Book Review – Who You Claim

Robert Garot‘s Who You Claim – Performing Gang Identity in School and On The Streets is a great and highly readable account of the life of high school students living in a gang-dominated area (mostly, Bloods and Crips).

The book is based on a study the author conducted while volunteering to tutor students at risk (although a lot of them seemed to be past that point) at a high school of last resort for students who had been expelled from pretty much anywhere else. The study was conducted in waves as Garot came back and met with school administrators, teachers and students over a period of years. While tutoring, he conducted interviews with these people, especially students, asking them about identity and performance (not in those terms) at school and on the streets.

Garot also relied very heavily on a body of sociological literature in which I was up to my eyeballs while writing my doctoral dissertation: Goffman and the whole ethnomethodological / conversational analysis canon. Armed with this literature and his body of interviews, Garot proceeds to shatter and slay some myths about gangs and the relationship between youth and gang identity that are widespread in criminological / media / policy circles.

The result is a rather gripping book that is highly enjoyable to read, although the content might be depressing at times in terms of blocked opportunity and social closure on these youths. The chapter that Garot devotes early in the book on the kind of education the youths receive at the school is a serious indictment of the way the educational system treats at-risk students. It is pathetic and sad and goes a long way towards explaining why so many of them just drop out or disappear. It takes enormous effort for these kids to stick with it (way more effort than at a well-funded, suburban school).

Throughout the book, there is no doubt that Garot roots for these students and cares deeply about them and is highly critical of the institutional processes that generate so much alienation and of failed public policy.

So, what is the book all about? The book revolves around the concept of identity not as solid, reified and fixed defining feature of individuals but as a fluid resource that is produced and reproduced in flexible ways and mobilized by social actors (students, in this case) as they go about their business, try to get themselves an education or any other thing they need to do in their gang-dominated neighborhood. One can see why, then, Garot selected Goffman (presentation of self, interaction rituals, impression management) and the EM/CA corpus (“doing gang identity” as much as one “does gender”) for his study (all notations from Kindle edition).

“Through dress, mannerisms, and language, individuals make and dispute claims to identity based in socially recognized categories, and such claims and contestations become the bases for sustaining interaction.” (1).

Through and through, Garot’s study shows how skillful these students are at displaying and using an identity that is both stigmatized and criminalized by society and yet necessary to master if one is to survive in their area. One has to be able to display the proper signals when walking around the neighborhood, the very same signals that are not allowed in school. these signals indicate not simply “I’m in gang” v. “I’m not in a gang”. In reality, Garot shows that there are shades of grey between these two polar opposites. It is a study on the use of stigmatized, practical knowledge that shapes interactions and constitute what John Heritage used to call an architecture of intersubjectivity, despite all sorts of institutional obstacles.

For starters, the concept of “gang” itself is problematic (hence the problem of any social scientific research that uncritically accepts commonsense concepts, as Durkheim taught us long ago).

“Classification of gangs is a daunting task, and with inclusion of other youth collectivities, it is even more so. In addition to diversity and change, youth collectivities come in many forms, which sometimes merge and change in other ways: There are drug gangs, or ‘crews’; ‘wilding’ groups; milling crowds; smaller networks involved in delinquency; ‘tagger crews’; mods, rockers, and soccer hooligans; skinheads and bikers; prison gangs; seemingly ad infinitum.” (4)

More than that, gangs are always reduced to violent and illegal activities, even though, time and again, studies have shown that they provide social services that are otherwise unavailable in poor neighborhood. And, again, once a person is assumed to be a gang member, it is assumed that this person is 100%, 24/7 a gang member. It is based on such essentialist assumptions that police departments and other law enforcement agencies design anti-gang policies. This stance also ignores the fact that one of the major social sites of gang creation is the prison system.

“While gangs on the street may be situated and contingent, perhaps the most lasting and obdurate means by which the state creates gangs is through incarceration.

(…)

Especially remarkable is the lack of discussion of the role of prisons in shaping gangs in much of the gang literature, when one of the strongest findings of prison studies is that incarceration has effects that contradict its supposed purposes, ensuring that convicts will mature in criminal knowledge, contacts, and sophistication.51 Prisons are especially efficacious in ensuring the growth of gangs; depended upon as a source of social control, gangs have become firmly institutionalized there. Many gangs owe their fruition to the prison context,

(…)

Gangs not only maintain order inside prisons but are also integral for meeting prisoners’ needs once they leave. A great deal of recent scholarship has focused on how social institutions are both disinclined and ill prepared to accommodate returning convicts, who typically become concentrated in neighborhoods that already face myriad economic and social disadvantages.” (7)

So, rather than treat gang identity as a reified category that defines someone’s identity once and for all, Garot prefers to treat identity as performance:

“In ecologies where gangs are active, young people may modulate ways of talking, walking, dressing, writing graffiti, wearing makeup, and hiding or revealing tattoos, playing with markers of embodied identity to obscure, reveal, or provide contradictory signals on a continuum from gang related to non−gang related. Yet few studies of gangs appear hip to these nuances. When it comes to understanding gang membership, most of the gang literature is mired in notions from the 1950s that identity simply is, rather than is artfully created and contingent on circumstances and audience.” (13)

As Garot also puts it (and I wish I could make a poster of it): “dress is how we wear the social.” (45) So, an additional challenge that students have to address is how to dress when one is expected to display some gang insignia in order to navigate the neighborhood while the school requires a dress code.

Garot perfectly illustrates the absurdity of dress codes as such:

“First, a wannabe (see chapter 5) could be fully decked out as a gangster and yet not be recognized as such (at least not by actual gang members) no matter how he dresses. In contrast, a reputable OG (original gangster) doesn’t need to dress in any specific way to please anybody—reputation makes an outward demonstration of allegiances superfluous. Second, the combination of items of clothing, along with accessories, is important for creating the overall gestalt of a “gang member.” A young person may well look like a gang member to an outsider, but if certain key aspects of the ensemble are missing, such as the combination of items of clothing, or of clothing along with a certain haircut or item of jewelry, he or she may well be overlooked by gang members. Third, these characteristic markers are fluid and changing, much too quickly for anyone to regulate. One way of “representing” works in this neighborhood but not the next; one style was vogue last week but not this week. Such changes may even entail ways of subverting changing dress codes, in a potentially infinite, perverse loop between the panoptic gaze of authority and the wily creativity of youth. Fourth, the most important aspect of appearing as a gang member has to do not with the clothes but with how the clothes are worn. How one embodies one’s clothes, by sagging them, or walking with a certain style, or cocking the head just a little bit, is impervious to legal regulation, easily escaping supervision, and is the fundamental way of marking gang membership, no matter what color, style, or brand one is wearing.” (45)

In addition, Garot shows that the enforcement of the dress code by the school was always more a matter of individual discipline and intimidation rather than consistent school policy. Dress codes are presented as matters of student safety when they are actually matters of adult authority. The entire chapter that Garot devotes to dress codes is fascinating.

Another fascinating chapter is devoted to how to answer the omnipresent question “Where you from” that people in this neighborhood have to be ready to answer at all times. It is a skill that might save one’s life or at least prevent a beating. This is a question that always comes from a gang member as a way of proving toughness. And, of course, it is an interaction ritual in which one must skillfully determine how to present one’s self. Students know that they might have to answer that question on their way to and from school. This question is a question about gang identity and affiliation.

This ritual always involves an instigator (the one asking the question or “banging on” or “hitting up” or “sweating”) from a respondent in a public place. Being hit up implies three assumptions:

  1. the instigator is a gang member;
  2. the instigator is willing to engage in violence;
  3. the instigator implies that the respondent will understand what is at stake.

To answer “nowhere” is to show weakness and assume an inferior status (“ranker”) and leaves the instigator in a superior position. To claim a gang, on the other hand, carries risk but so does ranking out when one does belong to a gang. Young people then (those most likely to be hit up) have to know where to go to avoid being hit up, know how to dress, know what to say and what kind of emotions to display (if any at all).

The question is also often asked as a form of harassment and intimidation, but also as a physical challenge where the instigator expects it will lead to a physical fight.

This means that living in such areas carries many risks that young people have been socialized to know how to face at a young age and that no one up the social ladder ever has to face. It is always amusing to hear commentators on TV blather on as to how people who have become successful are those who took risks. The real risk-takers are those teenagers who have to carefully think about their every move on the street (whether they are gang members or not) from the moment they leave the house in the morning (if they do) to go to school or to work as every step they take will carry real physical risks to their safety and lives. It is not comparable to the risk of losing money in the failed business venture. It is an absolute privilege to never be asked “where you from” in one’s life.

Garot also devotes some space to the idea of fluidity in gangs by showing that (1) there are a number of groups that are often defined as gangs where they are in reality forms of sporadic social groups (such as cliques, crews, cowbangers, or taggers), and (2) membership in a gang covers diverse realities. Garot goes into more details in the group life of tagging crews and the amount of ritualization that shapes the activities of the group and the behavior of individual members:

“Taggers pride themselves on “can control”: being able to achieve a smooth coat of paint with a minimum of drips. Taggers often have idiosyncratic and stylized ways of holding their cans. They may push the button with their middle finger, index finger, or thumb. They also must find a way to carry the can as they run between tagging sites so that the “little ball” inside will not bounce too much. One consultant found that the back of his pants under his waistband was the best place to manage this.

Taggers take solace in such skills in order to manage the considerable and obvious risks. Of course, tagging is illegal, and especially with the rise of “broken windows” policing, emphasizing the façade of public order over all else, taggers break numerous public ordinances, including trespassing, defacement of public property, and violation of curfew.10 While both fast and slow taggers take pride in the mere act of tagging, these are far from the only skills involved. Management skills are necessary to attract and organize members, maintain a group, and strategically plan “bombing runs.” Skills in shoplifting are important, as many taggers steal their materials. The possibilities for self-expression and action are potentially infinite, expanding far beyond the basic act of tagging.

Some might say that taggers are simply thrill seekers, but such an explanation is far from sufficient, since tagging involves many nuanced skills. One of the most exciting aspects of tagging involves imagining the expressive possibilities, but nothing compares to the thrill of running the streets under cover of darkness, dealing with whatever may come, whether enemies, angry property owners, or the police, and showing others the tag at a later date, a mnemonic for the good times that were had.

Leaders of crews will monitor walls to ensure that younger members are “putting in work.” If not, the leader may assign them a mission. If the younger member does not perform the mission adequately, he may be disciplined (punched) by the leader. The more work put in, the more prestige a tagger has in his crew. Work that is especially dangerous, such as tagging freeway signs or the outside of the girders of bridges over freeways (referred to as “heavens”), is especially valued.

A tagging crew must have enemies. Enemies are created through “beefs.” In exploring “beefs,” we begin to see the highly structured and ritualized nature of some inner-city conflict, as well as the indigenous ways to resolve it. A beef can be created in a number of ways. The most common way is for one crew to “cross out” another crew’s tags. Leaders will often explain, “We gotta go down [i.e., fight] with them because they crossed us out.” Another way is through disrespect or fights that may erupt between members of rival crews. Once two crews “have a beef,” members must fight their rivals on sight. This is why taggers may “hit up” strangers by demanding, “What you write.” If the stranger claims a rival crew, the two must “go at it,” usually only with fists.

(…)

After a beef has endured for a fair amount of time, leaders may decide to “squash the beef.” To do so, the crews must “battle.” Rival crews become quite excited about a battle, as it channels action into a highly structured ritual, combining the thrill and chance of a gamble with the rules and formality of a sport.” (98 – 9)

Garot also creates a typology of gang involvement, which is not an all or nothing affair.

  • Wannabee or hook: someone who claims a gang without having been formally accepted by it. Wannabees are those who are most likely to show off the most gang signals. To be called a wannabee is a pejorative designation.
  • “Kicking it” with a gang without being member: this allows to get all the social perks of being part of a gang without paying the price for it, especially participation in violence.
  • Still in a gang – no longer gangbanging: these are usually individuals who have acquired enough status to no longer have to prove themselves through dangerous activities.
  • “Kicking it” with a gang, still caught up in violence: those are individuals who may be close to aging out of a gang.
  • “Kicking it” but with difficulty managing it: especially individuals whose gang identity conflict with other identities they have (family, for instance); being member of one gang but having to live in an area dominated by another.
  • Banging to the fullest: that one is pretty much self-explanatory although even the youth at that end of the continuum are more nuanced and three-dimensional than most gang studies show. Rival gangs can come together for a common cause (some sort of charitable work).

And there is always the possibility of avoiding gang membership altogether even though these youths might still wear gang insignia.

When it comes to violence though, Goffman’s insights on face and face-saving behavior are very much operative. And when Garot’s consultants (as he called the students he interviewed) avoid violence, they often provide not only elaborate strategies for doing so (such as talking one’s way out of a fight) but also clear rationalizations that point to the fact that they did not do so out of cowardice:

  • the odds were too unequal;
  • potential negative consequences (being expelled from school or putting others in danger);
  • the reason for the fight (a game of basketball, for instance) wasn’t worth it;
  • the potential opponent was too weak (or a woman).

[This is very reminiscent of Tilly’s work, Why?.]

In addition, Garot also shows the enormous (and exhausting, I would add) amount of face-work and emotional management these youths have to do in their day-to-day interactions with school officials, instigators, gang members, etc.

“Aside from a few remarkable exceptions, criminologists have mostly overlooked the emotional dynamics of disputes. In the literature on emotion management, on the other hand, much of the richest data focuses on how workers intrapersonally manage disputes. Arlie Russell Hochschild developed the notion of emotion management to reveal how individuals attune themselves through “surface acting” and “deep acting” to the rules and ideologies of private and public life. Hochschild was especially concerned with the emotive dissonance and alienation wrought when emotional labor is compelled by an employer, and one must attune one’s feelings, like it or not, to the demands of the workplace. This chapter, on the other hand, focuses on how emotive dissonance may also result from the everyday phenomenon of emotion work, when young people must restrict their desire to retaliate because of structural constraints. Such emotion work involves considerable skills to manage a dangerous situation. Young people struggle to attune their actions and emotions to the demands of social structure by “lumping it,” or in local terms “sucking it up,” even as they express the fantastic desire to indulge in righteous retaliation.” (144)

Emphasis mine. 

Garot also shows that things are actually more complicated and nuanced than what Elijah Anderson depicted in The Code of The Street (that book actually takes quite a beating in Garot’s study):

“Despite dicta that one cannot back down from a conflict without losing respect, it is important that we consider seriously what members take as circumstances that mitigate the necessity of such measures. An “affront” or “insult” in itself is not sufficient to inspire retaliation. Rather, individuals take into account the effect of violence on their social ties before responding, and they learn to exercise skills at emotion management in order to remain in control.” (159)

In the end then, Garot argues for reclaiming gangs from criminology and treat these groups as they should:

“Studying gangs as a social movement constitutes an important step away from the discourse of gangs as pathology. Such a perspective, long overdue in the gang literature, recognizes structural, marginalizing conditions but shows that gang members are far from mere victims of circumstance.” (180)

And this involves adopting a soft version of identity (as opposed to the hard, reified, essentialist version) that treats it as a produced accomplishment contingent on a variety of contextual factors, and also as a resource that actors can tap into as the need arises, such as being hit up.

I cannot recommend this book enough. I should add that it is highly readable at undergraduate levels. One could even extract a couple of chapters for students to read and study. The amount of debunking it does will be an eye-opener to a lot of people. They should make it mandatory reading for criminologists and law enforcement members. Hopefully, this book can find its way to where it should be read.

Here is an interview with Robert Garot. Part 1:

And part 2:

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