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

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
© 2002
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 4:
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." (Gardner, 1992, p. 25)

Field Note: 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 about 250,000."

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 drive-by."

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, pageBy 1999 those proportions had changed only slightly to be 47% Hispanic, 31% African-American, 13% Caucasian, and 7% Asian. (Egley, 2000, p.1)

[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. (Lahey, 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, pageThis 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 youth contribute to 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.

Field 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. If anything 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).

Field 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. (1998 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 accompanying conflicts.

Field 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 time."

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 others.   

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 divergent tribes 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.

Field Note: 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 are still fighting with each other over the same issues which divided them in their homelands.

One 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.

Communities 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 gangs: 

Youth Gangs: An Overview, by James C. Howell, August, 1998, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Washington, D.C.  

The Growth of Youth Gang Problems in the United States: 1970-1998, by 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, Africa, and Latin America.

© 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.