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You're Wrong About: Gangs

If a novelette can be a book for the purposes of this book blog, I've decided that so can a podcast. I'm not going to blog every single podcast I've listened to this year--that would be a lot of missed blog posts since January and I'm not going to do that to myself! But I do want to mention one podcast, since it's kind of related to the last book I blogged about, DYING OF WHITENESS, in that it's about how white America trips all over itself and bloodies its own nose in its panic over racial specters that aren't even a thing.

Specifically, I'm talking about a 77 minute episode of the podcast YOU'RE WRONG ABOUT, "Gangs," which is about the moral panic about gangs in the US in the 1990s. This episode doesn't get into the details of the 'super predator' legislative rhetoric, but it's that era of criminal justice policy.

The episode talks about the myth of street gangs as organized, coordinated national or even multi-national hierarchical groups composed of animalistic youths who were violent and couldn't be reasoned with or rehabilitated, who were coming for the safety of the suburbs. It meanders through anti-gang policing and it's uniquely terrible tendency toward corruption, and ends up in the truth about gangs.

This is where I actually learned something. I volunteer in a youth jail, and some of my students are affiliated with gangs. I decided early on not to be bothered by it, to just accept that I didn't understand their reasons but they must have them and they must seem like good reasons, subjectively. Turns out the key piece of information that I was missing was that often teenagers will 'join' a gang in the sense that they decide unilaterally to start wearing the colors and doodling the gang name in their notebook--there isn't a gang leader, necessarily, who is in charge of recruitment or who gatekeeps membership. A lot of the time a gang is more like a high school clique than it is like the mafia.

Only a few days after I listened to this episode, I had a conversation with one of my students that was greatly illuminated by this. D was poking around the classroom and settled on sitting in a particular chair. I raised an eyebrow at him and he explained, pointing to the leg of the chair where he had doodled a gang-related phrase. "That's me," he said. "I rep the Hilltop Crips."

D is maybe fifteen, and kind of a marshmallow, and I couldn't help but sound a little incredulous when I responded, "You rep the Hilltop Crips?"

And he laughed and shrugged and said, "Well, you know."

And I did know. When I was fifteen and desperately alienated, I also dreamed of being connected to something cool and powerful and anti-establishment. When D followed that up by telling me that I also could rep the Hilltop Crips, I was pretty flattered and charmed.

This podcast is one of my favorites. It's long form journalism, basically, about the kind of dumb, detailed history that has consequences but is easy to mis-remember, and the conversation between the two podcasters, Mike and Sarah, is comfortable and friendly without being full of inside jokes like some podcasts get.

You don't have to listen to the fifty or so episodes previous to "Gangs" in order to understand any of it, although it is quite a journey to listen to episodes on Enron and the Exxon Valdez oil spill and Sexting and Lorena Bobbitt and crack babies, and see the podcast tying together the connections between those things. You really start to see the fissures in the structures of power when you learn just how often white supremacy is the poison in the tea that is the US.


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