Pride and Prejudice in High School Gang Members

By Wang, Alvin Y. | Adolescence, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Pride and Prejudice in High School Gang Members


Wang, Alvin Y., Adolescence


This study evaluated self-esteem and racial attitudes of high school gang members compared to their uninvolved (nongang) peers. While previous research has documented linkages between ethnicity and self-esteem in adolescents, none have examined this issue within the context of gang membership (Richman, Clark, & Brown, 1985; Tashakkori & Thompson, 1991). For instance, the question of whether gang members' racial attitudes differ from their uninvolved peers has not been explored despite the observation that gangs generally tend to form along ethnically distinct boundaries (Johnstone, 1983). There is also a great deal of research on the self-esteem of adolescents and juvenile delinquents, but little is known concerning the self-esteem of adolescents who are members of gangs (Arthur, 1989; Kaplan, 1975).

What is known is that levels of self-esteem in African-American youth tend to be comparable or higher than their Caucasian peers (Richman et al., 1985; Tashakkori & Thompson, 1991). This finding invalidates an earlier notion that African-Americans have a debased sense of self, formerly termed "black self-hatred" (Porter & Washington, 1979; Simmons, 1978). Other research has shown that adolescents (and adults) manifest favorable stereotypes toward their own racial group at the expense of outgroups (Clark, 1985; Wooten & Brown, 1990). The ethnocentric bias displayed by both Caucasian and African-Americans has caused some researchers to conclude that individuals identify with groups in ways that enhance their self-esteem (White & Parham, 1990; Porter & Washington, 1979).

A similar conclusion was reached by Kaplan (1975) in his review of the literature on the self-identity of delinquent youth. In developing the theory of self-esteem motivation, Kaplan (1975, p. 73) states that "persons characterized by negative self-attitudes are motivated to adopt deviant response patterns . . . that are associated with the enhancement of self-attitudes." Thus, gang membership and its accompanying behavior (e.g., acting-out and fighting) has the effect of improving one's self-attitudes, particularly when positive experiences and social support are not available elsewhere (e.g., family and schools). Rosenberg & Rosenberg (1978) examined this claim using a regression analysis of a nationwide sample of tenth-grade boys. Their finding that self-esteem was a powerful causal factor of delinquency was interpreted as support for Kaplan's (1975) theory of the self-esteem motive. Nevertheless, in none of the aforementioned studies were any of the delinquent youth identified as being gang members. Consequently, the relationship of self-esteem to gang membership remains unanswered. In fact, the only evidence that gang members might possess different (i.e., lower) levels of self-esteem relative to their nongang peers is anecdotal rather than empirical in nature (Arthur, 1989).

Therefore, the present study was designed to explore the linkages between ethnicity and self-esteem in high school student gang members compared to their nongang peers. The conceptual basis for this comparison was the framework offered by social identity theory (Tajfel, 1974, 1982; Tajfel & Turner, 1979). According to this theory, the social identity that is formed as a function of group membership is comprised of three components: motivational, cognitive, and sociocultural (Dovidio & Gaertner, 1986; Hamilton & Trolier, 1986). The motivational component is based on the premise that individuals attempt to form positive evaluations of themselves. Thus, people are motivated to identify with groups in ways that enhance rather than detract from their personal self-esteem. The cognitive component involves the process of social categorization responsible for the ingroup and outgroup stereo-typing that may lead to intergroup discrimination, conflict, and prejudice (Tajfel, 1974, 1982). The sociocultural component is based on the process of social learning which, in turn, hinges on the types of role models available. …

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