Ethnic Succession And Organized Crime
The role that ethnicity plays in shaping American organized crime has long been at the center of a heated debate among criminologists. Two broad schools of thought may be identified in this regard. The first, which many critics label the "alien conspiracy theory," assigns primary significance to the role played by Italian American groups in organized crime from the early days of this century until at least the 1980s. From this point of view, large scale American organized crime emerged out of earlier forms of Italian criminal organization such as the "Black Hand" gangs discussed earlier. Such gangs were themselves thought by advocates of this position to have reflected criminal styles and organizational forms imported to America from Sicily and other areas of southern Italy during the large-scale immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While small-scale forms of criminal organization may have predated the importation of the Mafia, advocates of this view maintain that the history of organized crime in America really is the history of the American Mafia. It is claimed that internecine struggles among groups of Italian American gangsters in the 1930s (known as the Castellammarese War) led to the Americanization of the Mafia and the emergence of a new and dynamic leadership that is associated with such well-known organized crime figures of the 1940s and 1950s as Charles "Lucky" Luciano, Frank Costello, and Vito Genovese. As the Americanized "La Cosa Nostra" replaced the more traditional organizational form of the Mafia, Italian American hegemony over organized crime was firmly established for several decades. From this point of view, it is not ethnicity as a variable that matters so much as the distinctive ethnicity of Mafia members. By implication, there is something very unique about the cultural character of southern Italy that has frequently predisposed immigrants from those regions to become involved in organized crime. Not surprisingly, Italian Americans have long complained about the Mafia stereotype and about the suggestion that organized crime is exclusively or largely the domain of those with Italian ancestry.
While the alien conspiracy theory has been legitimated by journalists, government inquiries, and many scholars, its critics argue that it too often substitutes myth for fact. There is, for instance, very little evidence to suggest that Italian American crime was characterized by a unilinear evolution or even that certain of the pivotal events (such as the Castellammarese War) even took place. However, critics charge, the most serious limitation of this argument may be that it tends to treat organized crime as a "special case." Because it attributes organized crime to a small number of criminal conspirators and to unique secret societies, the perspective asks few questions to which general answers can be given. By conceptualizing organized crime as the product of "evil" groups and by conceptualizing these groups as the product of singular social circumstances and powerful personalities, the argument blocks the way to a more abstract understanding of the problem. Moreover, by viewing organized crime as something that is imported to America, rather than as an indigenous product, the perspective does not seek to explain the relationships that link such crime to elements of American social structure.
A second perspective attempts to provide a historical context for the Italian American experience by arguing that it is part of a much broader process of "ethnic succession" in organized crime. This argument maintains that organized crime is not the exclusive domain of any one ethnic group. Rather, groups move into organized crime when other channels of upward social mobility are not open to them, and move out as more legitimate means of attaining wealth, power, and prestige become available. According to the sociologist Daniel Bell, who originally made this argument in the 1950s, organized crime functions as a "queer ladder of social mobility."
Thus, advocates of the ethnic succession argument maintain that in the burgeoning cities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, organized crime was dominated by the Irish. As Irish gangs formed, they became connected to urban political machines that were also under Irish control. As the legitimate power structure became increasingly available to Irish Americans, however, they began to view organized crime as less attractive, and as they moved out of such activity, other groups—most notably Jewish and Italian organized criminals—assumed an increasingly important presence. However, because the Italian domination of organized crime coincided with the rise of mass media, and the investigative activities of the Keafauver committee and other government bodies, the one-to-one correspondence between organized crime and Italian ethnicity became fixed in public discourse.
As Italian dominance in organized crime declined in the 1970s and 1980s, the process of ethnic succession continued. African American, Hispanics, Asians, Russians, and others, it is said, have each in turn replaced their predecessors as changes in the legitimate structures of opportunity have accommodated—often grudgingly—groups who previously played significant roles in organized crime.
The ethnic succession argument presents a more complicated picture of the relationships involving organized crime, ethnicity, and American social structure than the one suggested by theories of alien conspiracies. It contends that organized crime is not imported to America but is instead a logical product of the distinctly American character of minority group stratification and of the restrictions on legitimate opportunities that minorities face. Organized crime is not the property of any particular group but rather a means of social mobility that the existence of illicit markets makes available. As such it has been intertwined historically with other semilegitimate channels of upward mobility, such as entertainment, boxing, and union and urban politics. Like organized crime, these channels of upward mobility do not depend on credentials or family status and, as a result, have also been characterized by processes of ethnic succession.
Analytically, the ethnic succession argument encourages a focus on the variable character of ethnic group experiences in organized crime. Not all groups have been involved in such crime and those that have been involved have tended, often, to specialize in particular forms of illicit activity. By recognizing the differing experiences that groups have with organized crime, it is possible to develop a more general understanding of how ethnicity and historical circumstance interact. Some groups, such as the Germans and Scandinavians, were more likely to settle in rural areas of the Midwest rather than in urban areas of the east, and as a result their involvement in organized crime was less typical. In a consistent way, the cultural backgrounds of other groups have influenced the kinds of illegal activities in which they did become involved. Early in the twentieth century, for instance, the Irish specialized in gambling and labor racketeering. The latter choice reflected their more general involvement in the leadership of the labor movement. It has also been argued that the large-scale involvement of Italian organized criminals in the illegal alcohol business during prohibition represented an attempt to enter an illicit market that was new and thus not under Irish control. Much later in the twentieth century, Vietnamese and Chinese organized crime groups have specialized in extortion and the importation of drugs, while Russian groups have specialized in various forms of fraud, forgery, and counterfeiting.
Aspects of organized crime other than market specialization may also be related to ethnicity. Cultural experience, for instance, may relate to the level of mistrust of government, the degree of community tolerance for particular types of organized crime activities, the willingness to use violence, and to the forms that criminal organizations assume.
Some critics have charged that the theory of ethnic succession is too simplistic. In short, it is suggested that the image of ethnic groups as, in some sense, lined up and waiting their turn to enter organized crime and then neatly exiting when legitimate opportunities present themselves is not consistent with the historical record. There are several strands to this criticism. First, there is historical evidence to support the conclusion that in many cities—including, for example, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, and Cleveland—organized crime has not been under the control of any particular ethnic group but has been run instead by multiethnic hierarchies.
Second, it may be erroneous to assume that organized crime is a channel of upward mobility readily available to those who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy and who lack access to more conventional channels. Rather, the process has been more complicated such that success in large-scale organized crime appears to be possible only after at least some gains have been made in the conventional order. As stated, the success of the Irish in organized crime early in the century depended on their collaborative relationships with the police, labor unions, and political machines. Thus, prior success in more conformist spheres seems to make success at organized crime possible.
Third, the ethnic succession argument appears to assume that organized crime is a zero-sum game such that movement into this activity is only possible when other groups move out. This need not be the case. If particular markets (for instance, the market in marijuana) do not tend toward monopolization, then clearly groups can move in without pushing anyone else out. Another line of criticism maintains that the major weakness of the argument concerns its failure to explain why, within any ethnic group, some individuals rather than others involve themselves in organized crime. This criticism rightly alerts us to the observation that, with respect to any ethnic group, it is only a very small minority who engage in organized crime. Most ethnic group members remain hardworking, develop legitimate entrepreneurial enterprises, and in general strive to make effective use of those opportunities that do present themselves. According to this view, movement into organized crime is not a response to a reduction in opportunity but a rationally chosen style of life that exploits subterranean American values regarding "easy money" and "the fast life." The General Theory of Crime, developed by Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, suggests that those who engage in organized crime, like those who engage in other forms of crime, do so because they lack high levels of "self control" rather than because they experience the frustration borne of blocked opportunity. A corresponding point can be made regarding the tenet of ethnic succession theory that those who are forced into organized crime move out when legitimate opportunities present themselves. Some observers, such as Peter Lupsha, have noted that movement out often seems more a matter of defeat or attrition than of any effort to gain real respectability. The Italian American organized crime figures who had risen to prominence by the middle of the twentieth century left organized crime principally as a result of death or prosecution. Many of those who remained faced vigorous opponents who sought a share of the businesses that they controlled.
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