Why Do Kids Join Gangs?
Many youngsters who grow up in environments where gang violence is common often end up as members of gangs, especially boys. But why is this? Why is this activity hard to avoid and escape? More importantly, from a wider perspective, why is it hard to break the tendency for communities to foster gang development? Gangs are known to be stressful and dangerous, for members and for those in the wider community--and yet they persist. Former members, such as Cordozar Calvin Broadus, aka Snoop Dogg, and other hip-hop legends, have described how they grew up in gangs such as the notorious Rollin’ 20s Crips. It was a life of selling cocaine and making glamorous riches at the expense of others, but also a life of fear. Many gang members die young, and incarceration ultimately claims many. The risks heavily outweigh the riches, and yet...
There are several motivating factors for the persistence of gangs. Personality has something to do with it, for example. Those who find excitement in risky and high-stakes social activity would naturally take part in the gang experience. But that does not really explain the prevalence and persistence of gangs, which bring in young people with all kinds of personalities. Sociologists attribute one big motivator to the survival of gang life, and that is the continuing tendency of fatherlessness in some economically fragile communities. This is a problem for young people, especially boys, because they lack necessary male role models on which to pattern their own lives, values, and behavior. Without enough men to model a mature approach to managing the challenges of life, boys will naturally turn towards the older male gang members as models of behavior and as sources of approval. Older gang members have authority, street knowledge, and seem to have self-confidence, which kids look up to in a confusing world. On top of that, the gangs also provide a sort of “family” experience that feels good. It has a structure and authority figures, which are important sources of order. Kids can feel a sense of belonging to an orderly organization. Because gang life is a cycle that keeps recreating itself, the male role models are involved in the gangs and don’t break out of gang organizations to form traditional family units and begin parenting their own children, which means their own children may turn to gang life later on.
Another motivational factor to consider here is poverty. Poverty means not many people in a given community have jobs or income or wealth, and of those who do, earnings are low, jobs are demanding with little flexibility or sick time, and almost no one owns property or wealth of any kind. Many of these specific poor people collect welfare and other forms of government assistance, which allows them to survive, but does not necessarily foster skills for meaningful work that pays well or help with the development of wealth. There is stress and suffering in these communities, and gangs can seem like a way out of that. For example, many of the gangs that formed in the early 1980s in some cities did so where it was extremely hard for teens to get summer jobs, so the teens turned to the sale of drugs and created gangs as business structures to obtain wholesale drugs and distribute them. Gangs often form around the sale of drugs. After all, some people crave the high that, say, cocaine, offers, and while a one-man drug seller seems like a good source of money, a whole gang is a solid business, with workers to obtain and sell drugs, provide lookout and protection, and manage and distribute income. This business structure makes gang life an attractive source of income in an already poor environment.
There is a third element that also negatively affects some children and can cause them to turn toward gangs, and that is a lack of involvement in education. A good education usually depends on a stable home with parents holding children up to high expectations and reinforcing what the teachers are teaching. In poorer communities, families are not always able to do this. There can be crises resulting in illness in the family, drug addiction, and homelessness. Some families move frequently, and the children change schools a lot, causing disruptions in their education. All of this contributes over time to struggles in school. School can become frustrating, and students stop attending and drop out. Gang life can provide something for them to do that involves their peers, and because gangs can be run like a business, gang life provides an education of its own. It is not a good or ideal one, but it teaches business skills, money management, problem solving, social interaction with superiors and others, community history, and strategic thinking, and so it fills the education gap. Young people don’t have to keep feeling lost or frustrated at school, but still there’s the experience of gaining knowledge, which is important to all human beings..
In conclusion, it is the lack of proper support from healthy institutions such as family, schools, and the local economy that help cause young people to turn to gang life. They look for the good that these institutions offer, but they find it in criminal organizations such as gangs. Most likely, if the youth had access to the positive institutions, most likely they would not join gangs. One such example is the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates currently works at The Atlantic as a journalist and has received praise for his writings such as “The Case for Reparations.” Although he is very successful, Coates grew up in a rough part of Baltimore during the 1980s, a part that was controlled by small rival gangs that dealt drugs such as crack. Despite this, Coates had a father who was fair to him, yet at the same time was very firm. He even at one point apparently had to “beat” Coates, but afterwards he said “It’s better I do it once than the gangs or police do it possibly multiple times.” With that guidance and caring, Coates did not become lost in gang life but found his way to success and a better living situation. If communities can figure out a way to provide loving authority figures, economic opportunity, and supportive education to young people who are disadvantaged, communities may find a way to end gang life.
Chicago Gangland - Children at War! CBS, 1989.
Chicago Violence: SMILE Documentary. Directed by Marquis Daisy. --.
Deep Inside the Gangster Disciples Street Gang.
Planet Rock: The Story Of Hip Hop And The Crack Generation.