“Epistemology” was one of the first concepts I studied in graduate school. A real-world manifestation of that concept was also the first thing that captured my attention when more than twenty years earlier I visited Watts, California—a community ruled by the PJ Watts Crips, a powerful faction of the infamous Crips street gang. Then I had no idea that the difference between the way I viewed society, through a prism of middle-class convictions, versus the gangsters’ grassroots vantage point had a scholarly description: that of differing epistemologies.
Epistemology is the study of how humans think. Epistemology explains the rationality undergirding how humans justify their beliefs, their truth, which, of course, ultimately is reflected in their behavior. My visit to Watts was to interview a few gang members for a book I was researching about the history of the Crips and Bloods youth gangs. I am an African American, yet I had never visited that urban neighborhood; I lived in Pasadena, a suburban community about twenty-three miles away. But that trip to Watts was when I noticed a significant gap in my fundamental understanding of civic duty—or my epistemic notion of civic duty—as compared to the meaning or epistemology of citizenship held by the people who resided there. Here I argue that the epistemic disconnect between middle-class culture and street-gang culture provides insight into why youth gang members ignore the rule of law.
The epistemology of the gangster class is inextricably linked to the culture of the neighborhoods in which they reside and dominate. Those neighborhoods I have titled the Deep Community—a reframing of the inner-city and ghetto concept. Defining the Deep Community begins with a boundary discussion. There are different locational environments within low-income urban communities and each environment has its own culture that warrants its own environmental analysis. Watts, California, for example, is a neighborhood that includes some middle-class homes that are segregated from the three public housing projects built there: Jordan Downs, home of the Grape Street Watts Crips gang; Imperial Courts, where the PJ Watts Crips originated; Nickerson Gardens, claimed by Bounty Hunter Bloods. Thus, the Deep Community is a collection of small, definitive territories located inside most neighborhoods already labeled inner-cities or ghettos across the United States.
In March of 1992, working as a journalist and researcher assigned by a national magazine to write an article about black youth gangs, I unsuspectingly drove into a new world, an urban wonderland of sorts, otherwise known as Watts, California. Back then, Watts was known as part of South-Central Los Angeles, and considered by law enforcement and local news media as prime Crips and Bloods street-gang territory. My wonderland-as-metaphor representation of Watts is because of my fascination with what I initially experienced there. Residents in exercising their agency did not abide by even the most basic constructs of social order—traffic rules. Rules that I had been taught to follow my entire middle-class adult life.
Few drivers from that neighborhood stopped at stop signs. Nor did they recognize the lines in the middle of a two-way street. Yet they somehow managed not to frequently crash into each other. The danger of being killed by bullets, it turns out, was more likely than being in a fatal car crash1. The women and men of these neighborhoods, as well as the girls and boys who played there, lived with that random life-or-death threat every day. In Social Structure and Anomie (1938), Robert K. Merton categorizes such behavior as a form of ‘aberrant conduct’—or nonconformity (Merton, p. 674). He argues that nonconforming residents act out because of a dissonance in a social structure underscored by a culture encouraging them to aspire to far more success in life than that same social structure offers in the way of opportunities to achieve such success. After many years of Deep-Community fieldwork, I would suggest that the reasons for nonconformity with the mainstream culture—and laws—are more complex than Merton’s theory proclaims. Still, in 1992, the collective defiance of Watts’ residents made me question my own automatic compliance with not just traffic rules, but I also wondered how many other rules designed to maintain the social order was I dutifully and unconsciously obeying.
But that was the beginning of my learning. Since then, I have spent more than two decades visiting urban neighborhoods throughout California and in other regions of the United States to engage in fieldwork that seeks a more nuanced understanding of these special communities. What I have witnessed informs my analysis for this discussion.
The Deep Community—along with the gangster-class epistemology it harbors—is foremost a closed-society hiding in plain sight. Its historical antecedents are anchored in American racism and government policies designed to ensure housing segregation of the races (Rothstein 2017). This deliberate isolation practice toward African Americans has evolved in recent years to include other people of color, as well as those seen as belonging to a low-income socio-economic class, no matter what their ethnicity. Race-based government housing policies from as long ago as the First World War (1914-1918) offer a direct lineage to today’s Deep Community social, cultural and economic boundaries (Ibid.). That was when America, in the business of building places to live for defense workers near military installations, which included many African American employees, purposefully excluded black people from purchasing those government-constructed homes.
Years later, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt continued this race-based legacy of isolation when his administration ordered the first public housing projects to be constructed—and this time African Americans were discriminated against in several ways (New York Times Editorial 2018). Separate housing was built for black people to keep them away from their white counterparts. Sections of buildings were segregated to keep black people from mixing in the same building with whites. Finally, there were projects that simply did not allow black people on the premises under any circumstance (Ibid.).
This is a policy that is a classic cultural set-up for socially entrenched ‘otherness.’ Political theorist Yussuf Naim Kly examines that concept through a discussion about what he calls ‘the anti-social contract’ (1989, p. 2). He argues the United States established itself through the creation of a contract known as the constitution. But his analysis points out that not all of what was expected by the dominant class to be enforced by America’s constitution is explicitly stated there. Instead, Kly claims there is an unwritten social contract that upholds the cultural values of the ruling class and its relations with African Americans, other people of color and the poor. So, Kly reframed the meaning of the social contract to be defined by what it does not allow in terms of personhood for a certain category of citizens—’the other’ in society—as opposed to what it does ensure for the dominant culture. In that reframing Kly renamed the unwritten understanding: the anti-social contract.
So, the Deep Community, literally and conceptually, began as a construction of exclusionary government policies that reflected the will of the dominant culture, who did not want to live with or near African Americans. Now that pattern of ‘otherness’ has expanded to include communities based on their low-income status or ethnicity.
This notion of a social contract has been debated by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Rawls over hundreds of years. From a political perspective, the social contract allows society to function as a collective of sorts to convey the consent to be governed—giving up some ‘natural rights’ (Rubin 2012, p. 328) in return for the belief there will be some reciprocal benefits provided by government (Rubin 2012). That point of reciprocity, I argue, is exactly where the social-contract concept broke down with Deep-Community residents. There was no life-enhancing reciprocity for them. There was no support or even interest in their cultural values. Consequently, there has developed over the years a reciprocal ‘otherness’ that emanates from Deep-Community residents, including gangsters, toward the ruling class.
But that was not the only consequence of the government-orchestrated formation of small urban territories based on race, ethnicity and socio-economic status. My contention is that the Deep Community as a special place became animated by human drama. That drama, I argue, was provoked by the pressures of forced social and geographical isolation, as well as structural issues debated by theorists such as Wilson in his seminal work, The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), and others (Piven 2014; Glasgow 1981; Aulette 1982). Such issues have plagued these communities for decades and were—and are—exacerbated by segregation. These issues have fostered tension and drama in the Deep Community.
The structural argument is that as America transformed from an agrarian-sharecropper-tenant-farmer economy in the South to a mechanized agricultural enterprise, millions of black people were left without a way to earn a living. So, they migrated to the North and were relegated to small urban communities known as black ghettos (Piven 2014), which quickly became overcrowded, unprotected territories within the United States.
The Crips and the Bloods youth gangs of Los Angeles, for example, were initially formed in the late 1960s and early 1970s to serve a community policing function (Williams, S. T. 2007). The infamous Los Angeles Police Department barely patrolled the black ghetto (Ibid.; Donner 1990; Williams, K. 2007). So, a group of about thirty black male teenagers from South Central Los Angeles agreed to form the Crips to protect their community (Ibid.). Shortly thereafter the Bloods gang was created. Gang membership grew quickly, as did these young men’s realization that they had power in numbers—the power to terrorize the very communities they had formed to protect and save (Ibid.). The gangsters also realized they had a certain measure of autonomy caused by their societal as well as literal isolation.
Hispanic, Asian and white gangs had different start-up histories, but the Deep-Community impact was the same. Geographic containment. Overcrowded living spaces. Poor-quality public schools. High rates of drug addiction and drug-dealing. Limited employment and small-business opportunities. Racial bias in the criminal justice system, which led to a government policy of mass incarceration. All these circumstances and more combined to alienate the youth of these communities and encouraged their participation in gangs. With gangs, these young men had an outlet where there was a chance to feel empowered and to provide a form of grassroots leadership within the small enclave in which they were permitted to roam and terrorize.
This history, I suggest, has contributed to another characteristic of the Deep Community: that it’s a mythic location where reputations are made. The Crips had a credo: do or die (Bing 1992). The idea is that Crips are always prepared to kill or be killed. This belief permeates the ideology of not only the Crips, but virtually all street gangs. Street slang is that gangsters must ‘put in work,’2 which means to murder people to prove toughness, strength and leadership—or O.G. potential (an O.G., Original Gangster, is the C.E.O. equivalent in the Deep Community).
The Deep Community is where gang members get to prove their mettle and make their reputations through daring behaviors of murder and mayhem. Such behavior has been immortalized on the big screen in a 1992 movie titled South Central. In 1994, a tragi-comedy television series aired that was also named South Central. One of the seminal gangster hip-hop albums, released in 1988 and produced by Dr. Dre, was named Straight Outta Compton, a famous Los Angeles-area Deep-Community city.
An interesting corollary with the Deep Community is Pelican Bay State Prison. As California’s supermax prison, Pelican Bay maintains the worse of inhumane carceral conditions. Yet it, too, like the Deep Community, is considered a ‘mythic place’ (Wallace-Wells 2014, p. 8) by prisoners—another place, this time for prisoners, to secure a reputation. The Mexican Mafia prison gang has fondly nicknamed Pelican Bay: La Playa Azul, which means ‘the Blue Beach’ (Ibid.). The state’s other Hispanic prison gang has even included in its by-laws that any would-be leader of the gang must be incarcerated at Pelican Bay (Ibid.).
My argument is that gangsters have internalized a value system that honors the most harsh, violent lifestyle—whether incarcerated or not. Further, with the government’s mass incarceration policy since the 1980s (Alexander 2010)—where urban communities populated by people of color were targeted for arrest—the culture of prison is being exported into the culture of the streets and the culture of the streets is being imported into the culture of prison. A consequence of this quest for mythic reputation-making has been for gangsters to place themselves and Deep-Community residents in a state of constant vigilance for being shot or killed. This is a desensitizing normal that reflects a very different belief system from mainstream society. But that belief system provides a rationale for gangster-class behavior. It also reflects an epistemology that eschews the rule of law—from dismissing traffic rules to committing murder to attain O.G. status, a form of “street career” enhancement.
So, there are explanations for why gang members disobey the nation’s laws, why the social order is often flaunted by youth gang members. But should incarceration serve as the sole solution to criminal behavior propelled by an epistemology of the streets? This, it turns out, is a challenging question with not-so-obvious answers that I will explore in a future article.
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Donner, F. (1990) Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
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Piven, F. F. (2014) How We Once Came to Fight a War on Poverty. New Labor Forum. vol. 23, No. 3, pp. 20-25.
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Wallace-Wells, B. (2014) The Plot From Solitary. New York Magazine Online, https://nymag.com/news/features/solitary-secure-housing-units-2014-2 [Accessed 6th May 2014].
Williams, K. (2007) Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America. Cambridge: South End Press.
Williams, S. T. (2007) Blue Rage, Black Redemption: A Memoir. New York: Touchstone.
Wilson, J. W. (1987) The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, The Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health recorded 803 gang homicides in Los Angeles County in 1992, most of which occurred in the South section of Los Angeles where Watts is located. That same public health agency recorded only 144 traffic fatalities for 1992 in the South Los Angeles region.
- This is a phrase I repeatedly heard from street gangsters during my twenty-five years of Deep-Community fieldwork.