Guns, Violence, and Identity among African American and Latino Youth

By Deanna L. Wilkinson | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

In 1994, I was beginning my dissertation work in criminology and was also volunteering with ex-offenders in New York City. The academic literature I read at the time made it clear that adolescent violence (especially gun violence) among inner city youth had reached unprecedented numbers, but did little to describe the nature, processes, or contexts of youth violence. In contrast, the lay media provided a powerful and shocking explanation of this new wave of gun violencea generation of super-predators, a concept that I saw no support for from either the criminological literature or my personal experience interacting with inner city adolescent and young adult males. The study described in the pages that follow was undertaken to gain a better understanding of the social worlds of violent adolescent males in two New York City neighborhoods and the violent events that they experienced. It consisted of life history interviews with 125 violent offenders to get detailed descriptions of 306 violent or near violent events situated in the contexts of the young men's social worlds. The study attempted to understand youth gun violence by examining the dynamic contextualism1 of urban neighborhoods, the influence of these social processes on socialization, social control, and behavior, and the role of guns in shaping norms and behaviors. The interviews were analyzed using the latest techniques in qualitative methods to organize the data into recurrent themes and patterns. What emerged was a heterogeneous picture of violent events shaped by ecological processes that had consequences for the social identities of urban adolescent males. The most powerful part of this book is the window that it provides into the social worlds of violent adolescents by documenting how the most recent youth violence epidemic led to adaptations in the everyday lives of inner city adolescents.


The Epidemic of Adolescent Gun Violence

Although violence has been a recurrent theme for decades in urban delinquency, youth gun violence has become more prevalent and more concentrated spatially and socially in the past two decades. Starting in 1985, gun violence among teenagers rose sharply in prevalence, it

1 Robert Sampson argued that criminology would benefit from shifting focus
from one monolithic explanation of crime to multi-level perspectives (1993).
Dynamic contextualism “recognizes and attempts to join developmental and
historical insights, event structures and community context, qualitative
narratives and causal explanation and time and place.” (Sampson, 1993: 426)

-1-

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