The Lack of Acceptable
Passage into Adulthood
"Have a baby. Be a
Step up to the plate."
(Ice T, from "Ice T: Behind the Music," as
quoted on VH1-TV, 2001)
The term rite of passage
describes any ritual which
marks a change in an individual's social position or status.
Why Gangs Form
Why Youths Join
form due to the lack
of acceptable rites of passage into adulthood.
||A rite of passage
accomplish the passage from childhood to adulthood.
Gangs form in response to a lack
of acceptable rites of passage from childhood to adulthood and offer
alternative rites of passage to adulthood for their members.
Bloch and Niederhoffer (1958)
assert that when societies do not make adequate preparation, formal or
otherwise, for the induction of its adolescents into adult status, the
youths will make their own culture for this transition, and they assert
that the gang is this social form. (Yablonsky,
1997, p. 172)
When does a child become an adult? When does a girl become a woman
or a boy become a man? Herbert Bloch and Arthur Niederhoffer (Bloch
and Niederhoffer, 1958)
wrote about the need for youth to have a culturally legitimated and
recognized way of transitioning from being a child to being
an adult - a rite of passage, a ritual, a ceremony, an event or series
of events. There
are several such rites of passage in every society. Among them are
graduations, getting a job, being promoted at work, culturally significant birthdays (like turning
16, 21, 30 or 65 years
of age in American society), weddings, menopause, retirement, and death.
According to Papachristos (1998),
"Successful rites-of-passage programs for adolescents may provide
... an avenue for change. [They] provide an alternative rite of passage into
1998) As Pinnock suggests, "Where ritual is absent, it is
also believes that, for youths who do not have access to legitimate rites of
passage (i.e., graduation from school, getting a legitimate job, being
confirmed in their faith, receiving a job promotion), gangs fulfill the key elements
of a rite of passage.
|They provide a group of elders, sometimes
called O.G.s or veteranos, for the new members to emulate, admire,
|There is a period of separation from the
family of origin of the new member during which an initiation or
other ceremony may take place.|
|A sacred place is established and may
take the form of a territory, a corner, or a meeting place.|
|There is a symbolic death of the new
member as he or she leaves the old life as a non-gang member and
takes on a new identity as a member of the gang - complete with a
new name (moniker), a new group of associates, and, perhaps, a new
way to dress, move, talk, and live.|
|There are trials and tribulations
including, in some instances, feats which must be performed or
trials which must be endured as a means of proving oneself worthy of
entry into the gang.|
|A revelation takes place in the new
member concerning his or her new place in the world and purpose for
|After being accepted into the gang, a resurrection
takes place as a new person with a new status in life.|
|After all of the above, the new member becomes a
part of a new way of life, a new community, a new family - the gang.
He or she is reincorporated back into the community
new status. (Papachristos,
Using cross cultural studies, Block and Niederhoffer found
delinquency rates were lower in societies with clearly identifiable and
culturally legitimated rites of passage from adolescence to adulthood than
they were in societies without such rites. (Bloch
and Niederhoffer, 1958) Among
these rites in American society are graduation from high school, securing a
full time job, getting married, and becoming a parent.
The rites of passage referred to above, like graduating from high school
or getting a job, are not equally accessible to everyone in American
society. For those who drop out of school, for example, an important rite of passage from
adolescence to adulthood is missing. Without an adequate education, securing
fulltime, legitimate employment may become more difficult. While marriage
and parenthood are available to practically everyone, taking on the
responsibility of parenthood is further complicated for school drop outs due
to underemployment and a lack of other necessary resources for fulfilling
the role of parent successfully.
For some of these youths the gang becomes an alternative way to
transition from adolescence to adulthood. A gang confers power on its members to exercise over others and gives
members the perception that they are now "grown up" and can
move up to their new status. Passing the initiation ceremony is only the
beginning of the process. By successfully completing tasks within the gang
the new member become established and moves from lower status in the gang to
a higher status. Each movement up in status is another step in the rite of
passage into adulthood.
In the "painful and dangerous journey (from
childhood to adulthood) can be found echoes of African initiation
ceremonies, Jewish bar mitzvahs, ancient hunting rituals, Boer kommando
lore, images of Hollywood, Christian holy communions, Khoi trance
dances, Arthurian legends and many other rituals through which, for
millennia, young people have attempted to prove themselves worthy of
adulthood. But if to this wild search for self identity and social
respect you add guns and drugs - and take away the guidance of adults
(particularly fathers) who could lead youths into calmer, more
acceptable waters - a disaster is inevitable.
On the hard, stony ground of the ghettoes, rituals
take on a life-or-death quality and the 'crossing' to adulthood becomes
fraught with danger. In this atmosphere police attention, arrest, lashes
or prison become the dangers of the hunt, a rite of passage through the
police vans and prison cells of the 'enemy' and into the admiring arms
of the gang. Excesses are inevitable." (Pinnock,
It is conceivable that some gangs formed as a means of providing their members with rites of
passage to adulthood. Having dropped out of or failing at school,
like-minded youths may begin to associate with each other. They meet at
local establishments or parks while truant. They meet in detention if they
were apprehended by the police for their delinquent acts. The beginnings of a
gang, therefore, may be attributable to the gang's ability to provide an
alternative to school and the status
schools confer upon their students as they "grow up" (graduating
middle school, becoming a freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, and
Having few legitimate ways to be recognized as an adult, some youths
may smoke, skip school, participate in sexual intercourse, and drink alcohol to show they are grownups
because these are behaviors which adults exhibit. Adults smoke, they don't go to school,
they have sexual relations and consume alcohol. The problem is, in most communities
this kind of behavior on the part of a minor is
defined as delinquent or criminal.
Among the rites of passage into adulthood available to gang males are getting a female pregnant, standing up for one's
"homies" (fellow gang members), standing up for the gang when threatened
by someone else, passing the initiation requirement, and being sentenced
to prison and serving time. The same holds true for gang females
except that getting pregnant may be used as a means of proving one's
womanhood or adulthood.
The lack of availability of socially acceptable rites of passage from childhood to adulthood alone is
insufficient as an explanation for the formation of gangs. A lack of
legitimate alternative activities may also result in their formation.
Resources: Explore some rites of passage found in
Asia, and Africa, Africa (Site
and China. Or you can
visit the site of the
Rites of Passage Institute.
Michael K. Carlie
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writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.