This Wrong Being Done to My People: Street Gangs, Historical Agency, and Crime Politics in Postwar America

Stubbendeck, Megan, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace, Department of History, University of Virginia

For over two hundred years, street gangs have existed in American cities, yet gang violence did not become a sustained national concern until after World War II. Beginning in 1945, the number of cities reporting gang violence expanded and the number of identified gang members grew exponentially. As a result, from the late 1950s through the early 1990s, gang violence became a sustained national crime issue.

This dissertation uncovers how ideas about gangs changed during this period and who was responsible for these changes. It analyzes how different groups shaped the federal government’s response to gang violence and the political battles this process entailed. Generally, scholars focus on politicians and the news media as the primary architects of crime-related politics. This study, however, argues that although these actors helped make gangs a political issue, police officers, minority leaders, and gang members played a central role as well. Each of these groups developed their own understandings of street gangs, which included perceptions about the types of activities gangs partook in, what caused gang-related crime, and the racial composition of American gangs. In turn, each group proposed unique solutions specific to their understandings of the “gang issue.” Through these proposals—and working in conjunction with journalists, sociologists, social workers, and federal officials—these actors determined the crime-fighting solutions available to lawmakers. In doing so, they helped make crime a political battleground at the federal level and took part in constructing national crime policy. These efforts gave rise to two divergent forms of crime control—one liberal and one conservative—in the 1960s and early 1970s, followed by increasingly punitive policies in the 1980s and 1990s. By incorporating these oft-ignored actors, this study explains why lawmakers made the policy decisions that ultimately resulted in the modern carceral state.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
All rights reserved (no additional license for public reuse)
Issued Date: