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Changing Culture

Love the Kids, Hate Gangs

by RODOLFO ACUÑA

I have often said that I hate gangs but love the kids. Keep in mind that street gangs are products of society, made up of kids with fewer alternatives than others. Poverty and a lack of opportunity spawn street gangs, and public hostility and isolation complete the process.

Being Mexican or black has little to do with why gangs form. As a kid I was obsessed by Charles Dickens’ descriptions of 19th century London gangs, and their similarity to modern street gangs. Dickens’ kids were not the sweet Oliver we see depicted in the movies.

Because society does not address the problem and isolates gang members – often in prisons — they develop their own culture that is difficult to change. This is not true only of street gangs but also other close knit groups. For instance, at the college level fraternities are gangs, and I feel much the same about fraternities as I do about street gangs. I love the kids but feel ambivalent about fraternity culture.

Universities spend a hefty portion of their student service budget on catering to the Greeks. The members are middle and upper class kids who are generally not progressive in regards to homophobia, sexism, and racism and drinking. Their behavior would be labeled as anti-social if we were talking about street gangs.

In order to change the culture of any group, there has to be a plan, something that takes a lot of time to implement. In the case of the Greeks, the institution tries to deal with this gang culture. However, their values are constantly reinforced by alumni, tradition and a Lord of the Flies environment.

Many university staff members proactively try to make changes. However, even with their healthy budgets, they are overwhelmed, and they cannot successfully deal with individual groups (AKA college gangs). I realized this during the ZBT incident during the early 1990s when the fraternity was insistent on singing a fraternity drink song that reveled in the rape of a 13-year old Mexican girl named Lupe.

Thomas Piernik then Director of Campus Activities played a very positive role in the episode and attempted to rein in the fraternity who in the end intimidated the California State University Northridge president by filing a suit against the university for the violation of free speech. Faculty and student resolutions censuring the ZBT were withdraw, and CSUN ended up paying for the ZBT’s legal expenses.

One can imagine what the reaction would have been if this had been a street gang or MEChA or the Black Student Union. In actuality, you can talk until you are blue in the face but you don’t change people by lecturing them or participating in encounter groups. You can teach skills in the classroom but it is very difficult to change students – and it is even more difficult to change a group.

When I taught in a high school and in college history departments I realized how pointless it was to think that I was changing things. After all I was one of many influences on a student’s life. I started to write op-ed columns because of the vastness of the audience. And when I wrote books, I realized that it took years to write a book and in the end you changed very little. Of the twenty plus books I have written, most people have not heard of Community Under Siege, Sometimes There is no other Side, or Corridors of Migration. Occupied America has had an impact because of its longevity and Chicana/o Studies.

In recent years, I have followed the work of Fr. Greg Boyle and his Homeboy Industries with interest. He is changing individuals by changing gang culture by giving them alternatives.

The saying goes that if you want your child to eat healthy foods, eat healthy yourself, don’t lecture, scold or theorize.

About thirty something years ago I completely gave up drinking, and for the past ten years tobacco. I felt that if I wanted to change my students I had to walk the walk. Alcoholism reinforces the negative aspects of group culture, and it freezes cultural change.

Access to higher education and the establishment of Chicana/o Studies was only a first step in a plan to transform the student community. CHS was designed as a pedagogy. However, in the first twenty years of it existence, we were so busy institutionalizing the program that, at least at CSUN, not much time was left to bring about a transformation of the student culture.

What CHS did do was increase the vocabulary of the students. A pocho is generally viewed as someone who has an elementary school vocabulary in Spanish. What makes pochos native speakers is a broader and more sophisticated vocabulary that comes with education. However, the political vocabulary of many Chicanas/os has remained at the primary school level.

As the political vocabulary of the professors grew, many got frustrated with the lack political growth of student organizations. It seemed as if every succeeding generation was stuck on the question of, what is a Chicano? Most programs around the country also had history courses that were stuck in the 60s and 70s.

In discussing the problem with colleagues many realized that we had to do something about the MEChA, the Chicana/o student organization. While most MEChA organizations were growing more sophisticated in their political vocabulary, by the 1990s Mechistas were still struggling with questions of sexism and homophobia. However, through joint activities with radical white, black, and Asian groups on progressive causes, racism toward other groups was muted.

Working closely through the MEChA leadership, the organization changed qualitatively and quantitatively. Since that time there have been over a half-dozen LBGT chairs of the organization and Statewide MEChA has passed resolutions prioritizing sexism, homophobia and racism.

This did not come without a price. MEChA lost over half its members during the 1990s because many did not approve of the changes. A small group of faculty members also moved to make changes in the faculty of Chicana/o Studies. Today, two thirds of the 27 tenure track faculty members are Chicanas, and it has gay faculty. This gradual change began in the 1970s; however, it was not completed until the 2000s.

The challenge now is to further grow the students’ political vocabulary. We live within a superstructure that imprisons us within a huge global bubble. The political vocabulary of the 1970s or even the 1980s is inadequate to deal with this gang of gangs – the government. The realities and political vocabulary of racism, homophobia and sexism have also grown and made past theories and rhetoric ineffective.

The truth be told, the objective of all theory should be to break out and transform organizations. If alcohol is a barrier to that transformation and the growth of a vocabulary, then walk the walk and don’t drink. Don’t sit around in an encounter group or in libraries, do something.

When you have a broken community, it takes a lot of hard work to put Humpty Dumpty together again. You cannot wish it or just study the problem to change it. If you do, you are part of the problem.

RODOLFO ACUÑA, a professor emeritus at California State University Northridge, has published 20 books and over 200 public and scholarly articles. He is the founding chair of the first Chicano Studies Dept which today offers 166 sections per semester in Chicano Studies. His history book Occupied America has been banned in Arizona. In solidarity with Mexican Americans in Tucson, he has organized fundraisers and support groups to ground zero and written over two dozen articles exposing efforts there to nullify the U.S. Constitution.