Gangs as Pseudo-Families: Giving Youth What They “Need”

From the outside looking in, gangs are comparable to family systems. In fact, as I will explain below, some gangs explicitly refer to themselves as “families” or “brotherhoods” and have mottos that encompass this familial idea. Robert Muller, a psychologist specializing in trauma, explained “that young adults join gangs because they both act as a surrogate family, as well as provide a sense of belonging…” Based on interviews conducted with current and former gang members, Muller stated:

Several gang members said that being part of a gang meant you were never alone in the world, which is similar to how many people describe being part of a close-knit family or group of friends. Gangs provide members a sense of belonging and protection they do not receive from other relationships or experiences in life.

(emphasis added)

Is this sense of belonging and protection what attracts children to gangs in the first place? The interviews Muller relied on revealed that “Bloods, Crips, and MS13 members all say they can identify with ‘Scarface.’ The feeling of being an outsider, dismissed and looked down on, is what gang members say drew them to their crews.” This explains why children in the foster care system may be more prone to joining gangs: they are often times, unfortunately, labelled as outsiders and looked at differently in comparison to children who are not involved in the child welfare system – a key reason they may feel alone and like they do not belong anywhere.

As I discussed in my previous post, families are typically the source from which children obtain the needs described in Maslow’s Hierarchy: physiological needs, a need for safety, a need for love and belonging, a need for self-esteem, and a need for self-actualization. When families or caregivers are unable to provide children with these essentials, children likely, and logically, begin looking outside of their homes for ways in which they can fulfill these needs. 

In this post, I will explain how gangs may appear as a means of satisfying those needs for children in the foster care system who often lack a traditional and supportive “family” unit. I will begin by examining why gang names often refer to family associations. I will then discuss the definition and structure of gangs and conclude by analyzing the implications of recognizing gangs as family systems.

Gangs and Family References

Many gangs seem to refer to family ties or concepts associated with family relations – take for example, the Aryan Brotherhood, the Black Guerilla Family, the Bloods, and La Nuestra Familia. Although the above-mentioned gangs are prison gangs, not necessarily street gangs, in a report for NPR, Alan Greenblatt found that “Increasingly, these prison gangs are spilling out onto the streets.” He went on to explain that “The gangs went from protecting themselves in prison on racial lines to evolving into criminal enterprises.” Now, it has almost become a tradition for many gang members to have families with “a long history of gang involvement that included older brothers, and in a considerable number of cases, fathers and grandfathers.” For example,  thirty-two percent of Los Angeles fathers who had or have some type of gang involvement said that they had been members of the same gang to which their children now belonged, while eleven percent reported that four generations of their family had membership in the same gang (see pages 180 and 181). This explains how youth become involved with these “familial-style” gangs that originated in prisons and seem to provide protection, a sense of belonging, and support to young people who feel alone and helpless. This prompts the question of why gangs even use familial references? Or is there really even a why? Is it just a coincidence? Because although a large number of gangs refer to family relations, many do not – for example, there are the Crips, Norteños, Sureños, and 311 Boyz.

It is critical to question whether gangs consciously use their names as a means of attracting individuals who long for a relationship or structure that is “family-like” in nature both from a preventative and policy perspective, especially because many of the individuals who join gangs typically come from dysfunctional families. It almost seems like both the organization itself and the individuals joining intend for gangs to act as “surrogate families.” 

Below I will examine data about the origin of select gangs that explicitly reference some form of familial ties in their name, and whether their structure was intentionally designed to operate in a manner similar to that of a family.

The Aryan Brotherhood

FBI records reveal that the name of the prison gang Aryan Brotherhood was adopted in support of the idea that “one is in for life and the only way out is by death” (see page 7). To reinforce the strength of their “brotherhood,” the gang implemented a lifelong sworn code of conduct that has been reported to be as follows:

            “I will stand by my brother

             My brother will come before all others

             My life is forfeit should I fail my brothers

             I will honor my brother in peace as in war.”

(page 5, emphasis added)

The records further explain that this lifelong commitment extends outside of prison walls because “It is a hard fact that most of the AB will be paroled or discharged at some future date,” and “The rule of thumb is that once on the streets, one must take care of his brothers that are still inside. The penalty for failure to do so is death upon the members [sic] return to the prison system” (see page 9).

Based on the origins of their name and the language in their sworn code of conduct, the Aryan Brotherhood seems to have intended to form a “real brotherhood.” This is evidenced by the “blood in, blood out” code of conduct they expect their members to abide by. A gang member explained that “ ‘Blood in’ means a new member with no ranking or respect has to ‘walk the line’ and take a beating from gang members. Or it can mean a new member has to go out and spill…[someone from outside the gang’s] blood. ‘Blood out’ means you leave the gang when you die.” This code of conduct is likely in place to ensure a member’s full commitment and loyalty to the gang. Similar to how one would support his blood brother by standing by his side and putting his needs above almost anyone else’s, the Aryan Brotherhood expects the same from its members (in an obviously more extreme manner, however). If one fails to “take care of his brothers” selflessly, then he can expect to die at the hands of his brothers. This is what seems to be their way of disowning unfaithful members.

La Nuestra Familia 

Another prison gang, La Nuestra Familia, Spanish for “Our Family,” was formed in 1968 in order to protect themselves from the violent tendencies of the Mexican Mafia. The objectives of Nuestra Familia, according to their constitution, are social, political, economic, and cultural. David Skarbek, in his article “Putting the ‘Con’ into Constitutions: The Economics of Gangs,” explains how (similar to the Aryan Brotherhood) Nuestra Familia requires members to join for life. A lot of times, because the cost of exiting the gang is high, authoritative figures within the gang abuse their power. According to gang members associated with this group, “the much-vaunted ‘family’ at the heart of Nuestra Familia is a profoundly dysfunctional one – a soap opera tangle of duplicity, adultery, drugs and betrayal.” However, according to Skarbek, La Nuestra Familia prison gang attempts to solve “the internal predation problem by credibly committing safety to potential members and controlling subordinates in dispersed, hierarchical institutions with a systems of check and balances.”

The fact that La Nuestra Familia was created as a means of protecting its members from outside dangers mirrors what traditional families try to do for their members. This demonstrates that when children are not being provided their essential needs, the needs described in Maslow’s Hierarchy, they may resort to fulfilling those needs outside of the home through whatever channels they feel are necessary. 

Black Guerilla Family

Another one of the many prison gangs that reference familial ties is the Black Guerilla Family. According to FBI records, this group was formed within the California Department of Corrections by members of the Black Panther Party, the Black Muslim Mafia, and the Republic of New Africa with a goal of identifying with one another and protecting themselves against harassment from both white and Mexican-American prisoners (see page 12). The records further indicate that individuals who have committed themselves to the Black Guerilla Family find that they cannot leave it without retaliation; some even say that death is the only termination of membership in the Black Guerilla Family because persons who turn against the “family” are considered enemies and are marked for attack and death whenever possible (see page 12).  

Similar to both the Aryan Brotherhood and La Nuestra Familia, the “blood in, blood out” mentality that highlights the importance of standing up for and with members of the family are present in the origins and guidelines of the Black Guerilla Family. This creates a reasonable inference that the name of the gang likely was not mere coincidence, but instead consciously named so to make members consider the gang a “pseudo-family” that provides them with a sense of comfort, protection, and belonging. This idea of a gang acting as a “pseudo-family” in both name and function demonstrates why children involved in the foster care system would be especially susceptible to gang affiliations.

The Definition and Structure of Street Gangs

Even though these gangs emerged out of prison, they are similar to street gangs youth often times decide to join in the sense that they provide a sense of belonging, protection, and acceptance. This is similar, if not identical, to what traditional family units provide. 

Nikki Ruble and William Turner, in their article “A Systematic Analysis of the Dynamics and Organization of Urban Street Gangs,” explain that U.S. Street gangs can be defined as groups of youths and young adults who have regular contact with one another, ways of identifying their group, and rules of behavior. Ruble and Turner highlight how gangs serve many purposesfor their members, including, but not limited to, providing a source of status, identity, cohesion, self-esteem, and a sense of belonging. They emphasize that gangs consider themselves to be “families” because their highly complex organization, structure, process, and functionality intertwine within and around the gang to form a web of interconnectedness and continuity.

Scholars have said the reason so many gang names may reference familial ties is because gang members experience an intense emotional closeness born of children growing up together on the street and turn to each other for support, and often, for the mere purpose of survival. This mirrors the principles of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs and attachment theory in that children crave a sense of safety, love, belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization, and when they are not provided that by their families or caregivers, they resort to outside sources, such as gangs, to fill those voids.  In other words, by virtue of lacking their basic needs, children are driven to join gangs. 

In Martin Sanchez Jankowski’s book, Islands in the Street: Gangs and American Urban Society, he notes how a gang member said, 

Before I joined the gang, I could see that you could count on your boys to help in times of need and that meant a lot to me. And when I needed money, sure enough they gave it to me. Nobody else would have given it to me; my parents didn’t have it, and there was no other place to go. The gang was just like they said they would be, and they’ll continue to be there when I need them .

(page 42, emphasis added)

This demonstrates how youth join gangs as a means of attaining some form of consistency, a sense of belonging, and a reliable support system. Attaining these basic needs is more difficult for children in the foster care system, which explains why many of them likely turn to gangs to satisfy these necessities within their lives.

The Implications of Recognizing Gangs as Family Systems

Acknowledging that gangs operate similarly to family systems not only explains why they may refer to themselves using familial references, but also explains why and how gangs function as a unit. Further, recognizing the multiple and complex layers of street gangs allows society to not only think of them in a negative and criminal manner, but to view their members more compassionately. Scholars have found that “… family stresses may encourage youths to create family-like relationships in the groups to which they belong, and as such, these relationships may represent fictive kin.” Fictive kin are “people who are unrelated biologically or by marriage, but use familial labels (e.g., mother or sister) to signify relationships characterized by trust, reciprocity, and commitment.” This type of family most commonly originates “in settings where people have limited access to economic resources and familial networks.” This explains why children in the foster care system are particularly susceptible to joining gangs. Therefore, understanding the function that gangs serve for their members holistically will aid families, communities, and the justice system in creating programs and interventions that consist of a multilevel approach that addresses individual, family, community, and cultural influences. As I will explain in my next post, these programs need not be overly burdensome or costly – they can include something as simple as providing a youth in foster care a mentor from the community who will commit to staying with them throughout their time in the child welfare system, and perhaps even beyond that. This in turn would provide some degree of stability for the kids in the foster care system who are typically subjected to constant unpredictability.

My next post will provide further detail about why children in the foster care system are more likely to join gangs based on their potential belief that gangs are the only “family” they really have because of feelings of neglect, rejection, and instability in their home lives.