Identity Politics and Racialized Gang Conflict

This week in North Philly Notes, Robert Weide, author of Divide & Conquer, writes about growing up surrounded by racial division and sectarian conflict.

Since I was a child, racial divisions and gang conflicts have permeated my experience. I grew up in Los Angeles, the reputed “gang capitol” of the United States, during the peak years of the violent crime rate in the late 1980s and 1990s. I was 15 years old in the peak year of violent crime in Los Angeles (and the nation) in 1993. Like many children my age, I joined a neighborhood crew that could be described as a gang at the age of 13. The principle draw for my associations and affiliations was that that I was of mixed-race heritage. Having always been excluded from every category in America’s racial taxonomy, I found a sense of belonging and camaraderie with my homeboys.

Ours was a sort of junior gang known colloquially as “tagbangers”, associated by friendships and family with the two predominantly Latino Sureño affiliated gangs in our community, Culver City 13 and 18 Street, each of whom were embroiled in racialized conflicts with African American Crip and Blood affiliated gangs respectively. While gang violence was endemic to our existence at the time and funerals for boys and young men were a regularly occurring ritual in our world, one particular murder, that occurred less than a month after my 18th birthday, had an indelible impact on me. I recount the narrative of my friend Eddie’s murder at the hand of an African American Blood affiliated gang member in the opening stanza of my book. At the time we took for granted the presumption that predominantly Latino Sureño and predominantly African American Crip and Blood affiliated gangs were natural enemies and the animosity that carried over both gang and racial lines seemed as inevitable to us as the sky is blue.

I wasn’t until I became educated that I began to question how and why we had found ourselves in those racialized gang identities and how those oppositional identities served to orient us in conflict with one another across racialized gang lines. After reading about the history of capitalism, the race concept, and nationalist ideology, I realized that our fratricidal blood feuds only served to insulate the real cause of our frustration and anger, the ruling classes whose wealth and privilege only exist at our expense. That epiphany melted away decades of racial resentment and sectarian hostility I had harbored compelling me to finally realize that there is no them and us, there’s just us. That is the epiphany that I hope this book brings to many other young men like me both in the U.S. context and around the world—that we have been used for generations as the instruments of our own oppression, fighting one another instead of defending one another in the face of skyrocketing wealth stratification, burgeoning neo-fascist movements, and impending ecological collapse.

As a result of my education I also realized that the race concept, nationalist ideology, and the contemporary identity politics so pervasive in academia and the media are the conceptual tools that American oligarchy uses to compel us to oppose one another, just as white supremacy did for generations before us (and in many ways still does today). That is why I wrote this book, not just to examine racialized gang conflict, but, moreover, to expose the conceptual foundations of racialized sectarian conflict in contemporary America and the modern world at large. The foundations of these conflicts are predicated on and continue to be perpetuated by purveyors of identity politics in academia and the media. This book is an attempt to challenge those who perpetuate identity division and sectarian conflict.

Only by understanding the history of how we have been divided can we discard our oppositional identities and instead join in solidarity to resist our collective oppression. While I harbor little hope of dissuading the contemporary purveyors of identity politics in academia and the media who are personally and professionally invested in perpetuating identity divisions in our society, my ambition is that the book I have written will trigger the same epiphany I had in scholars who have not staked their careers on promoting division and conflict, and most importantly, provoke that epiphany in the parties to sectarian conflicts themselves, particularly gang members. Facing unprecedented wealth stratification, burgeoning neo-fascist movements, and ecological calamity the likes of which the human race has never known, we cannot miss the opportunity to put our differences aside and join in solidarity to save our children’s future before it’s too late.

Listen Up! Temple University Press Podcast, Episode 7: David Steele on It Was Always a Choice

This week in North Philly Notes, we debut the latest episode of the Temple University Press Podcast. Host Gary Kramer/Sam Cohn interviews author David Steele about his book It Was Always a Choice: Picking Up the Baton of Athlete Activism, which examines American athletes’ activism for racial and social justice, on and off the field.

The Temple University Press Podcast is where you an hear about all the books you’ll want to read next.

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The Temple University Press Podcast is available wherever you find your podcasts, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcast, and Overcast, among other outlets.

About this episode

When Colin Kaepernick took a knee, he renewed a long tradition of athlete activists speaking out against racism, injustice, and oppression. Like Kaepernick, Jackie Robinson, Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos—among many others, of all races, male and female, pro and amateur—all made the choice to take a side to command public awareness and attention rather than “shut up and play,” as O. J. Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods did in the years between Kaepernick and his predecessors. Using their celebrity to demand change, these activists inspired fans but faced great personal and professional risks in doing so. It Was Always a Choice shows how the new era of activism Kaepernick inaugurated builds on these decisive moments toward a bold and effective new frontier of possibilities.

David Steele identifies the resonances and antecedents throughout the twentieth century of the choices that would later be faced by athletes in the post-Kaepernick era, including the era of political organizing following the death of George Floyd. He shows which athletes chose silence instead of action—“dropping the baton,” as it were—in the movement to end racial inequities and violence against Black Americans. The examples of courageous athletes multiply as LeBron James, Megan Rapinoe, and the athlete activists of the NBA, WNBA, and NFL remain committed to fighting daily and vibrantly for social change.

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