The American Dream: Why Gangs Form? A Study of Gangs: 1840-1980

The American Dream is an essential part of understanding gangs and why they form. The gangsters want to achieve the American Dream; they want respect, status, and an overall sense of belonging[1]. I personally do not believe that gangsters of the 20th century wanted to commit crime. I propose they believed in the rags to riches route. They, like many others, believed that a poor person could work hard and become successful. So what went wrong?

They lack the means to ‘go legally’ because most, if not all of them, are the minority in mainstream society. Legal means, such as jobs are unavailable to them. They were ostracized by mainstream society and cast as the reason for the nation’s problems. Some employers purposefully denied jobs to a certain population[2]. If jobs are available to them it is usually a low status job. So gangsters innovate and try to achieve the American Dream through illegal means[3]. Thus, gangs and involvement in crime form. In their mind, it is the easiest method to achieve respect, status, and an overall sense of belonging. In fact, as we will discuss later, many gangsters, like Al Capone, in their heyday were very well respected![4] In this article I will discuss the rise and demise of the Irish and Italian gangs. Most importantly, through using the American Dream perspective, why did they rise.

First, the Irish came to the United States roughly around 1800’s, specifically in the mid 1800’s. I guess most of the Irish immigration is caused by the Irish famine of 1840. However, when they did arrive, the established society despised them and looked at them as outcasts because established people were afraid of people that looked or acted differently. In fact, the hatred went so far as to deny jobs to the Irish. Yet, the Irish believed in the American Dream and wanted to make it. They resorted to crime. The Dead Rabbits is one example of an Irish gang in the mid 1800’s. Gangs like the Dead Rabbits[5] controlled and helped with the political machine and rose to fame and had prestige in society.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end! After a few run- ins with gangs of other ethnic minorities, like the infamous Italian gangs, the Irish gangs dwindled further and further to their ultimate demise. Furthermore, important factors lead the Irish gangs to dissolve. The availability to ‘go legal’ was now an option to the Irish population. In other words, there were jobs open to the Irish population and the Irish population opted to get a job[6]. This proves a point I made earlier about how I personally do not believe that gangsters of the 20th century wanted to commit crime. They were forced into it.

Spoiler alert!! As we leave our narrative about the Irish gangs and move on to the Italian gang, don’t feel to bad for the Irish gangs… the Italian gangs suffered a demise of their own too. The Italian gangs evolved pre prohibition, but came to power in the 1920[7] and really took hold after the demise of the Irish and most other ethnic gangs. Like the Irish, the Italians were not welcomed by the mainstream society who saw the Italians as outcasts. This prevented Italian immigrants from ‘going legal’ and thus they resorted to crime. Infamous Italian gangsters were Al Capone and ‘lucky’ Luciano. Italian gangs started doing business, like murder and theft, in poor neighborhoods, but as these gangs gained power and prestige they began to get involved in labor unions [construction and garment industries] and prostitution. By the 1980’s and 1990s’s the government started to crack down on these Italian gangs, which lead to their demise[8].

Around the same time the Italians rose to power, Jewish gangs arose. The Jewish immigrants came here to the United States spanning from 1880-1924. They too wanted to achieve the American Dream. However, just like the Irish and Italians, the Jewish were ostracized from mainstream society. So these people resorted to crime and joined or formed gangs. Most Jewish gangs operated in the lower east side, through some also conducted business elsewhere. The Jewish gangs first operated as small intra- ethnic run- ins and battles, but later as the victors of these brawls gained power the victors started to go big by taking on gangs of other ethnic groups, most notably the Italians. Just like the Irish gangs, the Jewish gangs got overpowered by the Italian gangs. As mentioned prior, Italians also suffered their own demise [9].

In sum, crimes and illegal activities don’t just happen. They are a result of factors, both internal and external factors. Thus, I personally do not believe that gangsters of the 20th century wanted to commit crime. They had no other viable option. Yet, It would be quite naïve to think that if everybody all of a sudden accepted a group of newcomers to a nation with open arms everything would be a Disney fairytale. It takes time and a gradual move from ethnocentrism and more cultural particularism. Moving away from superiority to experience and appreciating other cultures. People from other cultures wouldn’t be so native to us if we just listen to them.

[1] people.missouristate.edu

[2] O’kane, James M. 1992. The Crooked Ladder: Gangsters, Ethnicity, and the American Dream. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

[3] ibid

[4] ibid [5] ibid

[6] O’kane, James M. 1992. The Crooked Ladder: Gangsters, Ethnicity, and the American Dream. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

[7] http://www.history.com, O’kane, James M. 1992. The Crooked Ladder: Gangsters, Ethnicity, and the American Dream. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

[8] http://www.history.com

[9] O’kane, James M. 1992. The Crooked Ladder: Gangsters, Ethnicity, and the American Dream. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

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