Thu, 04 Mar 1999

Street gangs gauge race relations

By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON (JP): Back in 1979 director Walter Hill, recalling the success of West Side Story (which transposed Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to 1950s New York City street gangs), made a clever film called The Warriors. The classical text he looted was much older, however: Xenophon's Anabasis, the story of 10,000 Greek mercenaries who were left stranded and surrounded by enemies 900 miles (1500 km) from the sea after the prince they had backed for the Persian throne was killed in 401 BC.

As Anabasis told how the desperate Greeks fought their way through hostile tribes back down to the safety of the Black Sea, so The Warriors tells the story of a street gang from Coney Island fighting their way back home across New York City, with every other gang trying to kill them, after a meeting up in the Bronx goes terribly wrong.

It was a stylish film with a great sound-track. But as an American friend pointed out to me, it contained one completely implausible element: the Warriors included whites, blacks, a Latino and even a native American Indian.

Street gangs in America always consist of only one race or ethnic group. West Side Story got it right; The Warriors got it wrong. Which is a depressing thought after a week that has seen a murder trial in Texas where the victim was chosen at random because he was black, and the release of a report on the racial killing of a black youth in London that bluntly describes the Metropolitan Police as "institutionally racist".

So you have to ask: are "Western" societies as a whole intrinsically racist? Is the best anyone can hope for a "separate but equal" society with little real crossing of the racial lines, or can white-majority societies ever evolve into color-blind multiracial cultures? The answer depends not on how well-meaning elites think, but on the attitudes down in the broad bottom of the society -- so street gangs are relevant.

To the best of my knowledge all the street gangs of America are still color-coded, but consider England for a moment. Somers Town, quite near to where I live, is one of the most deprived districts of London: poverty, unemployment, high crime rate, practically everybody living in public housing -- and, of course, gangs.

A friend of mine who serves part-time as a magistrate tells me that a lot of the cases he hears from Somers Town involve racial violence. But here's the thing. It is not whites versus blacks. It is white and black kids in the same gangs, beating up Asian kids.

It makes sense, in an ugly way: most black British have West Indian origins, which means that they have the same English- speaking, Christian roots as most white British. Most Asians in Britain, by contrast, come from Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh families, and if recently arrived may not speak good English.

Cultural differences set the Asians apart from their neighbors, and in some cases make them scapegoats for the anger of bored black and white kids who feel that they have no future. This is not a happy situation, but it is a different situation from the United States.

Cultural clashes are sometimes disastrous, but they do not have the lunatic simplicity and immutability of race prejudice. In the longer term, moreover, the spectacular cultural differences that now proliferate in Britain and other developed countries with a high immigration rate will fade, as a younger generation grows to maturity and assimilation works its usual miracle (or tragedy, depending on your point of view).

The situation in France, which is usually portrayed as a hotbed of racial hatred (the anti-immigrant National Front wins up to 15 percent of the vote in national elections), is even more instructive. The "banlieus" surrounding big French cities include huge tracts of high-rise public housing where the government has dumped both the white underclass and most of the country's large immigrant population, and they are indeed overrun by gangs.

To listen to right-wing French politicians ranting on the television, you would think that the gangs were an Islamic revolution in the making, but nothing could be further from the truth. Their members are tough and sometimes alarmingly well- armed kids who fight rival gangs and swarm the malls in neighboring banlieus on weekends, stealing everything they can carry away -- but they are not defined by race or culture.

A typical gang will contain white French kids, Muslim kids of Algerian and Moroccan origin, black Africans of both Christian and Muslim descent , and maybe some Turks and Yugoslavs. They are the kids who grew up in this particular cluster of tower-blocks -- this "cite" -- and all the other "cites" are enemy turf. Again, it's not a pretty situation, but it is not a racially charged situation at all. The Warriors could exist in France.

What all this is telling us is that the historic pattern of race relations in the United States is not the inevitable template for all other multiracial societies. Other countries, with different histories and cultures, can end up in quite different patterns.

It may also be telling us that the cup is half-full, not half- empty, even in the U.S. The Texas jury did convict the murderer of James Bird, after all, and sentenced him to death. Stephen Lawrence's racist murderers in London will never be convicted because the police bungled the investigation so badly, but at last an official inquiry has opened up the whole issue of a racist culture in the police force.

And then there is the submerged nine-tenths of the iceberg: the soaring proportion of men and women from all racial groups who 'marry out' in every Western country.

About 10 percent of African-American males are married to white women, up from two percent in their parents' time. Thirty percent of young British men and women of West Indian origin have a white partner. Some 60 percent of Asian-Americans in their 20s are marrying somebody of another race. Give it one more generation, and the traditional racial categories will simply dissolve throughout the West.