Comment | Black Gangs, White Lads: on (mis)understanding gang culture

Gang culture is a phenomenon that dominates headlines and election campaigns, yet whose historical and political context is almost always absent or ignored. To address the issue, Dom Anderson argues, we must begin by understanding the critical role social structures and institutions play.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, June 13, 2012 0:00 - 22 Comments

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It is a student night in any city with a reputable University; six middle-class white males are out together drinking excessive amounts of ‘snakebite’ and urinating in dustbins. It all gets too much for some of the other people in the club and a woman confronts them. After many rounds of them calling her slurs like ‘slag’, ‘bitch’ or ‘slut’, another guy steps in and tries to calm things down. A scuffle ensues and the ‘good Samaritan’ is punched to the ground and kicked by all six of them. He ends up dying that night in hospital.

Over the next week the news is full of stories of lost potential, how one drunken mistake has ruined these poor young boys’ lives and how totally out of character their behaviour was. ‘They were just blowing off steam after a busy hand in period at uni” said one parent.

When the case eventually ended up in court, the six men pleaded guilty to manslaughter. The judge commented on what talented young men they are and how one night of insanity has put them in an awful position. He took into account their background, academic record and their conduct after the crime and sentenced them each to 2 years.

Now consider a similar case.

Five young black men from any inner city area in Britain, none currently have jobs but two of them are on IT courses at college though rarely attend lessons since their EMA (which covered their travel costs) was discontinued. They are playing a game of football in a courtyard near a council-run youth centre that has recently been shut down.

One of the young men kicks a ball too hard and it hits a car that is parked in the yard; the alarm cuts the silence and suddenly a group of four older males appear and start shouting. A scuffle breaks out and one of the older men pulls out a knife. One of the youngsters punches the man and he falls, the knife slicing into his leg. His femoral artery is severed, he loses most of his blood within minutes and dies.

Over the following week, the media is alive with tales of gang culture in inner city areas. Photos of the young men posing on social media sites with BB guns surface and the Daily Mail pays several old school friends for stories of how this ‘vile gang’ operates.

This Morning have a special discussion featuring Carol Malone, David Starkey and Nick Griffin, who all agree after much debate that Britain is suffering from an ebonic crisis and young white males no longer stand a chance in this climate. David Starkey even tries to suggest that ‘blacks behave in such way because in their own countries it is common for a male to eat a rival’. This is of course challenged by many as he faces a backlash after the clip hitting 6 million views within four days on YouTube. Interestingly, he is invited back on television to comment on the next designated social issue.

When the case arrives in court, the media circus is in full flow, one of the youngsters’ mothers is heckled in the public gallery. The EDL offer to police the event and are hailed as heroes for doing so. The men all deny murder and plead guilty to manslaughter. The Jury finds them guilty of murder within two days.

The judge, upon sentencing, makes the following statement. “You five are a blight on this country, instead of making a difference to your lives you incessantly play truant from college and hang around on the Queens’ streets. You are a prime example of all that is broken in Britain and the product of poor parenting. It is with this in mind that I must recommend that you serve life in prison with no chance of parole until 2037”. The boys show no emotion as they are led down, trying to stay strong for each other and their mothers, but the Daily Mail, Sun and Sky News take great pleasure in pointing the ‘arrogance’ out.

So what can we learn from these stories? This hasn’t been written to argue that a gang culture doesn’t exist, that all gangs are made-up entities, or that they are a myth propagated by the media. What I am asking however is what the difference between the first group of males and the second group of males is? The answer is simple: privilege.

To understand gang culture in Black communities it is important to understand their histories. Most gangs older than 40, like the famous ones in Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and South London can trace their history to a time when Black males needed to stick together or face racial violence. Generally, they congregated around particular landmarks like pubs (Pepperhill pub in Manchester) or Cafés (Johnsons Café Birmingham) and defended their communities from attacks by groups like the National Front.

The racism on the streets reflected discrimination in employment, education and housing. Predictably, many of these groups branched into extortion, drug dealing and robbery. As these early groups were given the moniker of ‘Gang’ by the media who built up hype around how dangerous they were, youngsters from other areas would also form their own ‘gangs’ to protect their ‘patch’.

Male identity in our society means that many men feel they have power. The examples described display a destructive desire for economic and physical power. Everyone around these young people appears to have played a huge part in the growth of ‘gang culture’, with young men growing up only being able to identify with the older testosterone-filled males on their estates.

It is this process of the normalisation of masculinity that continues the cycle. The media reinforces this by sensationalising gangs and creating an environment of fear and anxiety that in turn leads to the formation of other gangs. Protectionism + desire for media’s image of masculinity = a new gang.

I said that the difference between the ‘black gang’ and the ‘white group’ was privilege. Their actions on that night were violent and misogynistic but because one group were middle-class white males their behaviour was seen as ‘out of character’, ‘just lads being lads’ and ‘letting off steam after a tough exam period’. Their situation had been sympathised with before their crimes had even been committed. A judge can sympathise with the context by relating to theirs. Of course, prison is ‘no place for nice lads like these’; they have shown remorse and seem deeply upset by the whole thing.

The ‘black gang’, however, is a completely different thing; the judge could see no reason why they didn’t engage with their FE Course (EMA is not a big deal to him). He also couldn’t understand why they hung around the streets (why weren’t they at a youth centre, out fishing or building Airfix models?). The judge asserted that their behaviour is completely alien to him and the media has left the public demanding blood. When in fact it is not the crime that is alien, but the lives and identities of those involved. Life in prison is the only option.

This article was not written to justify gang culture; but in the hope of opening up an understanding of how it comes to be, how it operates, and how it affects the lives of our communities.

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Dom Anderson

Dom Anderson grew up in Sinfin, Derby. At 15 he dropped out of school and became involved in gangs. At 23 he entered Higher Education and a year later became a Students Union Vice President. Dom is a proud father of one. Follow Dom on Twitter @DomAnderson_1

22 Comments

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Tom Fulep
Jun 11, 2012 13:45

This has nothing to do with colour or race. Gang culture exists for black, white and Asian. Dom, you say you were involved with a gang at 15, but you were brought up in a pretty stable world. This is more about choice. If you want to kick ten barrels out of someone after a night on the town, it doesn’t make a difference what colour or background you are from, it’s your choice. Same with gangs, just because you don’t have a job, the community centre has closed or whatever other situation exists in your life, it’s your choice to stick a knife in someone.
I had a pretty tough upbringing, lived in relative poverty for my fist 12 or 15 years, even got involved in a bit of petty crime and went on stealing sprees in town, nicked lead and a couple of cars etc, but I never felt like kicking someone to death after a few pints or plunging a knife into anyone.
We had a youth club in Sinfin in those days, but that was it. no community centres, apart from the church, if you were religiously inclined. I wasn’t.
There are too many excuses for the behaviour of thugs today. Too many experts with an opinion, statistics, reports or whatever else. Maybe if punishment for crimes was a bit more of a punishment, it would be a bit more of a deterrent.
You choose your own path in life, irrespective of circumstances. I’m fed up of hearing excuses for the feral types in our society.

Back on point
Jun 11, 2012 14:03

“This article was not written to justify gang culture; but in the hope of opening up an understanding of how it comes to be, how it operates, and how it affects the lives of our communities.”

Tom Fulep
Jun 11, 2012 14:29

It is certainly a blight on society and community. In my view, fuelled by Americanism, greed and exposure to media that glorifies violence and crime.

Steven Archer
Jun 11, 2012 14:52

I personally don’t believe that ‘Americansim’ is to blame, saying that is a cop out. Gangs have existed in some form or another since the dawn of man. We congregate for safety and we, as a race, always want what the other men have. Vikings etc pillaged everything that they saw, essentially gangs and crime form civilisations. Only recently has it been socially unacceptable to be involved in a gang of some form.

The media, as a whole, do so love to take the smallest version of the truth and blow it up into something that can stir the nation up into a frenzy. Particularly the Daily Mail and the Sun.

I have had a very similar background to the youths described in the story, I was lucky to get into university and as such would be treated like the first individual in the story. Not because of race, just because of circumstance. I don’t believe that Dom was discussing race as the crux for the gang culture in Britain, just as a stereotypical juxtaposition to the first story.

Shaun Staniford
Jun 11, 2012 14:57

I agree to a degree with Tom , This argument highlights Race and Discrimination because a Gang where White and Got one Punishment and because a Gang where of another Race they recieved a more fatal outcome. Gangs around the country all Races and nations are punished for their actions i do not feel in anyway shape or form these where Punished differently because of their status , upbringing economical background. Its very well written though on the bonus and to argue for DOM he was from a part of Derby where it was very easy to be led into the ‘Dark Side’ So to speak and he chose to take a different path, one of which he Excels in.

Dom Anderson
Jun 11, 2012 17:10

Tom and Shaun, thank you for you comments it is great that this is raising debate but I will say however that peoples viewpoints are built around their own chain of experience and the fact of the matter is that mine is different to yours.

Now Tom you said that joining a gang is a choice well I personally think you are wrong and what you seem to miss from your comment is who defines what a gang is? For the most part it is the white middle class people who get to decide, it is the people who think they are hanging around with mates who end up with a label. One of the privileges that being white gives people is that they can make judgements about other people and those judgements can become a normalised view.

I think much of the dialogue around race is controlled by people who have no idea what it is like to be non white. When a black person attempts to make a comment on the issue (which actually effects them), all hell breaks lose because generally the issue becomes around privilege and many people cannot grasp the concept of this.

Today for example I was called ‘racist and socioeconomically incorrect’ for having the audacity to say that middle class white males are the most privileged demograph in the country. I find it confusing that a statement of fact that has been proven in many many studies can make me either of those two things. It has also been said that ‘White Middle-Class people have been around for quite a long time and that black men are new on the scene’ (I paraphrase slightly) Well that is a prime example of white and male privilege at work and yet it is still denied.

Now this debate could go on and on but my challenge is for you to re read this article and do some other further reading around the subject. Also don’t always draw from your own experiences because they may not be the same as mine so they serve no purpose in critiquing this article.

happysmiles
Jun 12, 2012 9:18

a consequence of this issue needs to be stated explicitly always; the differences in the two instances is not purely in how the cases are mishandled by the media and criminal justice system but how policymakers and the police use such cases to justify the targeting of urban poor communities.

Dom Anderson
Jun 12, 2012 12:13

@happysmiles very true

TTR
Jun 12, 2012 21:09

This seems to take the “black’s gang”‘s side…First of all, there are many punks in the UK getting into the so called gangs because of “Americanism” as someone stated. Those who deny that have no idea what they’re talking about.

These teenagers see so many Rap videos (nowadays mostly of them Pop/soft rappers) and try to be about “that life” as it is cool. Some dumb ass kid gets drunk and ends up stabbing another person just because they are hyped up by their dumb ass friends.

Most of these gangs are not really REAL gangs, but a bunch of kids/teens trying to act tough because that’s what they see in the Rap videos. They’re like kids on sugar trying to act tough in order to look cool.

The irony is that the nowadays rappers are so soft that they couldn’t even scare someone other than these kids, if that was back in the day, 15-20 years ago when 90% of rappers actually came from that tough American environment, nobody would try to act tough to look cool.

I am not British, nor American, I’ve just lived in many places so I know what I’m talking about.

TTR
Jun 12, 2012 21:11

P.S. There is no excuse for stabbing someone, I got tired of emo (soft) dudes who find any excuse just to make their life sound so hard. We all have choices to make, don’t find excuses if you stab someone, it ain’t like you didn’t have an option.

Dom Anderson
Jun 12, 2012 23:20

@TTR, I would be interested to know what you define as a gang? If Hip Hop music is to blame yet all hip hop music is soft and so are gangs how on earth are people getting stabbed? This article stated facts about privilege that exists in British society.

The Americanism argument really does not wash people in America have their own issues are completely different from folks in Britain. I also don’t think any of us are in a position to belittle someone for talking about how difficult their life is. Even if our experience is a hard one we can’t account for how it may affect an individual.

John Robinson
Jun 12, 2012 23:25

Nice one Dom. I have just read your article and i think that it is well written and succint. I have never been in a gang myself, and my only experience of them has involved getting bricks thrown at my window in the browning street area of Sinfin, which among other things was not a nice experience and one which i hope never to repeat. Bravo anyway!

TTR
Jun 13, 2012 0:35

Dom, 95% of today’s rappers (more Pop artists than rappers) are soft as hell, yet they claim to be thugs and so on, even though they haven’t been in a gang or harsh environment in their lives. Then these kids/teens listen to them songs and actually believe what they say (which most of the time is exaggerated), therefore they try to imitate what they hear in those songs (and trust me, many dumb punks follow that route).

As someone said before me, if the law would be more strict and if you knew you’d get many years in prison for physically hurting someone, the crime rate would be WAY lower, that’s all.

Dom Anderson
Jun 13, 2012 8:04

@TTR So what about the drunken white guys? What of there crime?

TTR
Jun 13, 2012 10:24

Same, I don’t care who does the crime, if you stab someone, you should get the same amount of years depending on what you did to that person and the gravity of your crime.

Dom Anderson
Jun 13, 2012 16:40

The point of this article seems to have been lost on some people, it is a cometary on class and racial privilege. It isn’t about why people join gangs other than to suggest that an ingrained desire towards masculinity may play a role. Stop move the argument away from the fact that straight white males hold the most privileged position in society.

We can spend a life time discussing hip hop and crime and punishment but reality is that we live in an unequal world and until people are educated about privilege it will remain that way.

WB
Jun 15, 2012 21:46

Although this was a compelling piece presenting case studies, it is important to examine these stories in the wider context of the British criminal justice system.

People of African/Caribbean descent are stastically treated differently by the criminal justice system.

Black people are, on average, given harsher sentences than their white counterparts. This has been found in numerous studies, including a recent one from The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/law/2011/nov/25/ethnic-variations-jail-sentences-study

This is of course reflected in Stop and Searches/arrests, as recent Home Office and EHRC figures confirm http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18410300

In this context, the media hysteria around ‘gang’ violence is similarly racialised, and although we can point out that there are gangs in Glasgow and other white working class areas, a casual glance at much of the press coverage of gangs almost always refers to those made up of Black individuals (special thanks to Ross Kemp for that one)

David S
Jun 17, 2012 22:09

Thank you for taking the time to write this thought-provoking article.

Do you have any practical measures you’d like to see to begin to change the picture you describe?

Dom Anderson
Jun 22, 2012 8:35

Hi David,

I think communities need to tackle masculinity and educate young boys on it. Bell Hooks wrote a great book on the subject. http://www.amazon.co.uk/We-Real-Cool-Black-Masculinity/dp/0415969271. Also I honestly believe that the media needs to be reviewed on its practices regarding its reporting on race.

Another thing that I believe would bee beneficial is for people to understand privilege on a wider scale.

Tom Sherlock
Mar 24, 2014 22:05

Good article. From the information provided it seems very harsh the differing sentences. Both were tragic and are an example of what can happen when thing s get out of hand.

derby resident
Mar 30, 2014 13:10

i went to school with dom and he never dropped out he left with A grades and he was never in a gang

Another derby resident
Sep 30, 2014 15:35

Again I new dom, and some of his family, he never dropped out of school or was he in gangs, he was just a local bully and hung around with idiots picking on younger kids.

Politics does suit him tho, he’s always talked as much shit as a politician does.

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