What is past is prologue: A century of gangs in the United States

This week in North Philly Notes, Scott Decker, David Pyrooz, and James Densley, the coauthors of On Gangs take a look back at gangs in American society.

Like most social phenomena, gangs are dynamic. The structure, membership, activities and relationships among gangs and gang members change over time and space. Against this backdrop of evolving gang life, there are some common findings. Levels of involvement in crime, gender imbalance, short-term membership, and a loosely structured organization remain common features of gangs historically and geographically.

On Gangs examines transcendent and emerging issues in the understanding of gangs. The book is motivated by a simple, but sometimes elusive principle; understanding should bring about fairer, more just and effective policies, practices, and programs. The study of gangs has had an important job to do in this regard. Explaining the increase in gang membership during the crack cocaine epidemic, rising gun violence, mass incarceration and the role of technology (particularly computer-mediated communication) in conflict, crime and the response to crime are all topics that gang research has tackled.  

If asked to identify a single finding from gang research, policy, and practice, we would point to the enhanced involvement in crime that accompanies gang membership. Simply put, gang membership increases involvement in crime, particularly violent crime, and increases the risk of victimization, resulting in loss, debilitating injury, and, tragically, death. Group processes in gangs are what land gang members in jail or prison, dimming their chances for education, employment, housing, and participation in many civic activities. Gang membership impedes adolescents and young adults from participating in the very activities that social scientists expect to either prevent them from further criminal involvement or enable them to reverse their involvement in crime. From this perspective, addressing mass incarceration and the pipeline from schools and the streets to prison is a key issue to address through economic and social policy.

The field has learned a good deal about gangs in the past three decades. The pace and volume of gang research increased dramatically as data improved and a broader range of scholars grappled with understanding involvement in and consequences of gang membership. Critical issues such as the involvement of women in gangs, the role of technology in gang joining and activities, the spread of US-style gangs to other countries, and the changing structure of gang membership are all features of the book.

On Gangs also provides comprehensive assessments of the role of gender and masculinities in gangs, immigration, race, and ethnicity, the changing role of imprisonment in gang life, and a sober assessment not only of gang “programming” but also of how criminologists must go about assessing the impact of a wide range of interventions from prevention through confinement. We take a critical look at policing gangs in the 21st century and the emergence and expansion of controversial anti-gang legislation. We take the “What Works” question head on and offer objective frameworks for assessing the impact of a wide range of policies and practices.

One measure of the importance of gangs in American society can be gauged by their role in popular culture, particularly movies and music. As we note in the book, “Gangster Movies” are just as old as academic gang research. James Cagney and Jean Harlow, two of the biggest names in Hollywood starred in The Public Enemy in 1931, one of the first portrayals of gangs and gang members on screen. West Side Story debuted in 1961, and now sixty years later has been remade by Steven Spielberg. And Al Pacino’s Scarface continues to serve as inspiration for gang members; in some cases, Tony Montana’s rags to riches story is a blueprint for their gang careers. Public fascination with gangs, gang members and gang activity certainly help spin myths about gangs (e.g., once you join a gang, you can never leave; gangs are highly organized; women are “appendages” to male gangs; prison gangs run the streets, etc.), which often have negative consequences. Such myths impair our ability to build consensus about gang interventions, secure funding and public support for such interventions and spread fear and racial animus.

As comprehensive as On Gangs is, it is not the final word. There will be new challenges—globalization, climate change, continued demographic churning, the changing nature and structure of employment, virtual life and the metaverse—that will alter the character of social relations and social structure. Certainly, gangs will be affected by and have effects on the social orders to come. It is our contention that the accumulated knowledge on gangs be viewed with a critical lens and be used to shape future perceptions of and responses to gangs and gang members.

A Feminist Post-Liberal Future

This week in North Philly Notes, Judith Baer, author of Feminist Post-Liberalism,  writes about how feminists and liberals can correct each other’s characteristic errors.

Basketball great Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2020. Early media coverage consisted mostly of eulogies. They stressed his five NBA championships with the Los Angeles Lakers, his two Olympic gold medals, and his commitment to equality in race relations and women’s sports. These stories, like the one in my local paper, ignored the worst incident on his record: an accusation of rape in 2003. (Criminal charges were dropped; a civil suit was settled out of court.)

Once this information emerged in postmortem coverage, all hell broke loose on social media. Fans accused critical commentators of bad taste and cruelty to the families of the crash victims. Bryant’s defenders also pointed out that he had made restitution and apologized, urging critics to put the episode behind them. Some, assuming without evidence that all women who criticized Bryant were white, accused them of ignoring the fact that black men are more likely than white men to be punished for rape and the long history of white women’s false accusations of black men. These commentators urged the critics to confront their own racism.

What does all this have to do with feminist post-liberalism? In my book, I suggest how these two belief systems can correct each other’s characteristic errors and how feminist ideas can break the connection between liberalism and male supremacy. The issues I explore include mass incarceration and cultural appropriation, both of which are relevant to the Kobe Bryant discussion.

Feminist Post-LiberalismA 40-year “war on crime” that began when Richard Nixon became president gave the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. (We used to be third, after the USSR and the Union of South Africa.) This mass incarceration, which many liberals supported,  disproportionately harms African Americans. So many lose the right to vote that a “new Jim Crow” negates the effects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Twenty-first century liberals want to end mass incarceration. But they fail to ask how fewer and shorter sentences might affect victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Most rapists, whatever their race, get away with it. Feminism gets lost in the dialogue.

Cultural appropriation occurs when writers or artists use material from a culture not their own, especially without understanding or respect. Those who advised Kobe Bryant’s critics to face their own racism echoed the accusations an argument that goes back at least to 1932, when the poet Langston Hughes criticized the children’s book Little Black Sambo. Feminist critics of male authors have done likewise. Critics of Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt have accused the African American author of appropriating the experience of undocumented Mexican immigrants—accused her so angrily that the publisher canceled Cummins’s promotion tour in fear for her safety.

Commentators who have jumped on the cultural appropriation bandwagon have abandoned a central tenet of liberalism: its commitment to reason. Passion does not turn an opinion into a fact or a difference of degree into a difference of kind. To lose these distinctions frustrates rational discourse.

Feminism and liberalism are distinct but tangled philosophies. Modern Western feminism developed logically and historically from liberalism. A belief system that replaced faith with reason, divine right with representative government, and hierarchy with equality invited critical scrutiny of male supremacy. Defenses of women’s rights appeared in Great Britain, France, and North America during and after the democratic revolutions in these countries. So did anti-feminist tracts. Jean-Jacques Rousseau found gender equality incompatible with motherhood. Some anti-revolutionary Frenchwomen opposed equality on religious grounds. French radicals rejected feminism because they considered a decent standard of living more important than legal rights. All these arguments existed by 1800 and still thrive today. Conservative critiques of feminism continue to emphasize religion and the family. Radical critiques insist that class and/or race is the primary, and gender a secondary, determinant of inequality.

Feminism and liberalism are compatible belief systems, but not all feminists are liberals and not all liberals are feminists. Both belief systems are complex and diverse. Feminists do not all think alike. Neither do all liberals. Differences of opinion and emphasis exist within both groups, as they do among conservatives and radicals. I devoted much time and space to distinguishing among various types of feminism and liberalism.

My first draft envisioned a feminist post-liberalism free of male supremacy and misogyny. I argued that the two sets of theories could correct characteristic errors, like some liberals’ emphasis on human rights at the expense of human needs and some feminists’ acceptance of gender roles. I also discussed characteristic errors that feminist and liberals shared, like a predisposition to guilt. My optimistic tone jarred with reality in the form of the 2016 election, which decisively rebuffed both feminism and liberalism.

A progressive feminist woman lost the presidency to a billionaire outsider. A coalition of conservatives, capitalists, and fundamentalist Christians was born. Enough people in enough states preferred a misogynist to a woman and a political novice to a seasoned legislator and diplomat. Enough people in enough states sat out the election to give Donald Trump the victory. Enough voters wanted change, and did not see a woman insider as an agent of change. Instead, we got reactionary change. Conservative ideas dominate the executive and judicial branches of the federal government. Feminists and liberals have a great deal of work to do.

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