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Delinquent and Criminal Subcultures - American Society As Seen From Ground Zero

inner people city residents

The transformation of American cities, from an economy based on manufacturing to one of service and high-tech industry, and the impact of an increasingly global economy has left many people in the inner city in the lurch. The result has been the emergence, in some inner city areas, of an urban underclass (Wilson). Residents in these areas suffer not only the grinding effects of poverty, but of alienation as well. Many are convinced that the agents and agencies of social control are firmly against them and others of their communities, and have come to see racism as one of the important facts of daily life. Such profound alienation is exacerbated by market forces that take well-paying jobs from inner cities and replace them with less well-paying, dead end, service jobs that must compete with illegal means of livelihood that appeal especially to those who are alienated. Trinkets such as cars, gold, and designer clothing are dangled in front of people as signs or accessible symbols of status in a highly circumscribed environment with very limited opportunities. In these circumstances, such symbols acquire special significance, particularly when they become associated with highly exaggerated notions of personal worthiness, status, and respect.

This problem is especially evident among inner-city black Americans—at ground zero—where neighborhood effects of poverty are most intense and prolonged and where there is an extremely strong desire for direct evidence of social well-being but with few legitimate employment opportunities available that would allow innercity residents to improve their lot or make a decent living. And community residents easily see a racial connection in their plight. For instance, the citizenship of U.S. blacks antedates all but native Americans among minorities in the United States, yet they remain at the back of the job queue, competing not only with new immigrants but with overseas workers whose low wages attract manufacturers. Those at ground zero have little standing, and often feel they and their communities are largely written off by the authorities. The most desperate residents, including many decent people, then feel they are on their own, particularly in matters of personal security, and have to do what they can to survive. For many, especially the youth, this situation encourages profoundly alienated subcultural themes that are generally associated with crime and violence, particularly in the media. In response, the wider society readily defines inner-city residents as violent and crime prone, and not worthy of association, thus providing a rationale for further isolating them. A vicious cycle is thereby set in motion that has had a significant impact on the major metropolitan areas of the United States.

It is important to recognize that not everyone who lives in the inner cities is poor and alienated. Overwhelming numbers of people are poor but civil and decent to their neighbors. As indicated above, in order to protect themselves, "decent" parents and children must mimic the tough behavior of the alienated, showing all who enter their presence that they are capable of defending themselves and their loved ones, an extremely important value in the local community. Strikingly, such an accommodation to the conditions of the neighborhood often results in the "streeting down" of the community, that is, more and more people, out of self-defense, adopt a "street" demeanor simply to let others know in no uncertain terms that they are not to be trifled with. With such widespread isolation from mainstream institutions and culture, local groups of young men and women are encouraged to form street gangs, which at times become criminally or quasi-criminally active gangs.

A major difference between blacks and other ethnic groups in the United States is that alienation, inequality, and racialized crime have existed for so very long. This fact, together with the general sense of how remote prospects for advancement in mainstream society are, only heightens the significance of immediate gratification, particularly among the youth.

Moreover, such alienation diminishes the relevance of the wider society's values and the impact of its sanctions (Anderson, 1999). Those who engage in criminal activity may feel less constrained by the hopes, aspirations, and dreams that might be realized in mainstream society, and so they are freed to commit violence toward their fellow citizens. The angriest and most alienated people develop a heightened sensitivity to slight when disrespected by others, and are often required to defend their honor and "get back respect" in order to survive socially in the neighborhood and, too often, violence is the result. This critically important reality must be appreciated if the violence of young inner-city poor African Americans is to be understood.

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