In recent years, the issue of Asian American youth gangs has gotten a lot of attention from the media and law enforcement. This phenomenon shares many similarities with other "gang problems" in the Black and Latino communities. However, certain ethnic and cultural aspects come into play with Asian gangs that make their situation and consequences of their actions unique.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE . . .
The origins of Asian youth gangs are not unique. In fact, the phenomenon of Chinatown gangs around the country (most famously in New York City) has been the subject of much attention and academic research starting from their initial appearance in the late 1800s and continuing through modern times. Like their Italian, Irish, and Jewish counterparts who came to the U.S. back in the 1800s and early 1900s, many Asians struggle to adapt to a new country and social environment and challenges of making a living, whether they are immigrants themselves, U.S.-born children of immigrants, or whose families have been in the U.S. for several generations.
Many Asians feel overwhelmed, frustrated, depressed, and even angry as they try to adjust to living in the U.S. Many times they don't have enough job skills or English fluency to find steady and meaningful work. This can be especially common among Vietnamese, Amerasian Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian immigrants, who tend to have lower levels of socioeconomic attainment and therefore are at greater risk for experiencing difficulty in adjusting to American society.
The devastating consequences of Asian gang violence © Tao-chuan Yeh/AFP
Many younger Asian Americans may also feel alienated from their parents, family, schools, and ethnic community. They may feel misunderstood, underappreciated, or are asserting their new sense of American-style individualism and personal independence. They may also feel that they are victims of prejudice and discrimination. As a result, they may fatalistically accept that despite their best efforts, there are too many barriers that prevent them from achieving the "American dream" -- at least through conventional methods.
In this situation, it's many Asian youth try to find some kind of social group that includes others in the same situation, that will give him/her mutual support and understanding, and that contain alternative methods of earning status and respect among one's peers. In other words, s/he may find an alternative form of "family" where s/he feels accepted and comfortable. Unfortunately, many of these groups are based on the belief that the only way for them to achieve "success" in American society is to accomplish those goals through "unconventional" methods -- i.e., crime.
STAYING CLOSE TO HOME
Many Asian youth gangs may start out as just a social group of friends and acquaintances. But more commonly, larger and more established gangs actively recruit new members into the gang. Once the new member finds a sense of belonging and acceptance, not to mention sex, drugs, and other "perks" of gang life, it's often very hard for him/her to give it up. Some (although not all) Asian youth gangs may also have connections to, or even be controlled by larger and more formal Asian organized crime groups who themselves manage elaborate prostitution, gambling, smuggling (including illegal aliens), extortion, and other gang activities around the world (i.e., Chinese "triads" or "tongs").
In addition to these conventional gang activities, it's also common for Asian gangs to compete with Black and Latino gangs for turf. But their specialty, for which they've received a lot of media and law enforcement attention, is a type of robbery called a "home invasion." Home invasions occur when the gang breaks into family's home or small business, tie up all the family members, and terrorize them until the family produces valuables or money. Common tactics include beatings, torture, and the raping of female family members.
Asian youth gangs almost always target Asian families for home invasions because these families are less likely to report such crimes to the police. This is because many recent Asian immigrants come from countries where the police were seen either as completely corrupt, woefully ineffective, or even working in conjunction with gangs. Such publicity would also bring "shame" to their community, which goes against the families' social conditioning.
The family may also fear retaliation from the gang if they report the home invasion to the authorities. Victims who are in the U.S. illegally also worry that they may be deported if they report crimes committed against them. In fact, a recent study by the Department of Justice found that among all the major racial/ethnic groups, Asian Americans are the least likely to report violent crimes committed against themselves to the police.
Further, recent Asian immigrants are more likely to keep their valuables and money hidden somewhere inside their house or business instead of keeping them in a bank. Again, they may not be knowledgeable about the concept of banking and trusting one's money to strangers or because of past experiences with corrupt financial institutions in their home country. Either way, Asian gangs exploit these cultural elements to victimize their own community.
Other crimes favored by Asian youth gangs may include prostitution, laundering counterfeit money (i.e., printing phony currency, going out to buy something, then returning that item to get real cash in return), selling drugs, and those based on using modern high-tech methods, such as identity theft and credit card fraud.
THE RESPONSES OF LAW ENFORCEMENT
In response to these crimes, law enforcement authorities have implemented some very effective and ineffective strategies. Many police departments in cities that have large Asian populations have actively recruited more bilingual police officers from the community and have stepped up their efforts to educate the community about American law enforcement and the legal system. This greater understanding can lead to less fear of enlisting the help of the police and makes it easier for the police to get leads and tips from the Asian community about gang activities.
Nonetheless, many in law enforcement are still rather ignorant about Asian youth gangs and the Asian American community. For example, many police stereotypically believe that "all Asians are the same" and that Asian gangs are especially viscous and have absolutely no respect for life. While Asian gangs can indeed be very violent, it is very easy for these extreme beliefs about Asian youth gangs to be transferred onto the entire Asian community.
Community policing can be part of the solution © David & Peter Turnley/Corbis
For example, for a while in the mid-1990s, many police departments in southern California set up special "Gang Task Forces" that specifically targeted Asian youth gangs. Their tactics included harassing any group of young Asian Americans who they thought might be affiliated with gangs. The police also took "mugshot" photographs of these Asian Americans, without their consent and as if they were in a police lineup, and kept the photos on file as "possible" gang members. The police justified these actions by claiming that it was very hard to differentiate and distinguish between Asians -- an assertion that caused significant outrage among the Asian American community.
Many saw these tactics as blatant racial profiling and completely dehumanizing and humiliating for the young Asian Americans who were being harassed. Asian activists argued that the actions of a few individuals were again being projected onto an entire community and innocent Asian Americans were again being judged and discriminated against just because they happened to be Asian. These tactics led to a storm of protest, several lawsuits, and criminal investigations for civil rights violations against these police departments. Such methods were eventually ruled unconstitutional and were stopped.
Nonetheless, the profiling of suspected Asian gang members continues along with severe prosecution of those charged with gang-related activity, which many argue are unjustifiably harsh and discriminatory, even if the alleged crimes do not involve violent felonies. In addition, many argue that this type of racial profiling has become even more common since the September 11 terrorist attacks. In the name of "homeland security," many law enforcement agencies are now aggressively pursuing, harassing, and arresting any Asian who they might perceive as a potential criminal. Further, for many Asians who they detain but cannot charge with a crime, they are instead deporting them if they don't have proper documents.
THE ASIAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY RESPONDS
Asian community leaders note that there needs to be a balance in regard to dealing with Asian youth gangs. In terms of prevention, there needs to be much more outreach to young Asian Americans who may be inclined to join a gang. These efforts need to be culturally competent -- that is, they need to recognize the unique ethnic and cultural issues that these Asian Americans face, not just subject them to the usual regiment of programs that were designed for another group entirely.
There also needs to be efforts to help Asian families interact more effectively with their children to bridge the generation gap that can lead to feelings of alienation. While much Asian youth gang activity has involved those from immigrant and/or less well-off families, in recent years, many have noted that Asian gang members can also come from second and later generation families, from affluent backgrounds, and who may initially appear to be comfortably assimilated into American (or Canadian) society.
Regarding intervention and law enforcement, authorities have been urged to work with the Asian community, not against it. This involves having a better understanding of Asian culture and history in order to gain the trust and respect of Asian families and for the legal system to rehabilitate young offenders using understanding and compassion, rather than punitively placing them in institutions where their physical safety and self-esteem take a further beating and where they learn the skills to become hardened career criminals.