Consumers of popular lore and many adherents to contemporary sociological thinking believe that affiliation with a street gang is motivated, in part, by a desire to belong to the family the individual never had while growing up. Ostensibly, the gang offers support, sustenance, acceptance, and a structure that the youngster lacked at home. Gangs offer a hierarchy of leadership and a path of approval and success. In a highly structured gang, one can "earn" one's way and gain a sense of belonging, status, and power. Sociological determinists have contended that gang membership constitutes an understandable, even "normal," means of adapting to circumstances that are bleak, if not seemingly hopeless. If this were true, everyone who lives in an impoverished, decaying, and otherwise brutal environment would join gangs.
In nearly forty years of research and clinical practice, what has impressed me far more than the environment from which people come is how they choose to deal with whatever their circumstances are. In almost every instance of my interviewing a gang member, that person had siblings or neighbors living nearby who faced similar or even worse adversities and were confronted by the same temptations but chose to react differently. Though their family life was riddled with instability, poverty, and violence, they sought no comfort in the world of gangs. Contrary to what gang members tell others when held accountable, most were not coerced into joining gangs. They had to seek out other, usually older, youths and prove they could be trusted. Many gangs require participating in elaborate initiation rites so that the prospective member can prove that he is tough enough to merit acceptance. Not everyone in the neighborhood desires to belong. As one man remarked, 'Us kinds find each other."