Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Topic 1:
Social Discrimination and Rejection

Field Note: A Hispanic alternative school counselor said "Mexican youth are being marginalized - pushed to the edge of society. As a result of this, they create their own sub-culture or join an already existing alternative sub-culture ... the neighborhood gang." 

Why Gangs Form What Gangs Provide Why Youths Join
Gangs form due to the impact of social discrimination 
and rejection.
Acceptance. They are discriminated against and long to be accepted and have a sense of belonging.

Explanation in Brief: 
Gangs form in response to racial, ethnic, and other forms of discrimination in order to provide their members with feelings of acceptance and belonging otherwise denied them.

Joining a gang can be an assertion of independence not only from family, but also from cultural and class constraints. (Moore and Hagedorn, 2001, page)  

Many ... gang parents actively attempted to discourage their children's gang involvement. They were, however, attempting to raise the youths under conditions of racial discrimination and segregation, and confinement to deteriorating, poverty-stricken neighborhoods. The youths viewed their gang affiliation as a means for survival. (Brown, 1998)

When I think of social discrimination and rejection as related to the formation of gangs I think of several things. People may be discriminated against because they "aren't from here," "they aren't like us," "they don't believe what we believe, "they look different," or for many other reasons. This includes discrimination against people who have recently immigrated from other nations as well as people who have migrated or moved within the United States. 

One of the oldest, most insightful, and useful explanations for the formation of street gangs is called the "immigrant tradition." Immigrants to many countries face prejudice and discrimination upon arrival in the host culture. The more mature adults may find a way to work through the prejudice and discrimination they encounter. Some of their children, however, my turn to other children like themselves who are encountering hatred from the host culture's population. These groups of immigrant youths often morph into street gangs - formed, primarily, for the protection of its own members.

As noted by Howell and Egley (2005),

Changing demographics in some small towns and rural areas may contribute to the emergence or escalation of gang problems.  This may be related to the immigration of newly arrive racial or ethnic groups into an area.  For example, language barriers and being ostracized by the dominant population of years at school and on the streets may lead excluded youths to band together and coalesce into a permanent youth group and potentially come to be recognized as a gang.

Thorsten Sellin was a criminologist and introduced the field of criminology to the concept of "cultural conflict" where in immigrants from one nation to another often encounter conflict as do migrants from one part of a county to another part of the same country. He called the first "primary conflict" and the latter "secondary conflict." In both situations, it would not be surprising to find the migrants or immigrants forming groups/gangs to protect themselves against the discrimination and hatred expressed by those in the host culture.

Prejudice - the pre-judgment and often negative stereotyping of others - often leads to discrimination - action taken against those about whom one is prejudiced. In this regard, I think of the prejudice expressed by some Caucasians against Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans as well as the ill-will expressed among them all towards each other.

Field Note: The African-American gang unit supervisor believes the race issue in town is of key importance at this time. He was very vocal, though controlled, about the racism he believes drives this problem. 

He told me "Blacks are told they should work hard and make it, but then they see that they will not be allow to succeed because of discrimination in hiring, promotions, housing, stuff like that." 

He believes he's caught up in this same problem in terms of his career as a police officer. He drew an analogy for me. "Gangs are in the same position. The youth are told about the 'American Dream' but are not allowed to realize it. Out of their frustration they sell drugs and find other illegitimate ways to get money."

Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, sociology faculty at the University of Chicago in the early third of the 20th century, developed a unique perspective on the urban environment called the ecological approach. An outgrowth of their work provides valuable insight into the nature of urban life today and its relationship to the formation of gangs.

While Park suggested a given population of people may dominate (in population size) a given neighborhood. Over time "new" and ethnically- or racially different people may move into (invade) the neighborhood and gain dominance over the old population through a process of succession. The words in italics are those applied by Park and Burgess in their study of human ecology. They are also italicized in the following quote.

Robert Park and Ernest Burgess pioneered the ecological approach. The model was borrowed from the study of plant ecosystems. In nature, plants and animals seem to live together in mutual harmony and are ultimately interdependent. {Bees pollinate flowers producing seeds, etc.} Such mutual interdependence is called "symbiosis." Park believed that cities might be symbiotic environments.

Park believed that the city was a super-organism ... that contained natural areas. Natural areas took many different forms, including (1) ethnic enclaves (2) activity related areas {e.g. business districts, shopping districts, manufacturing districts, residential areas, etc.}, (3) income groupings {e.g. ... middle class neighborhoods, ghettos, etc.}, and (4) physically separated areas {areas cut off from each other by rivers, lakes, railroad tracks, airports, etc.}.

While the concepts of symbiosis and natural areas might explain city life at any one point in time (a snapshot), alone they could not explain urban change, in particular, the patterns of growth, decay, and renewal which all cities appeared to follow. To explain this phenomenon Park borrowed another concept from plant ecology, invasion

While an ecosystem might remain in balance for a sustained period of time, the introduction of a new species might upset the old balance. [For example] In the early 20th century, English settlers introduced a breed of cactus into Australia that proceeded to grow everywhere and killed off a significant amount of the native vegetation. Park believed that a similar pattern occurred in cities. 

As the "new" (people) invaded an established natural area a struggle for dominance was precipitated. If the invasion was successful, the new became dominant and the process of succession was complete. The "new" might be a group of people (e.g. Polish immigrants replacing Irish) or urban development. (Greek, 1999, page, color highlight added for emphasis)

They also observed that this process of dominance, invasion, and succession often resulted in conflict between the various groups moving into and out of the neighborhood. Viewing this process in the context of the gang phenomenon, some youths feel discriminated against due to their ethnicity, inability to speak a preferred language, race, ideology, or some other characteristic. 

Most of these youths, it appears, have learned how to deal with this situation without joining a gang or otherwise violating the law. They are able to do so because neighborhood residents or institutions have facilitated their integration or their family and friends have provided the care and attention needed to help make the transition into mainstream society. They have been insulated against the negative consequences of discrimination.

Hagedorn's position regarding the etiology [cause] of Milwaukee's street gangs is that 'gang formation took place in a context of continuing crisis in race relations.' The implication for the present would be that those race and ethnic groups most subjected to racism and oppression (African-Americans, Latinos, American Indians, Asians, etc.) would be the most conspicuously represented in gang organization. Similarly, those cities experiencing heightened levels of racial conflict would likewise be those more likely to show the stronger emergence of a gang problem. (Knox, 1994, p. 79)

There are youths, however, who are not so blessed. The neighborhoods and families in which they live have little to offer in the way of resources. They are forced to fend for themselves. Without acceptance from their family and neighborhood, they may form a gang in order to shield themselves against the insults of invading populations and to gain acceptance from other gang members. The gang then provides a sense belonging.

Field Note: A Dutch gang researcher told me "Amsterdam has changed very rapidly and the diversity of the population has become overwhelming. Since 1998 there has been an influx of Blacks into the Netherlands, particularly into Amsterdam. They are coming from Algeria, Morocco, the Dutch Antilles, and North Africa - including Ghana. Older foreign populations include Surinamese and Turkish."

One neighborhood alone consists of nearly 60,000 Moroccans. The Moroccan children born in the Netherlands now speak Dutch and are in conflict with their parents because they reject their parents' religious fundamentalism preferring, instead, the amenities of Dutch life and culture.

Moroccan youths ... demand more freedom, influenced as they are by Dutch society. (Werdmolder, 1997, p. 105).

The youths of Surinamese descent are not perceived of as a problem by the police. They have taken football players as their role models and work hard to improve themselves accordingly. One of the problems facing the City of Amsterdam is that the Moroccan youths have no such role models and some fail in their efforts to assimilate into Dutch society.

According to the researcher, within Amsterdam's Moroccan community there are at least three different types of adult males. There are "men who come from the urban setting of Morocco who, as fathers, are among the least fundamentalist. There are then fathers who come from the rural areas of Morocco who are more fundamentalist in their orientation. The ministers of the faith, the third type, are strictly fundamentalist and expect a great deal from the new generation of Amsterdam-born Moroccan youth."

But many of the Amsterdam-born Moroccan children enjoy Dutch culture and embrace its trappings. This is abhorrent to the Moroccan adults who are shamed by their children's actions and lack of belief in traditional Islamic fundamentalism. Some of these Moroccan children then, are rejected by local Moroccan society.

To complicate matters, Moroccan youth have not been openly welcomed by Dutch culture. Rejected by the Dutch and by local Moroccan society, some Moroccan youths are in a state of limbo. It is out of this limbo that conflict with the police sometimes emerges and it is in this setting that one may look for the development of gangs. 

A gang unit investigator told me "You can see them [Moroccan gang members] in the late afternoon and evenings. We've found twenty-five to thirty-five places where they get together, from ten to twenty-five boys in each group. They are bothering the tourists, picking pockets, and stealing purses."  

According to the police, the problem with the Moroccan youths and more traditional Moroccan adults is "value conflict and social deprivation." It was noted that "Moroccan girls are not a problem [to the police]. They excel in school and, as such, stay out of trouble. The boys are on the streets and do not do as well in school. The girls stay away from their parents by studying. They, too, embrace Dutch culture and have turned away from Islamic fundamentalism, but they avoid the conflict with their parents by studying."

Sociologist Albert Cohen provides an insight into how gangs may form when integration into the larger society is blocked. He wrote "If an individual finds assimilation into a larger and dominate [sic] culture problematic, he or she may search for alternate routes to the desired recognition and respect. Such a new quest is made easier if one associates with others who are experiencing similar rejection. As individuals experiencing similar stress congregate, new subcultures emerge." (Martin, et al, 1990, pp. 245-246) For some youth, the new subculture may be a gang.

Why do girls join this often times violent world of gangs? For the same reasons that the males do. Mostly they come from economically deprived neighborhoods and live with a single parent. They frequently do not have, or think they do not have, a home life and there is no feeling of family love, no sense of belonging. (Walker, 2001)

Field Note: In an interview with Phillip Lawrence, a British intelligence specialist, he estimated there are between 30 and 40 distinctly different communities in the Greater London area with at least 100,000 people living in each. In one community there are approximately 140 different languages spoken in its population of 250,000 people. On the way to my interview with Phillip I took a picture of some neighborhood graffiti which read "Somalians go back to your own country!" As I was later to learn, the minority population presenting, in his view, "the most problems today," are the Somalians. 

I told Phillip about the situation in Amsterdam concerning Moroccans. He said there are parallels in London. The older, more fundamental men (particularly Sikhs and Muslims) expect an allegiance from their youth. The youth, because they are more interested in entering the mainstream of British youth culture, are rejected by their elders. But they are also rejected by British culture for a variety of reasons. They are then, like the Dutch Moroccan youths, living in a limbo. A limbo or void which may nurture the formation of a gang.

"The problem is," Phillip said, "the [City] council decided to allow about 6,000 Somalians [to move in] and it was like setting off a bomb. The Sikhs [who are Hindu and dominate the neighborhood] were as happy to see the Somalians [who are Muslim] move in as were the white English who dominated the neighborhood before the Sikhs moved in. Now Sikh gangs have formed to attack Muslims with machetes, bats, chains and anything else they can get their hands on. We have gangs and gangs members here who wear colors just like your gangs in the USA."

Issues of integration and acceptance are part and parcel of difficulties associated with immigration. Miller found "...immigration has played a major role in the formation and spread of gangs for more than a century. (Miller, 2001, p. 43)

Gangs in the 1800's were composed largely of recently immigrated Irish, Jewish, Slavic, and other ethnic populations. Major waves of immigration during the past 25 years have brought in many groups of Asians (Cambodians, Filipinos, Koreans, Samoans, Thais, Vietnamese, and others) and Latin Americans (Colombians, Cubans, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Panamanians, Puerto Ricans, and others) whose offspring have formed gangs in the classic immigrant gang tradition. 

There can be little doubt that the new immigrants have contributed to the growth of gangs. However, equal or greater growth has occurred in gangs of American-born Asians, African Americans, and Hispanics - increases that cannot be attributed to immigration. (Miller, 2001, p. 43)

Throughout history, when any ethnic group (e.g. Jews, Irish, Italian) was at the bottom, gangs were formed. (Grennan, et al., 2000, p. 16)

Immigration (the movement of people from one country to another) is only one half of the issue. The other half is migration (movement within a country or within a state or city). Migration may also result in difficulties with integration.

Criminologist Thorsten Sellin referred to conflicts between host (native) and immigrant populations as "primary cultural conflict" and conflicts between host and migrating populations as "secondary cultural conflict." (Sellin, 1938) The conflicts, he believed, were based upon the cultural differences between the various populations - particularly their norms concerning personal conduct. Carried out in the 1920s, Sellin's research hints at a long history of understanding the causes of cultural conflict. We can apply his concepts to our discussion of why gangs form by viewing gangs as a mechanism for dealing with, or as an expression of, cultural conflict.

Violent youth gang subcultures often develop when gang-affiliated African-American and Hispanic youth move from central cities to smaller cities and suburban areas without adequate social, family, economic, and educational supports.

Violent gang subcultures may also develop when new waves of poor immigrants from Mexico, Central America, the Pacific Islands, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Korea, the Philippines, and other Asian countries arrive in urban communities. The newcomer groups are often met with hatred and resentment, sometimes manifested in physical attacks. Gangs may form and become rapidly entrenched, first as defensive, and then as offensive groups. (Kane, 1992)

A December, 2002, online article concerning Hmong (pronounced mung) gangs is suggestive of the culture clash to which Sellin refers.

Criminal gangs in immigrant communities are an American tradition, from the Irish, Italian, and Jewish gangs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the Russian and Vietnamese gangs of more recent years. Though gangs can provide excitement, income, and a sense of belonging, the proliferation of Hmong gangs is an ominous sign of the continued erosion of Hmong culture in the United States.

Some Hmong kids don't feel they fit in with American society, but they can't relate to their parents' culture, either. They're adrift, looking to grab hold of anything that will keep them afloat. (Source, The Home School Resource and Archive)

Robert Merton (Merton, 1938) noted that racial discrimination acts as a barrier against minorities who attempt to use the culturally legitimated means of education and employment to reach the culturally legitimated goal of financial success.

Ethnic and racial prejudice - which includes rejection of people due to their cultural heritage, religious beliefs, or race - are all bound together in creating a potential for youths to form gangs to protect themselves against the discriminators and to find acceptance among one another within their gang. Vigil tells us of the complexity of this situation when he refers to the "double marginality" experienced by youths from a foreign culture who are simultaneously rejected by the host culture and their home culture. (Vigil, 1988, p. 14)

Vigil's portrayal of discrimination against immigrant Hispanics in the United States illustrates the impact of discrimination on Hispanic youth and the resulting formation of gangs.

Many factors have played a role in the development and institutionalization of gangs. Among them are historical experiences stemming from racial discrimination and economic barriers that have detrimentally affected Mexican American families and their children. Particularly noteworthy in the context of large-scale and continuing immigration since the 1920s are where the newcomers settled, what jobs they filled, and how these beginnings affected other aspects of their lives.

Many immigrant parents lost control of their children during their initial struggle to adapt to urban American culture while still retaining some rural Mexican identity. Next, they too had to cope with economic hardships compounded by prejudice and discrimination. All too often, other institutions of social control (especially schools and police) were unable or unwilling to adequately address the needs of these children.

Left to their own devices and the influence of older peers encountered in the streets, the youth formed gangs. Over the years, a gang subculture has been elaborated by successive generations of young people. (Vigil, 1997, page)

Vigil's comments highlight the fact that a variety of factors - in this case economic and ethnic discrimination - may lead to the formation of gangs. As noted earlier, the causes of gang formation are many and are often intertwined.

Children are supposed to develop a feeling of acceptance and belonging from their family life at home. If they don't find it there, they may find it at school among their peers and school personnel. If they don't find it there, perhaps they will find it in their faith community. If not there, where? 

A sense of belonging is, as Maslow instructed, a basic human need which must be met if the individual is to be healthy in the broadest sense. This basic human need for acceptance may result in a child rejecting his or her family - where they are not being accepted - and forming a group of similarly situated youth in order to find acceptance.  

Acceptance into a gang sometimes means joining a group of youths from one's native culture (a country, for example) or subculture (i.e., African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans). Members share a common appearance, cultural beliefs, and language, as well as their frustrations stemming from discrimination and ill-fated attempts at integration into the host culture.   

Within a gang, members find a place where they are accepted, wanted, and needed. Informal socializing, partying with one another, "kickin' it," (simply spending time with one another), and defending one another against foes and rivals are characteristic of many gangs and they all produce feelings of belonging.

The camaraderie I saw between gang members, however, was offset by the brutality they carry out upon one another. Initiation ceremonies which involve the brutalization of the initiate, and penalties for violating the rules of the gang were difficult to understand in the context of a gang being a loving, caring "family." 

Field Note: While interviewing a gang member for a public television special, I was struck by his shortness of memory. I asked a question and he would either ask me to repeat it or, while answering it, he asked what the question was again or simply stared at me. "Should I speak louder or slower?" I asked, "You don't seem to be able to hear my questions." "No," he said, "I got beat up pretty bad and I can't remember things like I used to."

I asked him about the beating. "I broke one of the gang's rules and they beat me with baseball bats. Those aluminum kind. I have a bunch a steel plates in my head and I can't remember things like I used to." He was 18 years old. His own gang members had beaten him.

But racial or ethnic discrimination and rejection alone are insufficient as an explanation for the formation of gangs. The absence of a healthy family, too, may contribute to their formation.


Additional Resources: You can explore these sites to learn more about Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, and Thorsten Sellin.

2002 Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.