Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Researchers Probe Criminal Gang Life in Rural Mississippi

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Researchers Probe Criminal Gang Life in Rural Mississippi

Article excerpt

Clarksdale, Mississippi largely is known for the dire poverty that many of its 16,272, mostly Black citizens endure and for a blues music culture drawing fans from around the globe.

That Delta town is a far cry from, say, Chicago, with its own international attractions - and its run-on of headlines about violence committed by, among others, gang members.

But gang activity is a fact of American life that those two locales, 600 miles apart, hold in common. That's according to a pair of research scholars who are probing the lifestyles and motivations of young people in small town Clarksdale who claim gang affiliations - some of them migrated from Chicago to the South - and whose alleged crimes are linked to gangs.

"We wanted to look at their whole life course," says Dr. Timothy Brown, a sociologist who teaches in the University of Arkansas at Little Rocks criminology department. Inside Clarksdale's jail, he has spent 90 hours interviewing 30 inmates who either were directly or remotely connected to gangs.

Brown and the project's lead researcher, Dr. Julie Baldwin, a Missouri State University criminology professor, now are logging and analyzing their research, funded by a federal Byrne Criminal Justice Innovation grant. The scholars aim to submit the findings for review and possible publication by journals spotlighting public health, crime and criminal justice.

"What hadn't been utilized, regarding rural gangs, was qualitative research," Brown adds. "A lot of what's been analyzed is statistical and quantitative in nature ... We wanted the qualitative, to get rich, holistic data. We wanted to get their life history.

The jail detainees' alleged crimes include homicide, aggravated assault, manslaughter and shooting inside a dwelling. Most are men; 89 percent are Black, 5 percent are White and the rest are Hispanic.

Some of them told interviewers that they had been involved in gangs back in the Windy City and moved to Mississippi with their parents or grandparents. As a group whose average age is 26, they are disproportionately jobless, underemployed and under educated. They are part of an underclass in Clarksdale, where 35 percent of people exist at or below the federal threshold for poverty, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, and where yearly per capita income is $14,868. The average household income is $29,175 annually, which compares to $55,322 nationwide.

Many of them hail from fractured families. Some of them had been mistaken for gang members back when they were not even thinking about becoming a part of a gang, according to the researchers. …

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