Race and Ethnic Gangs in Chicago and Los Angeles


The chapter on Race and Ethnicity throws the spotlight on the ethnic gangs that have made Chicago and the Southside of Los Angeles grist for national headlines and evening news broadcasts. This section of the book aims for a dispassionate analysis of the variations across gangs by nationality or ethnic origin.


It bears noting, first of all, that the prior lesson on gang origins and persistence being “rooted in community economics” is a sobering one. The reason for the NYGS finding quoted in the chapter that nearly half of all gangs are Hispanic, one-third are African American, just one in eight Caucasian and 6% Asian can be directly related to the fact that median family incomes around the nation are lowest for Blacks ($30,134 a year as of 2006), Hispanics fare a bit better ($34,241), Whites earn around 50% more and model-minority Asians do best of all ($57,518). That the two sets of numbers are not perfectly correlated could be due to the fact that the chapter authors focused on Chicago and L.A. where Hispanics and Asians are over-represented.

Even a cursory review of the literature suggests that there is nothing new about the Valdez analysis that gang activity is associated with all the familiar signposts of poverty and existing on the lower class of society. Being almost continuously unemployed and on welfare is crushing to the self-esteem of adolescents and young adults. In any society, gangs flourish wherever slums exist.

But it is one thing to say “this is where they are” and “where should they be tomorrow or next year?” If, as the authors contend, the young Hispanics of World War II-era L.A. suddenly lost role models in their peers who went overseas to fight the war, does this not beg the question of why it did not happen that way for their white counterparts in other cities as well? Was the Catholic Church that Hispanics attended any less stern than the Protestant pastors of mainstream whites? Or could it be that Hispanic youth somehow escaped attending the public school system?

Fast forward to 2009 and the situation remains depressingly familiar. Hispanic gangs still roam the South Side and have in fact taken to “ethnic cleansing” by murdering the odd African-American neighbor. This time, there are no absent elders on whom to blame drive-by shootings and, oh yes, the Colombia-like drug cartels across the Rio Grande. Where have the welfare services and the educational system failed?

Could it be the language barrier, the apparent refusal of Hispanics to assimilate the English of their host nation? Did the bilingual policy help Hispanics succeed better in school and finding more uplifting professions after graduation? Or did bending over backwards by providing official documents and outdoor signs “en Español” exacerbate the exclusion of Hispanic children from the mainstream?

One acknowledges that sociology has shed light on a great many antecedents of poverty, being underprivileged, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy and alcoholism. Our efforts to understand the racial wellsprings of gang activity plunge the discussion right into the maelstrom of the immigration debate. Then the thoughtful observer must ask, “Should immigrants (and their progeny) be fully assimilated or left to their own language and devices to fragment the nation until 2050 when, the Census Bureau reports, Whites will no longer comprise a majority of the national population?”

Returning to the ostensible marginalization of Hispanic gangs, what policy will break them out of the vicious circle, enhance their self-esteem and enhance their prospects for forging economic opportunity for themselves?

If the African-American at least has sports heroes of his race that the majority Whites also respect, are Hispanics so lacking in respectable virtues and admirable role models? The authors note that the Latin Kings of Chicago “…abide by a tradition of respect, loyalty, love, wisdom, and obedience”. Hollywood has on occasion turned Hispanic heroes into authentic box-office successes.

There are enough pointers that aspects of both African-American and Hispanic culture have entered the mainstream. This is true of food, music, dance and even language that pepper casual conversation and slang.

Setting racial prejudice aside, since all minorities are vulnerable in this respect, what differentiates Hispanics and Blacks from the model-minority Asian immigrants? Are Asians so lacking in Latin machismo that they readily kowtow to the white man? In truth, the Filipinos who share religion and former colonial masters with Puerto Ricans and Mexicans have a machismo ethic that the latter would instantly recognize. Could it be that only Asians are capable of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps with social networking, social capital and academic achievement to attain greater socioeconomic heights?


Are we then to treat Hispanic and African-American gangs as givens, replicated from generation to generation because they have nowhere else to go but down or into jail? One would hope that sociology can progress from incisive insight to productive solutions for Hispanics and African-Americans to surmount racist bias and attain more triumphs beyond frank juvenile gangsterism.

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