Intersectionality: Gender, Race, and Gangs
In much of social science research, gender, race, class, and other dimensions of identity are treated as discrete variables, to be studied and measured separately. In recent years, however, feminist sociological theorists have argued that race, gender, class, and other axes of identity must be treated as overlapping and intersecting forms of oppression. Kimberlé Crenshaw, (1989) was among the first to articulate this theory, and coined the term “intersectionality” to describe it. Intersectionality has emerged as a major paradigm of research in women’s studies (McCall 2005). In her book Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins argues that we must understand “race, class, and gender as interlocking systems of oppression” (Collins 1990: 553). Intersectionality has also been used to understand the experiences of other women of color (e.g., Crenshaw 1991). Intersectionality has tremendous potential to yield insights into the experiences of women in gangs, who are likely to be poor and minorities. Furthermore, the fact that the concept of intersectionality has proved useful in studies of women in other areas of criminology shows that intersectionality will likely yield insights into female gang members. Our research, therefore, will interview female gang members of different races to attempt to answer the question of how intersecting gendered and racialized identities affect the lives of women in gangs. Our paper will provide and overview of the existing literature on race, gender, and gangs. We will argue that an intersectional analysis of race and gender in gang life is needed to fill a gap in the literature and to fully understand how these dimensions of identity affect gang life. Next, we will outline our proposed methodology for studying the intersectionality of gender and race in gangs. Finally, we will summarize what can be learned form our proposed study and why this knowledge is essential to better understand gang life. Literature Review
Though gangs are often considered a male phenomenon, research shows that women and girls are also involved in gangs. Researchers estimate that young women account for 20 percent to 46 percent of gang members (Miller and Brunson 2000). Until recently, scholars have largely neglected female participation in gangs, believing that female participation was “statistically rare and the behavior substantively unimportant” (Esbensen and Deschenes 1998: 799). Often it was assumed that girls participated in gangs only as sex objects or at most ancillary members (Esbensen and Deschenes 1998). Recent work on the subject of women and gangs, however, has demonstrated that girls’ involvement with gangs goes beyond the roles of simply the “tomboy” or sex object. Women’s reasons for joining gangs, and the roles they fill within their gangs, vary widely. According to Esbensen and Deschenes (1998), there are factors that increase the likelihood of gang involvement that are specific to females alone. These include subordination to males, future as a housewife occupied with “meaningless domestic behavior,” responsibility for children, fear of abuse, exposure to violence, and social isolation, which all increase girls’ likelihood of joining gangs (Esbensen and Deschenes 1998). Similarly, based on in-depth interviews with female gang members from the greater Detroit area, Taylor (1993) argues that the “feminization of poverty” and the disenfranchisement, social isolation, and neglect of poor women (especially black women) has led to greater gang involvement. Strain created by these factors encourages women to turn to gangs and drugs as the only avenue available for them to achieve. The general oppression of women in American society, Taylor argues, adds to this strain. Esbensen and Deschenes (1999) also find that risk factors differ for males and females. For women but not for men, commitment to academic achievement decreased the risk of...
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