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GANGS: History, Causes and Cures

by Dr. Reginald Martin, M.F.A., Ph.D.

Anyone who knows me personally knows that my origins are as rough and as ordinary as those shown in any other HBO special on black boys trying to figure out what it means to be a black male in America. We had our "gangs", but they were formed in different times under different social and family structures that allowed us to positively redefine ourselves and our interests. The five "gang" members I hung out with 30 years ago are the same five working stiffs I watch boxing with on the weekends now.

Anyone who knows me professionally knows that I do not waste time suggesting solutions to symptoms when core sources of problems need attention. Gang membership among African-American males is merely a symptom of many problems; so let us not waste this space reading text versions of the same sound bytes with which the media has already bombarded you. Instead, let us talk about the history and causes of "gangs," and in that way perhaps we can derive some solutions for this problem that primarily affects those who look like each other.

I. Sociobiology and the Origin of Gangs

Sociobiology is a term that came into popular usage at the end of the 19th century in the United States. By 1920, it was being taught in standard textbooks at flagship universities and colleges such as Harvard and Yale as "science." Primarily, Sociobiology suggests that human behavior is pre-determined by both the sociological indexes surrounding an individual and the inherited biology of the individual. For example, an individual may develop in a materially-deprived environment, and this would be an example of a sociological index that helps to determine the character of the individual; concurrently, an individual may inherit certain physical characteristics and mental proclivities from its biological parents; this would be an example of what the sociobiologist would call biological indexes (now currently called genetics, and earlier called "Eugenics" by the Nazis in the 1930s.) The determination as to which index played the most part in an individual’s development was left to the power group of the time to define.

Thus, professors at Harvard could "conclusively" point out that Anglo-derived New Yorkers with money were both sociologically and biologically superior to Ibo-derived New Yorkers. Another aspect of Sociobiology is that its adherents suggested that to disdain difference was natural and human; that is, those in Group-A who looked alike would naturally detest those who did not look like Group A. (The black hairs versus the blonde hairs in Daryl Hannah’s Clan of the Cave Bear would be a weak Hollywood [per]version of this.) Further, this natural disdain between groups was just that, natural, and it was to the benefit of Group-A to keep Group-B gene strains away from Group-A because infusions of Group-B traits would diminish the power of Group-A in every way imaginable. In this way, white supremacy was made safe for the 20th-century, and, indeed, Adolf Hitler, solicited many "scholarly" papers from United States’ professors to help form his own "racial" theories.

In the sociobiological universe of pseudo-science and illogic, it follows that the kinder, gentler, smarter, prettier Group-A will-by biological necessity-attempt first to segregate those who do not fit in, and then try to eliminate those who do not fit in. This was deemed ok by those in the in-group, because those in the in-group invented the theories and had the power. Today we laugh at Sociobiology, not realizing that we live through its vibrancy now in corporate and governmental policies and in more pseudo-science indexes such as standardized tests and "The Bell Curve". Within the tenets of Sociobiology lie one of the causes of gangs.

II. American Etiology

Regardless of what the in-group says, the out-group knows it is human and intends to do whatever it must to have access to the same levels of humanity as the in-group. As early as 1622 in Virginia, we see separate Native American nations, that had always despised each other before, forming confederacies based on nothing but their alike ethnic features and the hatred that Europeans held for them all. These Native American "gangs" were very bright, aligning themselves with any European power that at the time seemed as though it would defeat another European power.

These "gangs" shifted their allegiances until, by 1818, they found themselves right back where they had started: pitted against each other--but this time having to fight European groups who had banded together and now called themselves "white" and the their rivals "Indians." The gang with the most guns and the best diseases won. So then, in this historical American index that was repeated countless times afterwards by the Irish, Slavs, Italians, etc., and now the Cambodians and the Vietnamese, we can see how groups with certain ethnic indexes in common band together for the survival of their group essence. In this fact lies the key to contemporary American street gangs, especially the African-American male gangs.

III. Contemporary Gangs: Signs and Symbols

Signifying . . . ?

For the purpose of this article, I interviewed a former member of the Gangster Disciples who was then the ripe old age of 17. The Gangster Disciples has a Chicago origin, and in the South its members are primarily low level drug dealers and enforcers of turf. However, they now have made significant in-roads into the professions of the South, and in the very near future, they will be become key economic players in these ethnic bayous we call "cities".

Soon, your mayors and your police chiefs will have different bosses and different "affiliations" than the corporate- and rich-family-names whom you already know control the officials you thought you were electing to represent your interests. Soon, your elected officials will be controlled by violent gang members-as many such officials already are. Of course, such a change in gang control will hardly be noticed; it will simply be a black gang controlling your black elected official instead of a white gang controlling your black elected officials. The political fund-raisers will simply move from the museum to the rap concert or park bar-b-cue. Tax-funded sports teams will simply change to tax-funded skating rinks. Your teachers will still be underpaid and unappreciated, the voters’ wishes will still not be represented, and hidden powers will still be the only ones making a profit.

Key to being a member of the GDs or any gang is the in-group "love" a prospective or current member is expected to show to all others in the group. This "love" primarily takes on archetypal shapes: support of "family" right or wrong; financial "loans;" physical defense of the family’s property and possessions; leadership toward attaining more property and possessions. The member I interviewed was "jumped in" at nine-years-old. (In other words, he was beaten in by already existing members.) You can understand that at 17, constructions of things like a family unit concept are very raw. In this way then, yes, the gang can become a "family" to an outsider who desperately needs to belong to something for protection, power and positive self-concept. Relatedly and interesting to note, one of the first statements out of a corporate group’s corporate mouth is that its employees are like a "family;" this statement is as perverted as such statements by "gang" members, but because we are so materialistic, we do not see the danger in making a corporate entity our source of fulfilling our human needs.

As Dr. Reginald Mebane, a psychologist formerly with the Mid-town Mental Health group points out, all people-especially the most powerless-have an intrinsic human need to feel that they belong to something good and important. Maslov’s hierarchy of survival, security, belonging and self-actualization are human needs that even young black males share. Though our culture in every way and in every medium has taught us that black males are not human, black males know that they are human, and black males who are gang members will make you "respect" their beliefs.

One of the problems with gangs is that they are violent. Yes, they are extremely violent, and violence is abhorrent to those of us affected by it; further, violence is illegal. Another problem with gangs is that they are intimidating; banded together, a group can have its way with those less strong. Another problem with gangs is that they are extremely secretive, and it is very difficult to stop them from abusing us because they do not share their secrets with us. Where did nine-year-olds learn this kind of accelerated, deviant behavior that bullies others and withholds key information from others? Welcome to the working week and those television palaces we oddly call "homes."

Interestingly also, the former member of the GDs I interviewed got out of the group because he says that he was afraid of getting caught doing illegal things; but he fervently states that he really misses the in-group camaraderie of other black males his age. No where else, he says, was he able to feel comfortable as a black male.

IV. Causes and Cures

I would suggest that if we do not like black male "gangs," we shall certainly have to stop helping to create them. By "we" here, I am referring only to African-Americans males and females, not the vague, abstract concept called "society." In the past 30 years, we have completely removed the "necessity" of having a male in the family unit; indeed, I would challenge anyone reading this article to define for me this thing now sarcastically referred to as a "man." What is that exactly? With all of my degrees and books and this and that, I do not know what a "man" is, and I can assure you, if I do not know, a nine-year-old does not know.

But unlike me, he will define a "man" in the crudest of concepts and live out that self-definition. If a society cannot even define what a "man" is, I can assure you that a "man" is useless. And yet these gang members constantly cry out for a self-definition that we now say does not exist, or if it does exist, it is not important enough to define it and instill the definition in our male children. These gang members are--as M.C. Ren has forever eloquently put it--"bitch-made nigger killers," and they will destroy us because they are already destroyed. Their only self-concept is a negative, and they must constantly reinvent themselves in the images they see from televison and their only other reality: the streets.

On this point, I would suggest immediately doing something about the antiquated and anti-male custody laws in this country. It is difficult to be a "Father Figure"-whatever that now is-if the law and the female do not allow the male fair access at fathering. I am equally unsure as to what a "Mother Figure" is, but at least that social construct will get custody of the product, or, child. Let us call these court-enforced holders of the child not parents-- for they have no such skills and thus are not entitled to that ascription-but let us call them "custodial adults," made so by courts who cannot define a "man" and would hate the concept even if it could define it.

Further defeating this unknown concept called "fathering" is the current court-invented concept of "joint custody," which, as defined by white courts for us, primarily means that during the week the biological female bonds with the kid(s), sends them to school, and feeds them. During the weekend while the biological female is with her boyfriend, the biological male gets to pick the kid(s) up by 7 p.m. on Friday and take the kid(s) to the zoo on Saturdays and Shoneys on Sunday, making sure to get the kid(s) back to the biological female’s house by 8 p.m. Sunday night. That is not joint custody; that is shift baby-sitting.

Next, consider the effect of economics. You cannot make it the way(s) those before you made it. In the cotton fields, nobody needed 96mbs of ram and a 100 Gig hard drive with and ISDN line to the Net. If you cannot afford to give the child a competitive chance in this predatory society, then do not have the child. Believe me, it will see what it feels it should have on television, and these "bitch-made nigger killers" will go get what they feel they deserve, whether the custodial adult can afford it or not.

Next, we must attack White Supremacy, not just pray about it on Sundays and try to drink or sex it away Monday through Saturday. White Supremacy has no love for your children who happen to be male, and this powerful hatred does affect the development of your male children. Pause for a moment. Can you now name one federal support program for the down-and-out black male? No. I didn’t think you could, cause there ain’t none. And yet we have 337 federal support programs for black females, and locally a "support agency" has officially defined the family as "an unwed woman with at least one child."

This custodial adult gets a house, food coupons, transportation coupons, free security service at the house, and a job and a savings account administered by the agency. Then we wonder why the black gangster wants to define his family as black and male. There should be no mystery here: other black males compose the only consistent "family" he is allowed to have; yet this de-feminized unit is no more healthy than the de-masculinized unit. It is simply all the "family" the male has. To be whole people, males need females; females need males. And offspring need both the male and female "parents" in the home.

Finally, consider that the reason you are currently hearing so much about black gangs is that they are so violent and are getting so powerful that they are beginning to affect the status quo. ESPN recently did an hour-long special on gang power in professional sports and in the military. Consider that as long as these boys are only going to blow each other away on Friday nights at the corner of Beale and Fourth and have a net influence of zero on the economy, nobody cares. But when you intimate that the new corporate owners of a professional team have gang connections, that is scary to people east of Kirby Parkway, cause these black boys ain’t about nothing but money and power, and they will not be denied. They will get their "money, power, respect" the old, American way: they will kill you and take it, and they do not care what color or gender you are.

If we really want to eliminate these self-protective, self-defining, violent entities we call "black gangs," it is essential that we begin to immediately redefine the family. Whatever this thing is that we have now called a "family" is not working to the benefit of anyone except those who despise blacks. I suggest an in-group black summit that would redefine the family so that each member could be positively re-self-defined and have those new self-definitions be supported by these entities we call churches, which currently serve only as repositories for Elizabethan English that no one understands, fashion shows, dating opportunities, business opportunities, and venues for the financing of the minister’s new Mercedes.

Finally, I suggest that the entire culture needs to re-educate itself on what a "man" is and learn ways to love that entity. I further suggest that we must do this now, because we are in far more trouble than you think. If I am to believe my source, then most young black males older than eight are already lost to this psychology of dominance. Like most real Americans, I do not mind a psychology of dominance as long as it does not kill me and I get to be in the group that is doing the dominating. But these black male gang members’ brand of dominance is internecine, and all of us can only lose if it is allowed to continue in its current form.

Dr. Reginald Martin is Full Professor of Composition in the English Department of the University of Memphis, and recently became the first African-American to receive the College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Research Award. His new novel, EveryBody Knows What Time It Is will be published soon from Pyramid Valley Press of New York.







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