Politicians always try to address gang violence and the rising crime rates of cities, most of the time with more aggressive policing. This seems to be a huge hit with the public — so huge that a big amount of the American population still rally behind a cry for “law and order.” The concern with focusing on gang violence is that the actions taken in response have done nothing to attack the root of the problem. Some people believe gang violence is an inevitability in our society, but the truth is, our government and predecessors created the parameters in which gangs grew out of necessity.
Abstractly, gangs and governments are the same — both encompass a group of people with similar values within a geographical area that bound together to protect themselves and survive. The only difference is scale. The reason most gangs form is to survive in the hostile and economically starved neighborhoods they lived in. Since 1996, every city with a population size larger than 250,000 has had a nagging gang presence, with most cities retaliating by increasing police presence and sentencing. As is the case for many things in America, these actions lead to more persecution and scrutiny of Black people and other marginalized groups. With most gangs existing within areas of concentrated poverty, the extra policing of these areas therefore places the poor under more scrutiny.
After the Thirteenth Amendment, the housing industry and the government took big steps to ensure Black people and other minorities would be be stuck in poor areas. In the 1930s, when a huge influx of people moved to the city, the government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) conceived a method of segregating communities with the housing system. Throughout the country, the HOLC would create lines to section off different districts within cities. The New York Times reports that the drawing of these lines was “based in large part on the belief that the presence of blacks and other minorities would undermine property values.” (5) Districts were ranked from “A” to “D,” with “D” districts being considered decrypt and undeserving of any investments. Districts that were given a “D” ranking were colored red, leading this practice to be named “redlining.” People in these districts were subject to slumlords and discrimination from banks, preventing generational wealth through property and confining them into these areas. These housing ranks were kept in consideration with infrastructure reform and structural investments. Some cities utilized restructuring of cities to conceal and avoid these districts entirely. The lack of investment and commercial appeal leaves many of these neighborhoods and residents to be stuck in a cycle of poverty. In an attempt to fight against the financial pitfalls that exist, people in these neighborhoods turned to crime.
A study conducted in Los Angeles set out to find any correlation between the HOLC district mapping and gang-related violence. Researchers found an ”overwhelming” amount of data suggesting that redlined neighborhoods “have remained [marginalized], becoming spaces in which gang activity has flourished along with oppressive anti-gang policing tactics and civil gang injunctions for the past several decades,” according to SAGE Journals. A civil gang injunction is a restraining order in which a civil suit declares gang activity or presence as a public nuisance, effectively limiting the freedoms of potential or confirmed gang members. These injunctions are rarely challenged by gangs, as they are not a formal organization with legal defense on hand. One gang injunction, called the “Florence-Pueblo Del Rio Safety Zone,” was found to have very similar geographical parameters as the HOLC redlined district.
It is as though the imaginary lines drawn by the HOLC have predestined the socio-geographical development of the area. Increased policing only deals with the byproduct of gang violence without addressing the cause — instead, it exacerbates the problem. If a person in these areas were to be arrested, serve time and return to their neighborhood, they have almost no choice but to fall back into crime, since they now face even less opportunities due to their criminal record. This has led to a massive incarceration population, separating families and trapping neighborhoods in the cycle of poverty and crime.
On the other hand, some people argue that redlining and housing discrimination is no longer allowed, meaning the issues of poverty and violence in these areas lie largely on the residents of the area. While this may seem like a valid argument, it trivializes the historical context of the area while insinuating the real problems are the inhabitants of the area. In place of redlining, an eerily similar federal tax incentive program has started to appear in different cities called “Opportunity Zones.” Opportunity Zones are a new federal program created to help revitalize urban neighborhoods through capital investment. To incentivize investors, the program allows those who invest in Opportunity Zones to reduce or defer their capital gains tax. The cities implementing Opportunity Zones may try to market their Opportunity Zones with other incentives attached, like financing programs for infrastructure and other city tax abatements, since Opportunity Zones are federal programs, cities have little say as to what the investments will be in.
The appearance of several new investment funds has led to a large amount of concern regarding gentrification. Investments can easily increase the cost of living and the overall market value of the area with disregard for the current residents, ultimately driving them out. It may seem like investment funds decrease poverty in a certain area, but the reality is that poverty, and subsequently gang violence, is just getting displaced to other impoverished neighborhoods. This could lead to a new resectioning of cities as more people flock back to urban environments, causing victims of gentrification to be forcibly moved to other financially affordable areas. The Atlantic states, “A 2014 study found that for every gentrified neighborhood across 51 U.S. metro areas, 10 others remained poor and 12 formerly stable neighborhoods fell into concentrated disadvantage.” This would further increase the wealth disparity and create more areas of concentrated poverty. Without any real actions or guidelines to revitalize urban neighborhoods, the problem of gang violence is only exacerbated.
The key to ending gangs and crime isn’t increasing police presence in these areas, but investing in people in those communities by increasing accessibility to education and affordable housing. In turn, these investments would help the area escape the depths of poverty, which will help curb violence and gang presence. Violence has proven to be hyperlocal and very predictable based on the inequality of the area. Opportunity Zones, if given more structure and rules, could possibly help make that happen. A good step could be to require or incentivize investors to ensure affordable housing without drastic price increases. Investing in our most marginalized neighborhoods can help create safer and more inclusive neighborhoods for all. It is important to address the errors of our past and try to correct them for our collective future and prosperity.
Akshay Ma Kumar is a senior majoring in economics.