Red flags, blue flags, red beads, blue beads, hand signals, graffiti, guns, drugs, crime, and murder: street gangs. Everybody in every state, region and section of the United States is or has been exposed to this contingent of society. Here is my personal definition for street gang: a group of young people, ostracized from most aspects of society, that are bound together by a superficial bond; such as the defense of a neighborhood or collaboration in petty crime. Now, I am wondering if the word gang is an institutional label and role given specifically to these people who wear the colors and adopt the culture. Is it the nature and actions of gangs, solely, that merits harsh negative attention? Could it be the often ethnic and racial divisions that define gangs or their societally adversarial nature that results in their exclusion as the detrimental contingent of America? Gangs seem like a fairly easy target in the American expungment of evil forces. It is an opportunistic manner in which to ignore the possible intrinsic values of American youths that actually produce this negative young contingent. My premise is that young gang members are inherently similar to unaffiliated middle class youths.1 Gang members' environmental conditions, socialization, style, and cultural situations provides the media with a different perspective on their actions.
Gap jeans, sports utility vehicles, night clubs, sports teams, rock bands: middle class youths. Ahh, what a relief to hear about some normal middle class youths, for those gang members are destroying the fabric of American society. The baby boomers and soccer moms did a fine job, and they have all raised ideal citizens that are not officially affiliated with any gangs. No, no these are middle class youths, so of course they are not into drugs, violence and crime. How could they be? Those are only the actions of gang members. Or, are they? If one who understands Generation x were to read the adjectives I listed that are commonly attributed to gang members, they will realize that they are all applicable to these middle class youths as well. The only ones that cannot apply are the superficial qualities that separate gangs from society; for instance, colors, beads and hand signals. These middle class youths, thus, do not provide such a convenient societal crutch for America's moral downfall. In this paper, I will analyze the relationship between the intrinsic nature of young gang members and that of middle class youths. Because this comparison is so broad, I will analyze it in relation to a pervasive action in both cultures: alcohol consumption.
Alcohol has proved to be an integral part of almost every aspect of gang culture. It is actually know to be as intrinsic as the violence, colors, beads, and drugs. I was able to gather considerable information on the role of alcohol consumption in gang culture through a sociological analysis depicting the positive relationship between alcohol and gang violence. Geoffrey Hunt conducted this study between 1990 and 1994. It involved 659 gang members from 99 different gangs throughout Northern California.2 The resulting data was thorough in that the participating gang members were from African American, Hispanic, and Asian gangs. The study, thus, gave me a broad spectrum of American gang culture.3
The studies were conducted through a process of snowball sampling, which includes in-depth tape recorded interview sessions and various statistical analyses. There was a resounding consistency in the pervasiveness of alcohol consumption throughout the gangs from all three ethnic groups. It was actually a vital part of all aspects of their gang activity. The initial commencement of gang life is known as the "jump-in." This activity consists of the gang members' violently brutal initiation of a prospective member.4 Of course, it begins with the members' indulgence in large quantities of alcohol which helps loosen them up for the beating they are about to deliver. Alcohol consumption is also a precedent for burglaries and other criminal acts that require a great deal of blind courage. Violence is always put into this category; whether it involves violence against a rival gang member, an internal member, or an unaffiliated person. The sexual assault of both female gang members and unaffiliated females is another commonplace gang action that proceeds alcohol consumption. Alcohol is, thus, a common variable in all negative gang activity.
I continued to do further research to understand the role of alcohol in the everyday practices of gangs. Through various interviews and daily logs, I discovered that alcohol consumption is somewhat of a social lubricant or glue which serves as a tool for social cohesion.5 During any interim period of drug dealing as well as any social gang gathering, alcohol was always the focal point. Citing one particular interview of an Asian gang member, he refers to three separate instances in a regular day where he engages in drinking.6 This is what led to my belief in the integral nature of alcohol consumption in gang culture.
As my essay takes the form of a comparison of gang culture with unaffiliated middle class youth culture, I proceeded to parallel the two drinking cultures. I utilized interviews and opinions of unaffiliated middle class youths as well as personal experience to discuss the social role of alcohol consumption among middle class youths. The middle class youths I included in my study are those with whom I was raised in Miami along with my colleagues here at Stanford. Ironically, many of the actions previously cited as negative gang activity partly induced by alcohol, were very similar actions performed by unaffiliated middle class youths while under alcoholic influence.
The main difference is that the middle class actions were not administered in a gang structure. Their actions, however, are labeled as those of good kids occasionally getting rowdy at a party; not evil gang members destroying society. Fist fights, for instance, are a common phenomenon throughout middle class youth parties. These youths get intoxicated, lose their inhibitions, and often perform acts of violence. It sometimes occurs within groups of friends, but most of the time it occurs with a group of rival friends. It is justified as kids just settling their differences. These fights, however, are often similar to gang fights. Single people often get attacked by more than one person, and it often turns into a group effort.7 There are also similar loyalty bonds among groups of friends which guarantee back-up support and guaranteed vengeance in violent conflictive situations. Friends of mine have actually witnessed situations where a group of gang members became involved in fist fights with groups of unaffiliated middle class youths. Their accounts sometimes included reports of a group of middle class youths outnumbering and overpowering a group of gang members.8 If these middle class youths were to attend these parties wearing uniform colors and exhibiting hand signals, they would be gang members; moreover, their actions are the same.
As far as vandalism, theft, and drug dealing; these actions are also carried out by average unaffiliated middle class youths. I have seen drunk members of fraternities throw bricks through windows, and steal furniture from a rival house. Of course, they are just good natured fraternity brothers who are having rowdy fun following a fraternity event, which involved a bit of alcohol consumption. On the same note, I have witnessed the robbery of furniture by members of a fraternity in order for them to have an extra couch for their house. The fraternity brothers obviously did not have the gall to complete this criminal act until they polished off a couple of cases of Bud.9 This is no different, however, from a situation where gang members would break into a car and steal the stereo for the purpose of turning a profit.
As far as dealing drugs, this phenomenon is vastly prevalent in middle class society. A middle class youth deals drugs to buy those extra car speakers that are not patronized by his parents, or those upgraded pair of Nikes; but, most of all, to exhibit a cool social status. Gang members deal drugs for these same reasons along with the perceived necessity to assert their business prowess on a particular territory.
Sexual assault on affiliated females as well as unaffiliated females is another well known phenomenon throughout gang culture. Interviews cite alcohol consumption as an integral factor in this activity.10 On the same token, date rape and sexual assault are also pervasive in the middle class communities; in fact, the fraternity scene is notorious for this type of action accompanying alcohol consumption. It becomes evident that these crimes attributed to gang members or defined as gang activity are often performed by their middle class counterparts, only in a different context.
The daily rituals of the middle class youths are quite different from that of gang members. Many middle class interviewees were apt to drink 2 to 3 times a week.11 Although these middle class youths initiate many undesirable practices, they commonly attend school with some kind of consistency. They are also more likely to participate in extra-curricular activities, such as sports. Three-fourths of the gang members in the Geoffrey Hunt study were high school drop outs that did not live with their immediate family; they, therefore, had more leisure time and less guidance.12 The middle class leisure activities, however, were almost identical to those of the gangs. Alcohol was also utilized as a force of social cohesion in all recreational activities for the middle class.13 The weekends were also very similar; drinking, fighting, and criminal acts.
The gang environment is especially similar to the fraternity culture. Fraternities include initiation rituals and blatant group exclusion. They also promote superficial expression of their group, which include certain T-shirts and secret hand shakes. They also function socially in a group mentality, mirroring that of gangs. The main distinguishing factor between fraternities and gangs is, thus, their financial statuses. For the most part, fraternity members thrive from well-to-do backgrounds while gang members often face poverty. This circumstance leads the variation in their actions and the media's reaction.
Because gang situations are often of a graver nature, due to financial desperation, their actions often involve more violence. There is often a particular level of severity associated with certain crimes and conflicts which entail a certain level of violence. The media then publicizes the situation and often serves as a means of perpetuating gang violence. This leads me to cite the significant variation in authoritarian control between gangs and fraternities.
It is quite simple. Gangs are more harshly punished due to their lack of financial support and institutional legitimacy. When college students are punished, on the other hand, they have numerous defense resources. The first is money, which leads to social influence and better protection against the law. The second is their societally respected role as college students, which certainly commands sympathy. Gangs enjoy neither of these resources and end up paying the price.
I believe that the facility of imposing national media labels
along with the necessity to create a societal scapegoat play a vital role in distinguishing gang activity from accepted middle class activity. Albeit, there are salient cultural and ritualistic differences. My analysis, however, dealt with the two young American cultures, with regard to their purpose for and resulting factors of alcohol consumption. Many "gang" actions that are strongly frowned upon by society corresponded to very similar actions of non-affiliated youths. Common activities under alcoholic influence include vandalism, theft, and violence for both gang members and unaffiliated youths. The unaffiliated practices are justified as those of wild good-natured teenagers, while gang practices are condemned as evil actions of societal outcasts. Although it seems as if though the American media consensus is beginning to accept the flawed intrinsic nature of American culture, the gang label scapegoat remains. Gang members are merely unaffiliated youths who are represented by particular colors; moreover, society should regard the two as equal contingents of treatment and study. It is, thus, important to examine society as a whole in order to understand the current trend of action that plagues all of young America; not solely the gangsters.
1, will often refer to unaffiliated young people of America as youths, or middle class youths. I am not referring to only those under the age of 18. I am referring to the young people of America which usually ranges from 14 to 25. Also, by middle class, I mean the generic media-viewed young person, which is usually categorized as middle class.
2 Hunt, Geoffrey. p.1 34.
3 ibid. p.134.
4 ibid. p.138.
5 Hunt, Geoffrey. p.137.
6 ibid. p.140.
7 Pollack, David. May 8,1 999.
8 Amaro, Daniel. May 7,1999.
9 Turner, Brandon. May 1 2, 1 999.
10 Hunt, Geoffrey. p.141.
11 Enfield, Benjamin. May 8,1 999.
12 Hunt, Geoffrey p.1 39.
13 Alvarez, Jesse. May, 1 0,1 999.
1. Geoffrey Hunt, Karen Joe, and Dan Waldorf. "Drinking Kicking Back, and Gang Banging: Alcohol, Violence, and Street Gangs. Free Inquiry into Creative Sociology. Vol.24, No.2. Nov.1996. Walton Press, New York, 1996.
2. Interview: Jesse Alvarez. Stanford, California. May 10, 1999.
3. Interview: Daniel Amaro. Miami, Fl. May 8, 1999.
4. Interview: Benjamin Enfield. Miami, Fl. May 8, 1999.
5. Interview: David Pollack. Miami, Fl. May 7, 1999.
6. Interview: Brandon Turner. Stanford, California. May 12, 1999.