Concept of the Month -- November 2009

The Myth of the Street Gang as a "Family Substitute"

Consumers of popular lore and many adherents to contemporary sociological thinking believe that affiliation with a street gang is motivated, in part, by a desire to belong to the family the individual never had while growing up. Ostensibly, the gang offers support, sustenance, acceptance, and a structure that the youngster lacked at home. Gangs offer a hierarchy of leadership and a path of approval and success. In a highly structured gang, one can "earn" one's way and gain a sense of belonging, status, and power. Sociological determinists have contended that gang membership constitutes an understandable, even "normal," means of adapting to circumstances that are bleak, if not seemingly hopeless. If this were true, everyone who lives in an impoverished, decaying, and otherwise brutal environment would join gangs.

In nearly forty years of research and clinical practice, what has impressed me far more than the environment from which people come is how they choose to deal with whatever their circumstances are. In almost every instance of my interviewing a gang member, that person had siblings or neighbors living nearby who faced similar or even worse adversities and were confronted by the same temptations but chose to react differently. Though their family life was riddled with instability, poverty, and violence, they sought no comfort in the world of gangs. Contrary to what gang members tell others when held accountable, most were not coerced into joining gangs. They had to seek out other, usually older, youths and prove they could be trusted. Some gangs require participating in elaborate initiation rites so that the prospective member can prove that he is tough enough to merit acceptance. Not everyone in the neighborhood desires to belong. As one man remarked, 'Us kinds find each other."

One youth told me about growing up in a gang-infested area of a large west coast city. On his way home from school, he was approached and badgered repeatedly about joining a gang. When he respectfully expressed disinterest, he faced threats, name calling, and even being spat upon. Deciding to focus on school and sports, he vowed never to end up in trouble like some of the other youths in his neighborhood or incarcerated like his brother. As he saw it, gangs offered only a future of destruction, prison, and death. He wanted something far better!

People do not choose the environment into which they are born and grow up. But even in what sociologists term the most "criminogenic" environments (i.e., environments that appear to foster crime), there are individuals and institutions that provide inspiration and a well laid out path toward becoming a responsible human being. Schools, churches, and community and athletic organizations offer opportunities to those who avail themselves of them.

In the "family" of the gang, anyone is expendable. "Loyalty" is demonstrated through the street code of "don't snitch" or inform. When a gang member is incarcerated, his so called-family is not likely to be at the ready to assist him, help his mother, or look out for his little brother.

Gangs offer power, control, and excitement. The primitive rites of initiation, the violence, the drugs are hardly to be equated with the nurturance and stability a real family offers. For many who lack such a family during their childhood, they struggle to educate themselves, acquire skills, and work to perhaps one day have the sort of family that they missed.

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