Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Race Not Space: A Revisionist History of Gangs in Chicago

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Race Not Space: A Revisionist History of Gangs in Chicago

Article excerpt

It is an enduring, progressive insight of the "Chicago School" of sociology that criminal behavior is not a racial characteristic, as nativists, klansmen, and racists of all stripes might claim. Rather, the Chicagoans' doctrine stressed that violence, gangs, crime, and other "social dislocations" are primarily consequences of the intersection of urban ecology and social stratification. For example, "gangs," said the Chicago School's founder Robert E. Park, sprouted in the "city wilderness" without regard to race, creed, or color. (1)

But a closer look at a century of gangs in Chicago casts some doubt over this deeply ingrained assumption. This essay argues that the oft-told, race-neutral story of gangs and space is a sociological shibboleth. Rather, an alternative narrative is proposed that emphasizes how Chicago's gangs have been influenced by deep-seated racism, racial politics, real estate speculation, segregation, police brutality, and white supremacist terrorism. After reviewing the literature on race and gang formation, the story of gangs in Chicago will be retold guided by interviews and documents from the Chicago Gang History Project as well as from secondary sources. This revisionist narrative will place more emphasis on W. E. B. Du Bois than Robert Park. In Chicago at least, it has been race, not class or space, that has most shaped gang behavior and the responses to it.


Gang research from its beginnings, like urban sociology generally, has minimized the role of race. (2) Frederic Thrasher, the "father of gang research," followed Robert Park, a noted liberal and leader of the Chicago Urban League, in arguing that gangs were the product of "natural areas" of the city. Racial segregation of African Americans, the Chicagoans believed, was a temporary characteristic of a universal and assimilationist "race relations cycle." The industrial city attracted immigrants and migrants, and distributed them non-randomly in "areas of transition" that became ethnic launching pads toward more prosperous, middle class zones. "Ethnic succession," as Jesse Bernard put it, represented the "hidden hand" of the market as it sorted out those who could best survive the competition among ethnic groups. Robert Park defines this crypto-social Darwinist perspective: "Human ecology ... assumes that the origin of social change ... would be found in the struggle for existence and in the growth, the migration, the mobility, and the territorial and occupational distribution of peoples, which this struggle has brought about." (3) For Park and the Chicagoans, African Americans were following European nationalities on a long, tough road to assimilation. All ethnic groups, including African Americans, the Irish, Italians, and Poles, were subject to the same natural, ecological processes. Immigrant and migrant groups stayed together after arrival in Chicago, gradually integrated into the broader economy, and moved into more prosperous zones of the city, shedding their traditions as they assimilated. (4)

The Chicago social scientists were also familiar with the concept of a "ghetto," but they applied it mainly to Jewish immigrants. Louis Wirth's classic text, which examines "the ghetto as an institution" is filled with insights for African Americans, but Wirth never considers the ghetto in Chicago to be anything but Jewish. (5) Wirth and others believed that Chicago was tilled with "ethnic enclaves" where each group chose to segregate itself before it departed for its suburban Valhalla. The ghetto, for Wirth, was a resonant name for a temporary Jewish enclave.

Historian Thomas Philpott, in a controversial study of early 20th century census tracts, demolished the cherished Chicago School belief in a rough equivalence of ethnic experiences. Whether neighborhoods were labeled Jewish, Italian, Polish, or Irish, none concentrated a majority of that ethnic group's population, nor was any single census tract overwhelmingly composed of one nationality. …

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