Halford H. Fairchild
Paper presented at "A Symposium on Gang Violence" sponsored by the California Democratic Party (Region 14), Los Angeles, CA, February 14, 1998. Published in Psych Discourse, March, 1998.
My topic is on the psychological costs of gang violence on the individual and the community. There are both obvious and non-obvious psychological effects to gang violence. If we can understand these effects, then we may derive clues to the causes of gang violence. And if we can identify the causes of gang violence, then we may be on the correct path to writing a prescription for solving this deadly problem that plagues our community.
Obvious Psychological Effects
I begin, then, with some of the obvious psychological effects of gang violence.
Gang violence wounds. Gang violence kills. Gang violence robs both the perpetrator and the victim of their spiritual and physical integrity. Gang violence victimizes individuals, families, and the whole community.
This problem is best seen as one of epidemic proportions. Whenever I speak with young people of high school age--which is fairly frequently--I often ask, "How many of you know someone who has been murdered?" When those students are Black or Brown--from cities like this city or from communities like this community-- nearly all of them raise their hands.
Our children are being killed and we are left to bury them and to grieve their loss. A parent never fully recovers--psychologically--from the loss of a child. And when that loss is violent, senseless, and random, the parents' and family's feelings of grief are compounded by a sense of rage, hopelessness and the desire for revenge.
This epidemic of gang violence places our whole community in an "under siege" mentality. We live in constant fear that we may be the next random victim of a drive by shooting, of a car jacking, of a burglary or armed robbery, or of a drug deal gone bad. We are psychologically numbed to the violence around us as we hear gunshots in the night and really don't think twice about it.
Gang violence also imperils our families and communities because gang members often spend many years -- or whole lives -- in jail and prison -- and their families and communities are robbed of their potential as bread winners were it not for their involvement in gangs and related criminal activity. Twenty-five years to life incarcerates the man behind bars; but it also incarcerates his children and family that must struggle that much harder to survive.
These are the obvious psychological effects of gang violence. What are some of the non-obvious effects?
Non-Obvious Psychological Effects
Some of the less-obvious psychological effects pertain to the gang members themselves. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands or even millions of our children -- our young men and women -- are entangled in the web of the gang lifestyle. It is a lifestyle that is criminal, drug induced and dangerously violent.
But it is a lifestyle, I imagine, that also gives these young people a sense of power. It gives them a sense of importance, a sense of purpose.
What a cruel irony! By engaging in illicit activity, in drug dealing, in murderous activity, our youth are finding their "place" in our society and deriving satisfactions from it.
It is here where we may identify the causes of gang involvement and all of the horrors that that involvement engenders. You see, gang members are gaining a sense of power in a context of extreme powerlessness. They are gaining a sense of purpose in a context that is marked by extreme purposelessness.
It is here, too, where we catch sight of the possible solutions to this terrible problem.
I want to suggest to you that gang violence is not the problem. Gang violence is a symptom of other problems. This is important because if all we do is focus on solving or eliminating gangs and gang violence, we will leave the underlying causes of these problems untouched and we will necessarily remain frustrated by our inability to bring peace and harmony to our families and communities.
If young people derive power, purpose and importance through their gang involvement, we must ask, "Why do our young people feel powerless? Why do they lack a sense of purpose? Why do they feel unimportant?" My time is short so I can only list a few of the answers to these questions.
These problems derive from an ideology of White supremacy that has been translated into a variety of institutional practices that render our children educationally illiterate and unemployable. Our institutionalized system of mis-education teaches lies, myths and distortions that our children naturally rebel against; and this mis-education is accomplished in a context where the educational resources are improperly distributed. Our educational system--in this city and around the nation--is founded and exists according to the principle of "separate and unequal."
The political economy is one where the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. In fact, the rich get rich at the expense of the poor. Industries have moved out of the city, to the suburbs and to other countries, in a desire to maximize profits while minimizing compensation. And we, in the city, are left scrambling in an illicit economy precisely because there are no jobs available. And there certainly are no jobs available for the functionally illiterate who have been condemned to a life of economic marginality and criminality.
This American Apartheid is evident in schools, jobs, housing, health care and the criminal injustice system.
We turn to violence because this country has institutionalized violence as a way of life. This country was born in violence, and maintains its power, today, through the use of violence or the threat of violence. What else is a B-2 Stealth Bomber for? What use do we have for MX missiles, cruise missiles or nuclear bombs? Our nation has shown the world that it is ready to fly-by and bomb -- in Vietnam, in Grenada, in Panama, in Iraq. If the nation/state exercises its power through fly-bys, how can we be surprised when our youth mimic this violence and drive-by and shoot? When the State of Texas (or Florida or California or Nevada) and the President of the United States and the Justices of the Supreme Court all say that killing the defenseless is justified -- as they did last week in the killing of Karla Faye Tucker in Texas -- who are we to tell our youth, "Thou shall not kill"?
So, what do we do about this?
First, we must recognize that gang violence is a symptom of something much more fundamental that has gone awry in our social organization. Then, we must repair that social organization.
Again, I only have time to name these things.
We must transform our educational system into one that loves and nurtures our children. We must believe in the innate genius of our children and then nurture that genius into academic excellence.
We must develop in our youth the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that doesn't "get a job," but that creates jobs.
We must finally rid ourselves of the psychological shackles of White supremacy and love ourselves as Black and Brown people. We must embrace a sense of unity among our people.
We must thoroughly debunk the ideology of White supremacy so that even White people don't have to be incarcerated by a false sense of superiority.
We must become a kinder and more gentle nation. We must transform an economy that is dominated by the military/industrial complex into one that is dominated by a concern for the health, education and welfare of the people. We must truly adopt the credo, In God We Trust, and promise that we will practice war no more.
If we seek to end gang violence in our community, we must end the social conditions that give rise to gang involvement, we must end the ideologies that justify the killing of our Brothers and Sisters, and we must destroy the institutional structures that breed violence at home and abroad.
Copyright, 1998 by Halford H. Fairchild, Ph.D. and The Association of Black Psychologists
Background photograph copyright by Halford H. Fairchild, 1999
A few risk factors for youth violence occur before birth. Others come into play as the child develops in response to his or her family and surroundings. Thus, most of the risk factors that exert an effect before puberty are found in the individual and family domains rather than in the larger world, a situation that changes dramatically in adolescence. Childhood risk factors are listed by domain in Box 4-1; effect sizes are listed in Table 4-1.
The most powerful early risk factors for violence at age 15 to 18 are involvement in general offenses and substance use before age 12. General offenses include serious, but not necessarily violent acts, such as burglary, grand theft, extortion, and conviction for a felony. Children engaging in such crimes often come to the attention of the police and juvenile justice system. Numerous studies have documented the overlap between serious nonviolent and violent offenses in adolescence, so early involvement in serious offenses carries a substantial risk for violence later.
Experimentation with drugs, alcohol, tobacco, or some combination of these substances is not particularly unusual by age 18, but use of these substances by children under the age of 12 is. Not only are these substances harmful to health, they are illegal. Thus, use of these substances signals antisocial attitudes and early involvement in a delinquent lifestyle that often comes to include violent behavior in adolescence (Fagan, 1993).
Two moderate risk factors emerge in childhood, being male and aggression. Boys (and young men) are far more likely than girls to be violent (see Chapter 2), yet some researchers have suggested that sex is a risk marker rather than a risk factor (Earls, 1994; Hawkins et al., 1998a; Kraemer et al., 1997). A risk marker is a characteristic or condition that is associated with known risk factors but exerts no causal influence of its own (Earls, 1994; Patterson & Yoerger, 1997). 5 For example, many more boys than girls are hyperactive, a risk factor with a small effect size, so some of the predictive power of being male may actually be the influence of hyperactivity. Moreover, boys have traditionally been exposed to more violence than girls, and socially approved male role models are more aggressive, suggesting that social learning plays a role in this risk factor. However, research indicates that being male confers risk even after accounting for other known risk factors. This suggests that being male is a risk factor rather than a risk marker, perhaps with some biological or biological-environmental interaction as the causal mechanism.
Many studies have found aggression -- characterized as aggressive and disruptive behavior, verbal aggression, and aggression toward objects -- to be a moderate risk factor among boys, although there is some evidence that physical aggressiveness is actually responsible for most of the observed effect (Nagin & Tremblay, 1999). Additional research is needed to sort out the unique influence of each of these types of aggression.
The remaining individual risk factors have relatively small effect sizes. Various psychological conditions, such as hyperactivity, impulsiveness, daring, and short attention span, pose a small risk for violence. A consistent individual predictor is hyperactivity/low attention, the central components of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a cognitive disorder that may be genetically influenced in some way (Hawkins et al., 1998a). ADHD is characterized by restlessness, excessive activity, and difficulty paying attention, traits that may also contribute to low academic performance, a risk factor in school. Hyperactivity is often found in combination with physical aggression, another risk factor. Some researchers question the independent effect of hyperactivity on later violence, suggesting that the effect is actually physical aggression (and perhaps low academic performance) that was not controlled for in earlier studies of hyperactivity (Nagin & Tremblay, 1999). There is little agreement about the mechanism linking hyperactivity to violence.
The effects of children's exposure to television and film violence have been studied extensively in regard to aggression, but there is relatively little research regarding the effects on more serious forms of violent behavior (for an extended discussion, see Appendix 4-B). Experimental studies have found that exposure to media violence has a small average effect size (.13) on serious forms of violence (Paik & Comstock, 1994); the average effect size in cross-sectional survey studies was very small (.06). Two frequently cited longitudinal studies have examined the effects that exposure to television violence in childhood produces on violent behavior during adolescence or early adulthood. One, in which participants reported having punched, beaten, or choked someone as young adults, found a significant predictive effect for women (.22) but no significant effect for men (Huesmann et al., (submitted)). The other study, in which teenage males reported being involved in a knife fight, car theft, mugging, gang fight, or similar delinquent behavior, found a statistically significant predictive effect in only one of nine tests (Milavsky et al., 1982). Exposure to violence appears to have a weak predictive effect on relatively immediate violence in experimental studies, but there is little consistent evidence to date for a long-term predictive effect.
Little research has been done on violence in other media -- video games, music videos, and the Internet. A recent meta-analysis by Anderson and Bushman (in press) reports that video game violence has a small average effect size (.19) on physical aggression in experimental and cross-sectional studies. Theoretically, the influence of these interactive media might well be greater than that of television and films, which present a passive form of exposure, but there are no studies to date of the effects of exposure to these types of media violence and violent behavior.
Problem behavior, another risk factor with a small effect size, refers to relatively minor problem behaviors such as stealing, truancy, disobedience, and temper tantrums. While not serious in themselves, antisocial behaviors may set the stage for more serious nonviolent or violent behavior later.
The medical or physical risk factor includes a number of conditions that as a group are somewhat predictive of violence. Prenatal and early postnatal complications, a more specific set of medical conditions, have been found to have inconsistent effects across a number of studies (Hawkins et al., 1998c). These complications encompass a broad group of genetic conditions or physical injuries to the brain and nervous system that interfere with normal development, including low birth weight, oxygen deprivation, and exposure to toxins such as lead, alcohol, or drugs (Hawkins et al., 1998b). Low resting heart rate, a condition that has been studied primarily in boys, is associated with fearlessness or stimulation seeking, both characteristics that may predispose them to aggression and violence (Raine et al., 1997; Hawkins et al., 1998c), but there is not enough evidence to establish this condition as a risk factor for violence. Some studies have even questioned its effects on aggression (Van Hulle et al., 2000; Wadsworth, 1976; Kindlon et al., 1995). There is also no evidence that internalizing disorders -- nervousness and withdrawal, anxiety, and worrying -- are related to later violence (Hawkins et al., 1998c).
Low IQ, or low intelligence, includes learning problems and poor language ability. This risk factor has a small effect size and is often accompanied by other risk factors with small effect sizes, such as hyperactivity/low attention and poor performance in school.
Antisocial beliefs and attitudes, including dishonesty, rule-breaking, hostility to police, and a generally favorable attitude toward violence, usually constitute a risk factor in adolescence, not childhood (Hawkins et al., 1998c). Only dishonesty in childhood is predictive of later violence or delinquency, and its effect is small.
There are no known strong risk factors for youth violence in the family domain, but low socioeconomic status/poverty and having antisocial parents are moderate factors. Socioeconomic status generally refers to parents' education and occupation as well as their income. Poorly educated parents may be unable to help their children with schoolwork, for example, and children living in poor neighborhoods generally have less access to recreational and cultural opportunities. In addition, many poor families live in violent neighborhoods, and exposure to violence can adversely affect both parents and children, as described above. Limited social and economic resources contribute to parental stress, child abuse and neglect, damaged parent-child relations, and family breakup -- all risk factors with small effects in childhood.
Studies suggest that antisocial parents -- that is, violent, criminal parents -- represent an environmental rather than a genetic risk factor (Moffitt, 1987). In other words, children learn violent behavior by observing their parents rather than by inheriting a propensity for violence. In fact, attachment to parents, a possible protective factor, can have the opposite effect if the parents are violent (Hawkins et al., 1998c).
Among the early risk factors with small effect sizes on youth violence is poor parent-child relations. One specific risk factor in this class -- harsh, lax, or inconsistent discipline -- is also somewhat predictive of later violence (Hawkins et al., 1998c). Children need reasonable, consistent discipline to establish the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Children who are treated harshly may view rough treatment as acceptable, those who are given no guidance may engage in whatever behavior gets them what they want, and children who receive mixed signals are completely at sea regarding appropriate behavior. Other family conditions, such as high stress, large size, and marital discord, also exert a small effect on later violence.
Another childhood predictor with a small effect size is broken homes, a category that includes divorced, separated, or never-married parents and a child's separation from parents before age 16. Separation from parents also operates as a distinct risk factor, again with a small effect size.
Abusive parenting in general and neglect in particular are predictors of later violence, but they have very small effect sizes. Neglect operates as a distinct risk factor, possibly because neglected children are less likely to be supervised or taught appropriate behavior. This is not to imply that child abuse and neglect do not cause serious problems in adolescence: Indeed, they have large effects on mental health problems, substance abuse, and poor school performance (Belsky & Vondra, 1987; Cicchetti & Toth, 1995; Dembo et al., 1992; Esbensen & Huizinga, 1991; Silverman, et al., 1996; Smith & Thornberry, 1995). This finding is discussed in more detail below, in the section on unexpected findings and effects.
The only early risk factor in the school domain is poor attitude toward and performance in school, and its effects are small. Numerous individual and family factors may contribute to poor performance, making it a fairly broad measure. For example, a child who is physically aggressive and is rejected by peers or who has difficulty concentrating or sitting still in class may understandably have difficulty performing academic tasks. Children who have been exposed to violence, as noted earlier, may also have trouble concentrating in school.
Young children do not socialize extensively with other children and are not strongly influenced by peers. Peers become more important as children progress through elementary school, although school-age children still look primarily to parents for cues on how to behave. Nonetheless, weak social ties to conventional peers and associating with antisocial peers both exert small effects in childhood.
Children with weak social ties are those who attend few social activities and have low popularity with conventional peers. School-age children often reject physically aggressive children because of their inappropriate behavior (Hann & Borek, in press; Reiss & Roth, 1993). The combination of rejection and aggressiveness exacerbates behavior problems, making it more difficult for aggressive children to form positive relationships with other children. Indeed, recent research indicates that children who are both aggressive and rejected show poorer adjustment in elementary school than children who are aggressive, rejected, or neither (Hann & Borek, in press).
Being drawn to antisocial peers may introduce or reinforce antisocial attitudes and behavior in children. Indeed, aggressive children tend to seek each other out (Hann & Borek, in press).
Community risk factors, such as living in socially disorganized neighborhoods or neighborhoods with high rates of crime, violence, and drugs, are not powerful individual-level predictors in childhood because these external influences have less direct impact on children than on adolescents. They may well exert indirect influences through poor parenting practices, lack of family resources, and parent criminality or antisocial behavior.