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Criminality, Mainstreaming Pathology and Ethno-Linguistic Nationalism: Verbal and Non-Verbal Communication among Black American Youth About and Within Gangs


As gangs victimize, torment, kill, rape and steal, many authors continue to romanticize their life and activity. In some papers gang culture is seen as “equal” to that of civilized life. This paper will analyze the nature of this culture both within and without gangs from the verbal and non-verbal communicative patterns of black youth in America. There is a continuum in the African-American community of the gang culture – much of it created by corporate America though “rap” music – with all culture.

It is mainstreamed in the inner city, especially poorer and urban ones. It colors all communication and creates an underlying ideological core that is anything but indigenous. Understanding this form of communication and the mainstreaming of its syntax is very important. Its ideological content, general views of the ghetto and police surveillance of the area is important to understand. Improved police relations with the black community are necessary, but so is a reform of how the media report police enforcement in very violent, high crime areas.

Speaking of black youth on British street gangs, the work of Ruble and Turner obfuscate the issue by quibbling over definitions. They refuse to accept the existence of any communication about gangs since they will not believe they exist. Creating a definition of “gang” so technical that no one could qualify, these writers claim this paper cannot be written. Treating “gang” as a negative term (it is), they will not apply it to non-whites living in Great Britain. This kind of writing makes this project all the more difficult, since their own ideological agenda will either distort or totally ignore the issues of communication in and about gang life.

Shrinking police departments now so constrained in their actions due to media hype, gangs grow immensely as younger males see this lifestyle as possible, rewarding and reflected in mainstream entertainment. All of these variables both expose and conceal the nature of gang-related language in the black community. The goal here is to analyze this communication and deduce from it the necessary conclusions as to the failure of public policy on gang issues. Grasping the language of black youth and its sources, gang culture and its mainstream origins will be a bit more unclouded.

Literature Review

SA Phillip's (2009) article is one of the most problematic pieces reviewed here. A valuable resource on the question of gang language and linguistics, it treats these criminals as mainstream members of society, using a “revolutionary” style of communication to “challenge” the power structure of America. That much of the dances and vocabulary of these gangs comes from corporate-produced rap songs elude her. Yet, its glimpse into this sub-culture is important and necessary for a primary source.

Further, this work is also invaluable for the non-verbal forms of communication on this question. Dance, graffiti, even a code of movements, dress and facial expression is given a detailed, yet concise, treatment that make this paper indispensable for the thesis argued here. Her own conclusions are intolerable, but that can be separated from the important information found here.

“Murder by Structure: Dominance Relations and the Social Structure of Gang Homicide” is a 2009 study by Andrew V. Papachristos dealing with the structure and context for gang violence. Dealing with the networks formed within gangs, it is a valuable look into how violence is both created and justified. Importantly, this study explicitly states that the language outside the gang world in the black community is actually a form of initiation into the world of gang membership. Part of the thesis is that there is no communication about gangs that is not also (at least in part) communication that comes from gangs.

John M. Hagedorn's 1991 article “Gangs, Neighborhoods, and Public Policy” stresses the role of inter-generational communication as setting the standard for gang life in black areas. Implying that there is no real division between communication about gangs and within them, he also suggests that the older generation imposes the gang culture (even implicitly) to younger boys. Rather than seeing the gang as a vampire on the black community, many older black males see its linguistic context as somehow promoting their manhood. Without belief in a better future, this is the second best thing: creating one's own society. He suggests that there is a single communication strategy of black youth relative to gangs both within and without. Further, he argues that inter-generational connections make this a bona fide mode of communication. The moral consequences however, are not mentioned.

Though a much older paper, DJ Bordua's 1961 “Delinquent Subcultures: Sociological Interpretations of Gang Delinquency” remains significant. Part of its importance lies in its age: it was written before several sorts of opinions were proscribed among academics. At the same time, its edgy criticism of “middle class functionaries” are more important now than ever, making this paper impressive in its predictive power and deep criticism of ruling structures in the creation and justification of gangs.

One of the most important pieces here is “Gender, Race, and Urban Policing: The Experience of African American Youths” by Rod K. Brunson and Jody Miller. Published in 2006, its significance lies in its copious use of primary sources, interviews with black youth and refusal to paper over inconvenient truths. Unfortunately, this paper also strongly suggests that those interviewed have no idea of the distinction between crime and normal life, seeing any police intervention into crime as “harassment.” This paper's primary source focus make it important for proving the thesis here: black youth communicate in gang-related forms regardless of their own opinions, situation or familiar background. It is a mainstream form of life that has to be confronted before any hope of improvement for black America can even be contemplated.

Finally, Daniel Balaban's “Culture, Industry, and Hip Hop History: The Corporate World’s Role in the Development of Hip Hop” is one of the central secondary sources used in this study. It is an unpublished Master's Thesis from Rutgers completed in 2010. Its title shows its important. It is impossible to avoid the fact that the words, clothing and art of the inner city gang culture is tightly integrated with rap music. Yet, this sort of musical indoctrination did not fall from the sky, nor was it “created by blacks.”

Impossible though it might be to avoid, the overwhelming majority of authors in this field do just that, leaving a giant hole in their argument. By ignoring the fact that this gang culture, romanticized by Phillips and Hallsworth, is the creation of white suburban elites at AOL/Time Warner (owner of the major “gangsta' rap” labels, their analysis of the primary sources is distorted.

Methods: The Background

The literature review above strongly implies the appropriate method for a study of this kind. The last line above is really the point here. When the mainstream sources of this language are exposed, much of the literature in this field becomes worthless, since in ignoring this colossally important variable, their conclusions seem either dishonest or naive.

The much bigger question is the sanity of social elites who promote, protect and celebrate some of the most violent gang cultures in human history. These gangs are internationally connected, deep into the drug trade and white slavery, and have defeated overstretched and hamstring police departments in every major city. The Detroit police, heroic in their losing battle against massive budget cuts and public hatred, staged a protest where they admitted that they cannot protect the city's residence. They advocated citizens arm themselves. Actually, in terms of the black American gang culture, Detroit is a powerful and chilling example.

While crime fell in most American cities it increases in Detroit. A full 20% of the city is off limits to police due to the consolidation of gangs as alternative governments. This is especially the case in the northeast. Because of this, public works have all but dried up. Unemployment hovers at about 60%. Police solve less than 10% of reported crimes, and most crimes go unreported. In 1991, Detroit had 5,000 officers, most of them black. Today, the city can only afford about 2000 police, and the Gang Enforcement Unit has been abolished. Local police stations are not being operated and are only open a few hours a day.

Given this, how has the language of black youth on gangs been affected? How are the police viewed relative to the gangs? Are gangs a good thing? Are they viewed as exploiting the black community? In places like Detroit, the entire political elite and police brass re black. How are they viewed? Are the police seen as just another gang to be either fought or won over? Does having an all-black police department help matters? How do gangs themselves see this force? Is racial profiling possible in a city that is almost 100% black with a police department to match? These are the basic questions to be asked of any interviewee, and the sorts of issues that this paper will tease out of the sources.

This is part of the paper's method because it is the context of African-American language and communication on this issue. It is the context that makes this research project not only important, but indispensable for understanding the nature of this culture and its translation into daily language. Detroit is one very extreme example, but that city's rapid decline into social necrosis is nothing special given the current condition of most American major cities. Thus, the voices of black youth have to be heard and its implicit codes laid bare. This is not a deliberate form of deception of course, but it just reflects how the gang mentality is now mainstream.

Methods: The Data

The primary source information has already been obtained, it is just a matter of finding it and teasing out the proper conclusions. Concerning African-American youth, the massive number of interviews, polls and first hand accounts make the data easy to obtain, but overwhelming in its size. This paper will use a few important sources that have their own stable of primary source data.

This paper is in the process of showing that the means of black youth used in communicating information about gangs is both a) gang related at its very core and b) created by corporate elites in various forms of music, art and clothing long having mainstreamed this most violent and exploitative form of criminality.

Gathering the data requires the throughout knowledge of the literature in this large field, almost all of which contains copious citations, quotes and examples of gang culture in the black American community. Interviews with youth from black America are easily available from every possible city, background and social class. Furthermore, the Outward Bound programs locally also have many primary source data on this subject.

The analysis of the data has also been explained briefly. The issue is coming to general conclusions from empirical data. It is simple and pure inductive reasoning. Patters are to be detected and most importantly, the extent to which mainstream musical and “pop-cultural” ideologies have been internalized and made implicit in the language of youth.

Shortcomings are implicit in all published work. There is only so much information words can convey. The verbiage in these interviews and quotations is specific to an African American culture struggling to define itself. It is a mix of English, music lyrics, chat-speak, local vernaculars and the inner meanings that any community generates. Interpretations will always be tentative and unsteady.

Another short coming is any bias of the authors cited or those being interviewed. No one comes to this field for no reason. We come to it as a response to a crisis. How this is defined, who has created it and who profits from it are matters of disagreement. Present restrictions on certain political ideas make studying the gang culture extremely difficult. This paper will not be so restricted, but will stay as close to the data as possible. The methodological purpose here is to extract from the data what is present within it. A review process is needed to weed out any bias, and to seek a middle ground between extremes.

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