Examining the Differences in Image Between White and Minority Gangs
The American public's fascination with the image of the outlaw dates back to Western migration and the iconic cowboy brand, something which many deem a symbol of freedom and American culture as a whole. Over the past half-century, the image has become attached to motorcycle riding white gangs, such as the Hell's Angels group, who have captured the imagination of many. The iconic cowboy horse has been replaced by shining motorbikes, and this similarity has caused many to be more accepting of their criminal connections and past, especially when compared to ethnic minority gangs. TV shows like Sons of Anarchy' (20082014)1 glorify the life of white criminal motorcycle gangs and romanticise the severity of the crimes they commit. Meanwhile, TV shows like ‘Atlanta' (2016-present)2 and movies like Tupac's biopic ‘All Eyez on Me' (2017)3 which include portrayal of black gangs' criminal activities, show them in a less glorifying and more brutal and realistic way.
This leads us to this chapters' topic: White Gang Privilege. Why do white gangs seem to get a pass from many for committing the same senseless acts of violence as their minority counterparts? Why are their ties to organised drug operations ignored, whilst black gangs are written-off for doing the same thing? Black gang members are seen as low-life thugs, meanwhile white gangs like Hell's Angels are praised for their charitable work within the community.4 Within this report, we will examine the reasons behind this clear difference in perception, touching on origins, education, violence and community, and look to examine this privilege that white gangs seemingly receive across the United States.
Establishment and Reasons People Join
A key part in understanding the cultures around these gangs is the reasons that they formed and the reasons that people have joined them for. Many white motorcycle gangs were formed in the United States directly following the Second World War; for example, Hell's Angels were formed officially in 1948. The dissatisfaction of many veterans, regarding the government and their lifestyle upon returning home, was a defining reason for the creation of these clubs. They longed for a free life, uncontrolled by laws and the government.5 As a result, members were often former servicemen, a tradition which has continued to this day, who are searching for the camaraderie they experienced in the Army and find it in the ranks of the motorcycle club. They want to ride their motorcycles, spending time with like-minded people and getting away from their mundane home lives.
The reasons for the formation, and continued membership of black gangs is quite different, put simply they primarily existed as a method of survival in an environment which consistently looked to hold back young minority men. To understand this, we must examine the historical conditions which have led to African Americans and other minority groups becoming predisposed to a life connected with gang crime.
It is no secret that America has a very chequered past regarding race relations, and education was never safe from these societal problems. Schools for minority children have historically been drastically underfunded in comparison to their white counterparts, which affects attainment grades at all levels. After many legal battles throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Brown v Board of Education (1954) decreed that the segregation of public schools was unconstitutional, and thus schools at all levels began to de-segregate. Certain bans on mixed-race higher education remained until the late 1960s, but concerted efforts were made to better merge the schooling system and equalize spending. In areas where spending became better distributed, black attainment rose significantly: black SAT scores rose by 54 points on average between 1970 and 1990, whilst no discernible change was noted in white students' grades.6
However, endemic issues regarding access to quality education still remain for a large number of minority students. According to Darling-Hammond, “two thirds of minority students still attend schools that are predominantly minority, most of them located in central cities and funded well below those in neighbouring suburban districts”.7 This gap in funding is seen most clearly in differences between teachers' skills, with students in schools with a lower percentage white student body seeing a less than “50 percent chance of getting a math or science teacher with a license and a degree in the field.”8 This difference in teaching quality in one of the largest determining factors in student success; Darling-Hammond noted that “after controlling for socio-economic status, the large disparities in achievement between black and white students were almost entirely due to differences in the qualifications of their teachers.” Even more damning than overall teachers' quality, is actual access to classes needed for progression, a UNCF factsheet states that a much smaller percentage of black students, compared to white students, were given access to a full range of math and science high-school courses which are needed to progress to collegiate study.9
It becomes clear from these findings that minority students are positioned to achieve less than their white counterparts in an academic setting. Enhanced academic success is a very good indicator for a reduction in crime, as explained by Lochner (2004), who states that education acts as a “human capital investment that increases future work opportunities” and therefore lowers the need for crime.10
Black children are more than twice as likely to live in a house below the poverty line, as white children.11 As a result, have increased pressure to bring home extra money during their teenage years. However, inner-city jobs are hard to come by, and generally go to those with high grades and coming from good backgrounds.12 Even if these children do manage to find employment, these positions are often low-paid and part-time positions in areas where gangs primarily operate. As a result, these jobs often fail to keep these young people away from gangs.13 Conversely, gang culture is all around these young people, with minorities most likely to be aware of this activity,14 and offers an accessible and seemingly simple way to greater financial freedom and security for these youths.
Gangs specifically target young and impressionable teens, in need of money, as new recruits. Such characters are easy to come across, partially due to a lack of professional and parental guidance; owing to the aforementioned funding issues and the incredibly strict policing system on minorities, which incarcerates minority men at an incredibly disproportionate rate. This need for immediate financial gain, coupled with a lack of guidance and future opportunities, serves as the bedrock for inner-city gang recruitment. Additionally, this contact with crime and gangs at young ages inevitably leads to legal issues, in a system weighted against young minority men, and short prison sentences serve as a further push towards gang culture. These young people are easily contacted by gangs and hardened criminals who can sell the advantages, primarily financial, of becoming associated with the gang lifestyle.15 Unsurprisingly, the stigma surrounding criminal records leads to even fewer employment opportunities, and a life of crime quickly becomes the only choice for these desperate individuals.
This stark contrast in the reasons behind individual's association with gang lifestyle should probably mean additional sympathy for minority gangs, their actions born out of desperation, and scrutiny for white motorcycle clubs, who simply appear bored with their lives, but the opposite seems to be true. Instead, minority gangs are vilified as desperate lowlifes and white gangs are protected with the outlaw image. This is hardly a surprise for a country which still constantly grapples with race relations but is a disappointing revelation all the same. Such a societal opinion would make sense if the actions displayed by these gangs were completely different, but as we will discuss in this next section, the behaviour of both groups are strikingly similar.
1 Sons of Anarchy, dir. by Kurt Sutter (FX Networks, LLC, 2008-2014).
2 Atlanta, dir. by Donald Glover (FX Networks, LLC, 2016-present).
3 All Eyez on Me, dir. by Benny Boom (Morgan Creek Productions, 2017).
4 Chris Morris, ‘Biker Heroes: Hells Angels Guardians for Kids?‘, CNBC, 8 December 2014, <https://www.cnbc.com/2014/12/07/biker-heroes-hells-angels-guardians-for-kids.html> [accessed 29 March 2021].
5 Thomas Barker, Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs as Organized Crime Groups (Cham and Heidelberg and New York and Dordrecht and London: Springer, 2014), p. 9.
6 Linda Darling-Hammond, ‘Unequal Opportunity: Race and Education', Brookings, <https://www.brookings.edu /articles/unequal-opportunity-race-and-education/> [accessed 1 April 2021].
7 Darling-Hammond, Race and Education.
8 Darling-Hammond, Race and Education.
9 Desiree C. Boykin, ‘K-12 Disparity Facts and Statistics', United Negro College Fund, <https://uncf.org/pages/k- 12-disparity-facts-and-stats> [accessed 1 April 2021].
10 Lance Lochner, ‘Education, Work and Crime: A Human Capital Approach', International Economic Review, vol. 45, no. 3, <https://doi.Org/10.1111/j.0020-6598.2004.00288.x> [accessed 1 April 2021], p. 812.
11 Drew DeSilver, ‘The Concerns and Challenges of being a U.S. Teen: What the Data show', FactTank, <https://pewrsr.ch/2N6h9q1> [accessed 1 April 2021].
12 Christopher Adamson, ‘Defensive Localism in White and Black: A comparative History of European-American and African-American Youth Gangs', Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 23, no. 2 (2001), p. 288.
13 Adamson, Localism, p. 289.
14 DeSilver, Concerns and Challenges.
15 Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, ‘The Social Organization of Street Gang Activity in an Urban Ghetto', American Journal of Sociology, vol. 103, no. 1 (1997), p. 85.