Gangs (cont2)

John Hagedorn
The Enclyclopedia of Community
Sage Publications
Karen Christianson and David Levinson,
General Editors
pp 517-522

African-American gangs began in ways similar to white ethnic gangs. As African-American workers migrated north during World War I to meet the needs of industry, black communities became overcrowded, and gang fights between whites and blacks became commonplace. The tensions mounted, and when the war ended violence erupted.

In Chicago, social athletic clubs, which were that city’s version of New York City’s voting gangs, fiercely resisted any penetration of their neighborhoods by African-Americans. The 1919 race riots were one of the most serious of a rash of racist violence that shook the United States after World War I. The Chicago riots, which killed thirty-eight people, were instigated by white gangs, mainly from the Irish neighborhoods of Bridgeport and the Back of the Yards, which bordered the so-called Black Belt. The 1922 report on the riot by the Race Relations Commission (1922, 55)said:

"Gangs and their activities were an important factor throughout the riot. But for them it is doubtful if the riot would have gone beyond the first clash. Both organized gangs, and those which sprang into existence because of the opportunity afforded, seized upon the excuse of the first conflict to engage in lawless acts"

Chicago’s African-American gangs formed defensively in response to racist violence, as did black gangs in New York City and Mexican and African-American gangs in Los Angeles. A few years after the race riots, Thrasher reported that African-American gangs accounted for a disproportionate share of Chicago’s gangs. Over the next decades, ethnic gangs across the country engaged in racist violence to maintain segregated communities.


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The 1919 Race Riot Begins.
Source: Chicago Commission of Race Relations

Other industrial-era studies also found that ethnic gangs played important roles within their communities. William F. Whyte (1943) described the organization of a depression-era Italian neighborhood, and the role the gang played in the life of the community, including working for politicians and providing illegal goods and services. Gerald Suttles saw the gang as integral to what he called the “ordered segmentation” of urban ethnic communities (Suttles 1968, 231). In commenting on the function of the gang, he remarked, “The function of the named street corner group is rudimentary and primitive: it defines groups of people so that they can be seen as representatives rather than individuals” (Suttles 1968, 220)..

For most sociologists in the industrial era, the gang was a product of ethnic neighborhoods, and black and Latino gangs were merely a variant of a universal or non-racial ecological pattern. The solution to the “gang problem” was tolerance since gang members “matured out” of the gang and reintegrated into the community.