Gang signs and violence are no joke; privileged ignorance is

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Claremont, California has a reputation for a reason: with its small population, high median income, and liberal arts college town status, it is quite a pleasant place to live. However, a closer look at the behavior of CHS students shows the uglier side of privilege. One of the worst trends on campus by far is a pervasive ignorance and near fetishization of gang culture. Some students try to imitate gang culture or make a joke of it in the most low-risk way possible: flashing different gang signs while disregarding their history and implications. Growing up in a bubble of upper-middle class comfort can make it difficult to grasp others’ experiences. A generally privileged environment normalizes some comforts of life other Americans only ever dream of. But that is no justification for such blatant immaturity, disrespect, and ignorance.

Dear CHS students: we have access to one of the best public educations in the Inland Empire; we have a wealth of information from the internet at our fingertips. So how is it that so many of us remain so willingly blind to the world outside of our bubble of comfort? The heartbreaking reality of American society is a country of record breaking economic inequality and worse, citizens oblivious to it. America is more divided between rich and poor than ever before. That means that some benefit greatly from this broken system, and, in turn, others suffer. Systemic issues fully shape the lives of working class communities and communities of color. For many, gangs are a deeply ingrained fact of life. They can be a means of survival but are also much more significant than that. They have traditions that those never exposed to gang life have no right to imitate for fun.

There is nothing daring or at all exciting about a sheltered high school student trying to recreate an aspect of gang culture. To sit in the car your parents bought you on your 16th birthday, blare loud rap, and throw up gang signs you memorized online does not make you hard. It does not make you cool. It does not really do much other than solidify the status of your ignorance. Widespread gang violence and culture is a direct result of systemic inequality. It is what people resort to, oftentimes, to survive. So to use gang signs with no other relation to further aspects of gang life is not comparable to real gang involvement. The truth is that gangs are not a joke, and they are not to be made a joke of by ignorant teens. They impact countless communities in addition to so many individuals. Real involved teenagers do not have the choice to play pretend gangster one second but then enjoy the security of privilege the next. For many teens around the US, gang involvement has lifelong implications and is only increasing. Statistics from the National Gang Center concluded a fifteen percent increase in the prevalence of gangs from 2006 to 2012. An analysis of distribution shows that involvement is most common in large cities and suburban counties. For all the communities in which gangs are prevalent and for all the members themselves, daily implications are serious and too often deadly. It is crucial to recognize that the process of initiation into a gang and, later, the execution of gang activities can require a lot of sacrifice. Oftentimes it implies criminal activity and even homicide, to the point that too many teens the same age as CHS students lose their lives.

However, it is widely acknowledged that gang-related activity can be violent or dangerous. So where does the urge to imitate it stem from? The CHS students that find it entertaining to play pretend and recreate the real life struggles of many American youths must have a reason for their actions. The same strange allure that calls for white people to perform blackface, or for white CHS students to commonly use the N-word slur (an issue that we will get into in future articles, so keep posted) may seem totally illogical. In a society chock-full of inequality, those born into privilege of any kind have immediate advantage: financial security, parents who allocate college savings accounts, better funded public schools, little experience with systemic inequality, less racial bias. With this in mind, the nature of these individuals’ fascination with those who lack these same resources only seems more twisted. High schoolers at CHS do not wish to be involved in the gruesome, difficult, or dangerous aspects of gang violence. They use gang signs but would hate to have to go through the initiations that earned others that same right. They do not worry about the lifelong responsibility gang membership entails, or the community that it creates.

The CHS students that think gang signs are simply a fun thing to play with or joke about are detached from reality. What they glorify is in fact a twisted and childishly ignorant take on what a gang is, not the real deal. But in making gang culture out to be something that it is not, these predominantly upper-middle class white kids completely undermine the severity of the issue. Gangs are most common in poor urban areas of color for a reason. Systemic racism and inequality guarantee that some people start their lives at an incredible disadvantage. People do what they feel is necessary to make ends meet given that unfortunate reality. Misconstruing the situation entirely and making a joke of gang culture is, at its core, disrespectful on so many levels. It is an injustice to the individuals stuck in these cycles of involvement and crime, sometimes unwittingly. It is a discredit to the thousands dead as a direct result of gang-related violence. It is also blatant ignorance of the communities that are affected daily by youth gangs and also the communities that those gangs create. Do not belittle the lives and lifestyles of others, and do not squander the education you have. Most of all, recognize that this scenario is all just a matter of chance: with a flip of a coin, your freedom to joke about gang involvement could be traded in for the real lives of countless other teens who only wish for the life you don’t appreciate.