races to
accommodate each another in the same city or neighborhood sometimes leads to conflict. This is evident in gang neighborhoods
where rental properties and
transient populations abound. There is little stability in those
neighborhoods and they are socially disorganized.
When I began my research
on gangs I thought most gang members in the United States were
African-Americans. That's what the mass media seemed
to portray. But the reality of the streets was quite
different. "The 1998 National Youth Gang Survey revealed that Hispanics were
the predominant racial/ethnic group among all gang members nationwide. As
shown in Table 19 (below), Hispanics accounted for 46 percent of all gang
members, followed by African Americans (34 percent), Caucasians (12
percent), Asians (6 percent), and other races (2 percent)." (1998
National Youth Gang Survey, 2000, page)
By 1999 those proportions had changed only slightly to be 47% Hispanic,
31% African-American, 13% Caucasian, and 7% Asian. (Egley,
[In a 6-year
longitudinal study of 204 African-American- and 143 non-Hispanic white
seventh-grade males in Pittsburgh, PA, it was found that] More African-American (23.8%) than
non-Hispanic whites (3.9%) had entered an antisocial gang by age 19.
et al., 1999)
The proportion of gang members who are Hispanic has been steadily
growing, as have the number of Hispanics living in the United States. The
estimated number of Hispanics living in the United States increased from
27,107,000 in 1995 to 32,832,000 in 2000 - an increase of approximately 20%
in five years. (U.S.
Census Bureau, page) This increase, due primarily to immigration and a high birth rate among
Hispanics, is now being felt beyond the sunbelt states as
Hispanics move into communities throughout the United States.
While the vast majority of Hispanics in the United States are hard-working and
make important contributions to the communities in which they live, some disaffected Hispanic
the growing Hispanic gang phenomenon.
An ethnically diverse population immigrating into the United States
results in a more ethnically diverse gang population. It has
been that way since peoples of other lands first began immigrating to the United
States. For example, in the late 1890's through the first decade of the 1900's,
many people from Ireland and Italy immigrated to the United States. At that
time, Irish and Italian street gangs were commonplace.
Note: A social
researcher said "I've heard people say that the United States
is a melting pot. Actually, it's more like a TV dinner. Everything is separate except for a few peas that get mixed up with
the potatoes or fall into the gravy."
Decades later we have other ethnic minorities immigrating here and, as is
often the case, a small proportion of their members are represented in the gang population.
became clear to me over the past three years it was that the most recently
arrived minority, unless supremely well suited to compete in American
society (as are many of the Asians as exemplified by their emphasis on
education and entrepreneurial skills), will likely
find a portion of its youth disenfranchised ... and they may turn to
gangs as a means of rebelling, finding a place for themselves, or for
earning an income, among other things. This is referred to in
the literature as the "immigration gang tradition" (Miller,
2001, p. 43).
Note: In one southern
community of 100,000 inhabitants, I learned that there were fourteen
(14) police-documented gangs. One was racially mixed, one was all
Caucasian, and the remaining twelve gangs were all African-American.
I wondered, was the extent of the racial purity of the gangs an
accident or an expression of segregation still existing in the
southern states of the United States.
While data on the racial and ethnic composition of gangs suggest
they are predominantly Hispanic, African-American, and Caucasian, what's
missing is a look inside those ethnic and racial groups. According to
the 1998 National Youth Gang Survey (2000),
Respondents estimated that more than one-third
(36 percent) of their youth gangs had a significant mixture of two or more
racial/ethnic groups. The largest proportion of these “mixed gangs” was
in small cities, where they represented 54 percent of all gangs, and the
smallest proportion was in large cities (32 percent). The proportion of
mixed gangs was larger in the Midwest than in any other region.
National Youth Gang Survey, 2000, page)
Not only are some gangs composed of a mixture of people from different
racial and/or ethnic groups,
within these racial and ethnic groups there are wide variations and
Note: I interviewed a community-based
treatment program Director in a Mexican-dominated neighborhood of a
large Midwest city. He distinguished between three
kinds of Mexican residents. "There are those who were
born here and have been here for generations, those who recently
emigrated from Mexico - legally or illegally, and those who migrated
here from southern California who are United States citizens - new
or generations old, legal immigrants, or illegal immigrants." He added that there are "conflicts between them all the
Depending upon their roots, these populations may or may not associate
with one another peaceably. Within the category of
"Hispanic," for example, are Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Rican,
Ecuadorians, Dominicans, Colombians, Panamanians, and
The situation is the same concerning African-Americans. Depending upon which African
nation an individual comes from, his or her relations with others of
African descent may vary. Antagonisms sometimes exist between West
Indian blacks ("Afro-Caribbeans," as they are sometimes called,
who come from such places as Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Trinidad,
Barbados, and Haiti) and blacks from the African continent (i.e., Ghana, Somalia, Kenya, Senegal, and Nigeria, as well as between ethnically
within those nations). Conflicts
also arise between continental Africans.
Conflict and distrust within the Asian
community also exists and may be observed at the gang level between Asians who are
natives of the Philippines, Korea,
Japan, Taiwan, China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India,
and other Asian nations. Conflicts between all of these ethnicities
(Hispanic, African, Asian) are sometimes ancient in origin and often fueled
by current world events.
I attended a conference of criminal justice
educators. One of the sessions dealt with "The
Borderlands." Research discussed at the session focused on
conflicts between people on each side of various geo-political borders such as the
United States and Mexico and Pakistan and Bangladesh.
It is evident that some
borderland conflicts were transported with their respective
populations as they migrated to other lands. For example, some youths from Pakistan and Bangladesh living in London
fighting with each other over the same issues which divided them in their
can see, therefore, ideological, political, cultural, and personal conflicts between
gang youth from different nations, regardless of whether they are all
Hispanic, African-American, or Asian. Their relationships with each
other may sometimes be characterized as distrustful, disrespectful, and violent.
The point here is that knowledge of the diversity which exists within larger ethnic
categories helps us understand some gang behaviors and may guide efforts
to reduce the most harmful of them.
experiencing an influx of minorities and a simultaneous growth in gang
activity are well advised to consider the need for developing ways to
facilitate the integration of the minorities, particularly the minority youth.
Increasing suppression efforts will
likely worsen the
situation for, once stigmatized by the justice system, problem youth
will only be more difficult to integrate.
The Dutch approach seems enlightened.
They have hired full-time social
researchers whose only job is to learn more about problems surrounding the
integration of minorities and to develop
programs which may ease their entry into Dutch society. In the Solutions
we will expand upon the implications of these findings in greater detail.
That concludes our
look at the demographic profile of gang members in the United States. Our
attention now turns to the fact that gang have been around for a long time,
and not just in the United States.
Additional Resources: The following are two articles you
may wish to read for more data on racial and ethnic characteristics of
Youth Gangs: An
Overview, by James C. Howell, August, 1998, Office of Juvenile
Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Washington, D.C.
Growth of Youth Gang Problems in the United States: 1970-1998,
Walter B. Miller, April 2001, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
Prevention, Washington, D.C.
If you're not sure where some of the countries are that
you've been reading about, here are some helpful geo-political maps of Asia,
Michael K. Carlie
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