I remember watching a television series detailing the rise and fall (or sustainability) of gangs throughout America. After learning more about gangs I came to a realization: “Gangs are fraternities.”
A recent article in the Atlantic made a similar point, though ultimately chose to focus on the similarities being that fraternities and gangs both hurt people, then pointed to contrasting responses to such hurt: fraternities are treated with tender love and care while gangs have faced a more forceful hand in some part or primarily due to race, according to the author.
The North-American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) put out a simple statement suggesting that the Atlantic’s claim was “preposterous.” The statement notes that fraternities help improve their communities and then referenced several fraternity policy initiatives.
Let’s dive into this, because as much as I feel that the author of the Atlantic article made a reach, I find the NIC’s response to be under-informed or at the very least lacking in positioning fraternities as being interested in communities. . . considering gangs and gang violence are a part of many communities.
Gangs Are Fraternities, And Fraternities Can Be Gangs
I’ve said before that everyone has their own version of a fraternity. There are; however, a few organizations which share a greater relation to the college fraternities we know and love today. Religious organizations have many similarities as do governments. . . as do gangs.
In fact, nothing on a college campus compares to gangs as well as fraternities do. Here are some things to consider:
Many street gangs, such as the Latin Kings, have nationalized structures with local, semi-autonomous chapters. The Kings operate over 160 chapters or tribes in cities across the country, for example.
Most have internally developed rituals, membership manuals and initiation ceremonies. These are not simply: beat up this guy to initiate him. Latin Kings rise through three stages of Kingism, ranging from acting on impulses (the “id” in scientific terms) to a sense of self awareness and actualization (the “super ego”).
Those stages are outlined in the Bloodline Manifesto, which operates as a ritual book would to any chapter of any fraternity (or sorority, sorry ladies, you do all of this as well). Gangs utilize colors, hand signals, symbols, secret handshakes and secret terminology to build camaraderie between members and to better identify friends and enemies or turfs.
A King who contributed to a New York Magazine article detailing these practices explained the symbology of the fist over one’s heart:
I have yet to meet a fraternity bro who hasn’t said, “Any of these guys would have my back if I needed them,” or “We are brothers for life.”
It’s eerily similar, so much so that one might assume that the Latin Kings, among other, equally complex gang societies, were influenced by the same secret societies which influenced the creation of fraternities: Religion, Free Masons, etc.
Where gangs and fraternities differ is in the extremism of their regular activities. The author of The Atlantic article failed readers by attempting to relate fraternities and gangs due to violent activity – to that extent, the comparison is preposterous.
But that disparity in violent acts probably has little to do with fraternity men being stewards of their communities and much to do with the socio-economic status of those who join college social fraternities compared to those who join street gang fraternities.
Simply put, a bunch of men in college, ready and primed to begin lucrative careers and with an armies of well-positioned alumni in their network (i.e. how we talk up the fraternity experience) have less need for violence. The men join for the brotherhood, the opportunities it offers, and the social benefits.
Street gang fraternity members also join for the brotherhood, the opportunities offered and social benefits, though often under different circumstances. The most realistic opportunity for many men and women to immediately support or improve their lives and the lives of their family beyond welfare and low-wage, hourly pay is to deal with illegal, lucrative activities. A street gang is the same ticket of opportunity to rise above the ranks in such communities as fraternities are on college campuses.
Gang violence is a direct result of their dealing in black markets, not because their organizations are structurally evil and college fraternities are structurally good – they are built almost exactly the same!
Did “Our” Response Prove The Author’s Point?
I’m not here to suggest that the violence within college fraternities compares in extremity to that of street gangs. I’m not entirely sure that was the Atlantic author’s point either, only that the means by which we deal with fraternities could be utilized to work with gangs and vice versa (again, poorly constructed reasoning imo).
That said, our structural similarities are too similar and important to ignore. The promises we make to potential members are too similar and important to ignore. We both dangle “brotherhood,” in front of prospective members and then put them to work, sometimes excessive work, to accomplish our sometimes murky, sometimes irrelevant goals.
The key difference between membership in a street gang versus that of a college fraternity is in the unimaginable lack of safe opportunities for those who choose the former experience. The response of the umbrella association representing most college fraternities and millions of members, myself included, came across no more eloquent, cultured, or compassionate than the Atlantic article.
If we are dedicated to communities, as fraternity men, we must deal with gangs as parts of those communities. We are friend clubs – our main job is to facilitate friendship. The impression, then, is that we are willing to build certain communities, or certain elements of communities. We are willing to pick up trash from the street or visit a Boys & Girls Club or spend an hour dancing with the elderly – and that’s good, because those things are needed.
Still, if we are positioning ourselves as contributors to communities and leaders among that effort, then why are we so unwilling to lead the way to addressing tougher issues than “Who will pick up this litter?” We could have educated the author of the Atlantic article by pointing to the real similarities of fraternities and street gangs, offering to share our best practices with relevant players and acknowledging where differences arise in our actions.
It was more like: