Fraternities, gangs share some ground

When the word “gang” is spoken in an everyday conversation, most people think of a group of black male teenagers hangin’ on the street corner. I’ll admit, that’s what I think of, although gangs of many varieties and ethnicities exist.
Maybe one can be forgiven for having the stereotype of black teenage gang members, considering the overwhelming portrayal of them in music videos and movies. There’s a problem, however, when we attach this image to our everyday life and assume that groups of black teenagers or minority youngsters in the city are gang members.
Though the attachment might seem ridiculous to some people, for others it’s a reality.
Certainly, gangs are a major problem in this country. Their growth, danger and influence is frightening. Still, I can’t help but feel many peoples’ fears about gangs stem from removal and misunderstanding of minorities in the community.
Case in point: Last year I took a racial issues course in which the professor asked the 40 or 50 students if they knew of anyone who was afraid to visit downtown for fear of blacks. I was stunned to see about half the class members hesitantly raise their hands.
If some Minnesotans are still afraid to come downtown, and some still clutch their purse when they see black people, then we’ve got bigger problems than gangs.
Fear, combined with lack of contact with the inner city, keeps us at arms length from seeing what we share in common.
Investigator Mark Sletta, of the Minneapolis Police Department’s gang unit, named six major gangs that are pretty firmly entrenched in the Twin Cities area. Sletta said public perception of gangs depends on who you ask and, often, where that person lives.
“Everyone has a different opinion,” Sletta said. “A lot of people are scared of (gangs). A lot of people think they don’t exist.”
According to state statute, which the police department follows, a gang is defined as an ongoing formal or informal group of three or more people whose primary activity is violent felonies. Gangs are identified by common names or symbols, Sletta said.
If you take out the part about felonies, I’d argue that gangs are not much different than any other exclusive group of which we’re familiar. In fact, gangs are a lot like college fraternities.
I’m not saying a community service and social organization like a fraternity is interchangeable with a violent, drug-trafficking gang. But examining the similarities explains why where you grow up may determine whether you join a gang or a fraternity.
Both “gangs” and “fraternities” are words that speak for many individual groups. Just as there are many Alphas and Nus, there are Bloods and Vice Lords. Certainly, to bunch them together or mistake one for the other would be offensive to respective members.
Gang and fraternity members have visual signs to separate and distinguish them. You see students walking around with Greek letters on their chests, while gang members may give hand signals to each other or wear similar clothing or tattoos.
Both groups also are exclusive groups, which recruit and hand-pick their members. Senior members choose new members and make them do the less-respectable jobs. In a fraternity, the pledges may have to clean up after the party. In a gang, younger, newer members may be assigned risky jobs of selling drugs or stealing. The danger, to join or not to join, can be intense for kids who live in gang-infested neighborhoods.
Like gangs, fraternities have initiation rites that sometimes include risky behavior on the part of the new initiates. Greek crimes are considered smaller crimes, like underage binge drinking, spray painting snow or stealing another group’s composite of members’ photos. But there are larger crimes, too. Fraternities have also had a history of engaging in sexual assault crimes against women.
Obviously, gangs are notorious for crimes, though they tend to not be against women, but against other gangs. Most of the drive-by shootings and homicides revolve around drug money and territory.
Both gangs and fraternities have hierarchical structures with leaders and followers. Usually the lower-ranking members aspire to fulfill the group’s mission and rise to the top.
Rising through the ranks is one of the benefits of joining either group. Brothers, both in gangs and fraternities, look out for each other and provide a strong social network. If someone picks a fight with one member, you can bet the rest of the group will come around for support. In addition, close friendships grow in these groups.
The analogy only goes so far, but it’s easy to realize how two seemingly different groups share characteristics. However, our society accepts and looks upon fraternities favorably, while gangs are simply feared.
If I lived in a gang neighborhood, there’s a good chance I would join. Maybe you would, too. It’s not that I’ve always wanted to deal drugs or own a gun, but I’ve seen the intense pressures of living in such a community.
I spent a semester two years ago tutoring a sixth-grade student named Troy at a South Central Los Angeles elementary school. The area where Troy lived is mainly Blood territory and still is recovering from the 1992 riots that shook the neighborhood.
My task in working with Troy was to teach him how to read. In our afternoon meetings together in which we practiced phonics and read stories, we got to know each other. Troy wanted to be a professional basketball player. We would talk about all of the Pac-10 teams and their players. He thought about playing in college, he said.
After a while, Troy told me about his family. His older brother, he said, was gunned down by an alleged gang member at a nearby store two years earlier.
In a neighborhood where poverty, crime and gangs thrive, it’s no wonder kids like Troy join these organizations. If he has difficulty reading at sixth grade, what kinds of skills can he offer when he graduates? It doesn’t take an economist to figure out that gang members can make hundreds of dollars more by pushing drugs than by working at McDonald’s for minimum wage. The temptation and pressure is great.
I haven’t seen Troy since then, but I often wonder what happened to him. I wonder if someday he or any of his friends will join a gang or if he still plays basketball.
A lot of the mysteriousness of gang life that I had seen in movies like “Boyz in the Hood” and read about in sociological studies was somewhat cleared up when I entered Troy’s world.
Now, when I hear about gang-related deaths on the 10:00 news, I know there are communities of people that live with that reality. But that community is not mine.
Gangs plague gang neighborhoods, not white suburbs. That’s why there are people who think gangs don’t exist.
Sometimes, I think the real dangers are associating gangs with minorities and minorities with fear.
Troy taught me a lot about the inner city and rough neighborhoods. But mostly, knowing Troy taught me how understanding — not fear — binds people who live in the same city but different worlds.
Sara Goo’s column appears every Tuesday. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected] Letters to the editor may be sent to [email protected]