Mysterious Gang Problems

According to the US Department of Justice, there are over 750,000 members of gangs and the numbers are growing steadily, particularly since 2002.  Even in our rural community, gangs are said to rule the streets and we are warned by law enforcement that gangs from the Los Angeles area have invaded our neighborhoods, recruiting our youth.

I've wondered for a while just who these gang members were and what evidence of gang activity we have.  As a high school principal, I certainly have seen some tagging (graffiti), saggy pants and red or blue kerchiefs.  I've seen kids copying the hand signals of their favorite rap stars.  But gang activity at any of my high schools?  Am I blind and just missing it?

The U.S. Department of Justice reported steady declines in gang activity in the 1990s but sharp increases after 2001, with gang activity increasing 20% from 2002 to 2009.  What perplexes me though is that crime rates, particularly violent crime rates, during the 2000's were falling every year.  If gang activity was increasing, why did crime decline?

Maybe it was the effectiveness of federal grants to local law enforcement agencies for gang abatement.  A combination of grant programs:  COPS, Anti-Gang Initiative, Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT) and others provide resources to law enforcement and schools that identify gang problems.  Or maybe the prospect of applying for some of the $35 billion in federal aid to local law enforcement causes us to see gang problems under every rock.

In my community, any group of young Hispanic males hanging out raises gang concerns.  If there were enough young black men in our community to actually hang out, that would likely raise the same concerns.  I've been told many times by local police that any group of 3 or more youth engaged in criminal activity constitutes a gang.  Given that definition, I've had some wayward (white) student athletes who should be labeled.  But aren't.  (See Lessons from Penn State)

Nationally, half of identified gang members are Hispanic and one third are Black.  So gang membership is strongly ethnic according to this data.  Following that thread, I looked at census data to identify how great a proportion of our minority youth are being labeled gang members.  Here is some context with general population data from the 2010 Census:

Ages 15-24
Males 15-24
Child Poverty Rate
Male Youths in Poverty
High School Grads
Employed Youth (16-24)


The gang statistics identify gang members as overwhelmingly male.  Additionally though (and lacking hard data on the details) I made a few assumptions:
  1. Gang members tend to come from poor families.
  2. Gang members tend to not graduate from high school.
  3. Gang members are less likely to be employed.
If we look then at the 240,000 African-American male youth identified as gang members, they represent one in every five young black men in poverty.  The 375,000 Hispanic male youth alleged gang members constitute almost a third of all young Hispanic men in poverty.  One third of Hispanic youth and one fifth of African-American youth are bonafide gang members?  Is this actual gang membership or inflated either by prejudice or to secure shares of federal gang-related funding?

Break those numbers down even more, by narrowing to high school dropouts and unemployed youth, and the statistics indicate that EVERY African American or Hispanic young man who meets those criteria has joined a gang.

I do not question the very serious, very dangerous gang situations in Oakland, Los Angeles or Chicago.  I do question however the rampant fear that gangs have infiltrated every suburban neighborhood and rural oasis.  I question whether identifying with gangsta rap or wearing your pants below your butt cheeks makes you a gang member.  I question whether an increasing gang threat can be believed while crime statistics are falling.  I question both the disproportionate incarceration rates and gang labeling of young Hispanic and African-American men.  And I question why in 2010, Gang Resistance Education and Training grants went to the following towns:

California Massachusetts Texas
City or Kerman Town of Danvers Socorro ISD
City of Indio City of Everett
Suisun City Police Department
City of Reedley Kansas Page County Sheriff's Office
City of Kingsburg Prairie Band of Potawatomi Nation
City of Selma
City of Grass Valley New York City of Richmond

Lockport City School District