United States Street Gang History

Manifest Destiny was the 19th century American belief that the United States (often in the ethnically specific form of the “Anglo-Saxon race”) was destined to expand across the continent.

It was used by Democrats in the 1840s to justify the war with Mexico; the concept was denounced by Whigs, and fell into disuse after the mid-19th century. Advocates of Manifest Destiny believed that expansion was not only wise but that it was readily apparent (manifest) and inexorable (destiny).

The concept of American expansionism is much older, but John L. O’Sullivan coined the exact term “Manifest Destiny” in the July/August 1845 issue of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in an article titled Annexation. It was primarily used by Democrats to support the expansion plans of the Polk Administration, and the idea of expansion was also supported by the Whigs like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and Abraham Lincoln, who wanted to deepen the economy. John C. Calhoun was a notable Democrat who generally opposed his party on the issue, which fell out of favor by 1860.

Street Gang History
Street Gang History

Manifest Destiny was always a general notion rather than a specific policy. The term combined a belief in expansionism with other popular ideas of the era, including American exceptionalism and Romantic nationalism. While many writers focus primarily upon American expansionism when discussing Manifest Destiny, others see in the term a broader expression of a belief in America’s “mission” in the world, which has meant different things to different people over the years. For example, the belief in an American mission to promote and defend democracy throughout the world, as expounded by Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, continues to have an influence on American political ideology.

Gang emergence in the Northeast and Midwest was fueled by immigration and poverty, first by two waves of poor, largely white families from Europe. Seeking a better life, the early immigrant groups mainly settled in urban areas and formed communities to join each other in the economic struggle. Unfortunately, they had few marketable skills. Difficulties in finding work and a place to live and adjusting to urban life were equally common among the European immigrants. Anglo native-born Americans discriminated against these immigrants as well. Conflict was therefore imminent, and gangs grew in such environments.

First came the old immigrants, those who came to the United States from Northern or Western Europe (especially Great Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia) during the first wave of immigration following American independence and extending up to about 1860. The second enormous group of immigrants — the Poles, Italians, Irish, and Jews—overlapped the first wave, arriving during the 1820–1920 period. Both groups largely consisted of low-skilled, low-wage laborers.

Not unexpectedly, the second wave on top of the first one overwhelmed the housing and welfare capacity of the young Northeast and Midwest cities, contributing directly to slum conditions and the accompanying crime problems, gangs included.

“The slum is as old as civilization. Civilization implies a race [among social strata] to get ahead… They drag one another farther down. The bad environment becomes the heredity of the next generation. Then, given the crowd, you have a slum ready-made”. In contrast, gangs grew out of the preexisting Mexican culture in the Western region, and their growth was fueled by subsequent Mexican migrations.

El Paso, Albuquerque, and Los Angeles initially were populated by immigrant groups along the trail from Mexico to Los Angeles. The continuing influx of Mexicans fueled gang growth. Indeed, they brought an embryo, or pregang, culture with them that was transmitted by youth who had been named pachuchos, after field hands from a Mexican city of that name. These pachuchos socialized with other immigrant youths in the streets. See this page for more information.

The Northeast, Midwest, and Western regions would soon be inundated with a second major wave of immigrants, African-American populations that migrated northward and westward from the Deep South. In addition, other gang mixtures including Hispanic/Latino (Puerto Rico, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Cuba), Asian (Cambodians, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Samoans, Thais, Vietnamese, and others), and Latin American (Colombians, Cubans, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Panamanians, Puetro Ricans, and others) would later populate the gang landscape. Native-American gangs also would emerge, but much later.

The internal migration of the blacks mainly fueled the emergence of another distinct wave of gang activity. The end result was a mixture of predominantly white, Mexican, and black gangs—with varying degrees of influence—in each of the three early gang regions in the United States. These regional histories begin with the first observance of street gangs in the United States in the Northeast.

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