The Secret Cause of Youth Gangs

The nationally known FBI expert on youth gangs, doing a presentation at my workplace, talked about Crips and Bloods and hand signals and dress codes and graffiti that, if crossed off a neighborhood building, could cost you your life. CK, he said, stands for Crip Killer. The innocuous greeting all is well indicates you are a member of the fearsome gang called People Nation. Black and gold are the colors of the Latin Kings, recently involved in a huge drugs and weapons bust. Adidas and Nike are the chosen footware of the rival Folk Nation gang. The insignia and colors of our poor Boston Celtic basketball team, which can’t seem to threaten anyone on an NBA court, have nonetheless been appropriated by the Spanish Cobra gang. Think about that the next time you approach the consignment stand at the Fleet Center to purchase an emerald green jacket for your youngster.

We were told that gangs have invaded small towns and large, the inner cities and the suburbs, the west and the east coasts and everything in between.Look away for a second and your smiling, baseball card collecting, bubble-gum chewing eleven year old is a heavily armed gang banger initiated until death.Gangs are about the ultimate media eye candy: they are about guns and drugs and sex and violence.That sucking sound you hear, the literature says, is our adolescents being drawn into the great, inescapable vortex of youth gangs.

We were then told what we can do to try to stop this menace; talk to your kids, know their friends, form neighborhood coalitions, communicate with the local police.Above all, don’t be naive enough to believe this peril has passed you by.

It was a good presentation.But nowhere was the real, final ultimate reason for youth gangs proposed, or even mentioned.

The former FBI agent was smart enough, and politically savvy enough, to understand that revealing the real reason for the emergence of youth gangs might offend his audience and ultimately result in his removal from the lecture circuit.Instead, he voiced the popular rallying cry; more organization, more attention, more money. If we just do some more of the same, he seemed to be saying, maybe eventually something different will happen.

His problem was that to reveal the real reason for youth gangs is both boring and, probably, hopeless.And that’s because youth gangs have developed due to one fundamental and widely supported social change: because fathers have disappeared from the American family.

Recently a colleague described a television show on a nature channel in which a group of young male elephants were transplanted and introduced to a new area of a vast African national park.The adolescent behemoths ran amuck, attacking the adult female elephants already living there and tearing apart the local vegetation. Naturalists were about to liquidate these excessively wild young animals when someone finally had a bright idea; they trucked in a group of adult male elephants.

The older males did not attack and destroy the adolescents like some grand Stallone movie climax.As a matter of fact, they didn’t do much of anything at all.They just stood there, looking very large, and very male.But the adolescents immediately calmed down.Their testosterone induced friskiness began operating within acceptable limits.The elephant show went on.

This will not be the first analogy comparing your typical American male to an elephant, but it does clarify a basic and easily overlooked truth;most thirty or forty or fifty year old fathers are not afraid of their twelve or fifteen or seventeen year old sons.If push came to shove, and pushing and shoving usually involves approaching within approximately one foot of each other, most fathers possess sufficient mass to bring their sons to the floor and sit on top of them until maturity once again reigns in the adolescent brain.

A son who lives in the presence of a father knows that certain things are possible, and other things are not possible.It is possible to choose not to become a brain surgeon, to be moderately disrespectful, to while away long hours in pursuit of absolutely nothing. It is not possible to assault people, violently exploit others, knock down senior citizens and steal their purses.There is a line where your garden variety adolescent obnoxiousness becomes truly threatening to the well being of the clan, and when that line is crossed the adolescent’s elbow is seized and the bringing down process begins.To have the older male’s presence render the bringing down possible at least in concept, has been the historical role of the father.

Now, in response to violence-phobics, the key is that because this bringing down is possible, it very rarely needs to happen in reality. As with the elephants, the simple presence of a father is a statement that certain behaviors are not acceptable. Therefore they do happen. Probation officers have smaller caseloads, the foster care mill has fewer customers, and gangs are left without enlistees.The usually ignored converse of this axiom is that the absence of the larger male actually facilitates more violence and destruction.When the older male is absent from the world of the uninhibited adolescent, bad things happen. Fathers support and nurture peace by one huge but unspactacular act: being there.

I know that some fathers are now urgently voicing their helplessness, asserting that they have been present and involved but nonetheless their child has been sucked into the orbit of the gangs.And I know that boys join gangs for a variety of reasons in addition to fatherlessness; group fidelity, search for identity, the paradoxical but situationally understandable belief that gang membership is the only route to personal safety.

But that is because we as a society have reached a critical mass of fatherlessness; now an individual father is pitted against an already existing gang of father-deficient youth.There are no more father networks whose very presence holds youth in check.If a particular father happens to exist and care enough to act he is invariably cast as the Lone Father,isolated and unwanted, striding threateningly into the chaotic mass of father-deficiency.If he chooses to make a stand he may find himself as close as he can be to the gang culture in an American prison.

However, one basic fact remains obvious: The most powerful contributant to gang membership is father absence.That doesn’t mean that an individual father can dissolve an existing gang like a sugar cube tossed into a cup of hot tea.However, it does mean that, as a society, we have made a choice.

We have decided as a society that the potential danger posed by the presence of a father in a family is so great that we would rather have to address that set of social problems caused by father absence, only one of which is the explosive emergence of youth gangs.What we have to decide, now and for the future, is whether the problems resulting from father absence, including youth gangs, are causing such suffering that it is time to think about the solution: reintroducing the father to the American family. As of this moment, I think it is society’s belief that a father’s absence is worth the costs.

So, the next time some young gang banger forces you off the sidewalk, don’t call the police or run away or scream obscenities.Walk right up to him and ask him a simple question: Where’s your father?

And if he gives you an answer, then you’ll know something more about gangs;you’ll know that the fathers of the vast majority of gang members are in jail or in some faraway city or, most likely, lost in the great unknown of single parenthood. Wherever they are, they aren’t in that boy’s world.And if you ask him where his father is he will give you the answer that applies to his general direction in life; hell, I don’t know.

And if he shoots you you’ll unfortunately learn something else the FBI agent didn’t dare say; that for most American gang members, the father has been replaced by a gun.