Being Forced to Live in a Gangsta’s Paradise

Gangsta’s Paradise by Coolio. An infamous rap song about the realities of being involved in a gang and how for many people, gang life is the only life they know. Listening close to the lyrics uncovers the harsh reality for many gang members.

We have all seen it before. Images of expensive cars, multitudes of weapons, flashy jewelry and piles of cash. All images used by pop culture and the media to portray a glorified image of the gang lifestyle. What is considered to be a danger in society is paraded across television screens and newspaper fronts as one big charade.  Gang life is presented as a lifestyle to be sought after, a life of luxury that is an easy escape from harsh reality. Despite this glamorization, it is nothing close to living in paradise. As shown in the song by Coolio, a famous rapper, a gangster’s life is not all its seems to be. For many, getting involved with gangs is the only opportunity they have in life. It’s not about the luxury but about survival in a country that continuously marginalizes and discriminates against minorities.  Minority youth involvement in gang related activity is a serious epidemic across North America. Instead of authority figures trying to fit the root of the problem, many shift blame onto celebrities and media for being a “negative” influence for impressionable youth. What they fail to realize, however, is that problem of youth gang involvement goes far beyond the media. The method in which these youths get involved in these types of activities stems from underlying systemic issues in society that often go unaddressed. The education system is supposed to provide the tools and knowledge necessary for an individual to better the future. It is about allowing students to find their own place and value in the world. Instead, the education system become an institutional categorizing method that pre-determines the future and opportunities of certain students. Although it may not be intentional, the system has become a deciding factor in the lives of many impressionable students. I believe the underlying institutional racism in our current education system along with the ‘normalized’ representation of gangs in our society undervalue the potential and ability of minority youth.

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A Comic about White Privilege by Jamie Kapp. These a small section taken from the larger comic that show in a visual representation of how one does not have to be an open racist to still benefit from institutional racism.

Before we can see the institutional racism that exists in our education systems, we first must understand the workings of racism. Racism is something that has long existed in our society. Shifting from a biological concept, race has now become a, “metaphorical way of referring to and disguising forces, events, classes, and expressions of social decay and economic division” (Ladson-Billings 8). Although it may seem like we live in a time where race has no effect on everyone, society still operates under a racial framework. Racism has moved away from the public eye to behind closed doors. This move is what Terry Jones refers to as the difference between individual racism and institutional racism. Individual racism refers to an individual white person acts out against an individual minority. This act can be anything from verbal attacks to attacks that may, “cause death, injury or the violent destruction of property” (Jones 218).  This is the type of racism that garters the most public attention from different media outlets.  Institutional racism, on the other hand, is a far more subtle and less identifiable action. The technical definition for this term is as follows:

“the operating policies, properties, and function of an on-going system of normative patterns which serve to subjugate, oppress and force dependence of individuals or groups by establishing and sanctioning unequal goals, objectives, and priorities for [minorities] and whites and sanctioning inequality in status as well as in access to goods and services” (219).

Institutional racism originates from the operation of established and well respected forces in society. It is something that is embedded into the natural framework of how people and organizations conduct themselves daily. Institutions like, “schools, banks, [the] housing industry, and private and public employment sources assign to and maintain blacks and other minorities in inferior positions on the basis of race” (218). This type of racism is no less destructive as individual racism but receives far less public attention or condemnation than its counterpart. It is the unknown truth that lingers in society – a silent killer that marginalizes and discriminates against minorities. As Jones explains, “institutional racism is comparable to a runaway vine. Often it is difficult to find its root and as with the vine, you can kill as many branches as you choose, but if you fail to destroy the root, the vine continues to grow” (221). Thus, both types of racism are interlinked. An individual racist must have some institutional understanding that shapes their behaviour. For example, an individual is able to deny someone a job based off their skin colour if the institution above them remain apathetic towards worker equality rights. If the institution itself does not make direct effort to stop the reinforcement of racial tendencies, how can they expect individuals to uphold the same qualities? This idea can be seen directly related to our school systems. If the school boards themselves do not acknowledge the socio-economic differences between minorities and others, how can they expect to foster an environment where everyone is provided the right resources to better their own futures?

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An image taken from the article, “AME Church Massacre and America’s Inability to Acknowledge Structural Racism” by the Huffington Post. This was a sign during one of the many protest against institutions to become more aware of their privilege and how they indirectly add to the racial framework in society.

Institutional racism has become a normalized part of our societal framework. Because of this, there are many assumptions made in our educational system about the capability of certain students. The categorizing that is prevalent in schooling forces students into immovable social boxes that restrict and limit their potential. As Ladson-Billings explains, “conceptual categories like school achievement, middle classness, maleness, beauty, intelligence, and science become normative categories of whiteness, while categories like gangs, welfare recipients, basketball players, and the underclass become the marginalized and de-legitimated categories of blackness” (9). It has become a normalized assumption that black students are likely to perform lower in academic skills but excel in athletic skills. Smartness and intelligence are rarely associated with black students because of the pre-determined racial categories they are forced into during schooling. In return, minority groups internalize this categorizing, making them feel they are nothing more for them in life beyond gang life or welfare receipts. This also results in teachers feeling the need to help the “less-fortunate” by trying to figure out correct strategies and techniques to deal with “at-risk” students. As Tara J. Yosso discusses in her article, “schools most often work from this assumption in structuring ways to help ‘disadvantaged’ students whose race and class background has left them lacking necessary knowledge, social skills, abilities and cultural capital” (70). This also creates the assumption that minorities lack the correct capital that is required for social mobility (70). The problem with helping those “at-risk” is assuming that only certain type of students can be “at-risk”. It is rarely the white student who deals with teacher intervention to correct their behaviour. If a white student is acting out or misbehaving, they are brushed off as immature. The fear of them becoming criminals or gangsters is slim. However, if a minority student begins to act up or misbehave, teachers and other authority figures assume the child is “at-risk” of becoming a future gang member. Their outburst and rebellion is understood differently due to the racial framework that underlines our societal values.

Assumptions made about a student’s background also effect the type of education they receive. Educators often assume that white students come a secure and steady household that has a nuclear family.  They are part of higher income, middle-class families. Minorities, on the other hand, are associated with lower incomes, single family homes that do not have access to the same resources as other students. Instead of understanding or asking why these families are in this position, educators and other authority figures assume they are lazy. They take the position that, “minority students and families are at fault for poor academic performance because students enter school without the normative cultural knowledge and skills [because] parents neither value nor support their child’s education” (75).  Minority students are viewed as passive learners that do not care about their future aspects. Instead of removing clouded judgement, families are blamed for the lack of passion and excitement in their children when it comes to learning. Educators are under the impression that, “school [programs] work and that students, parents and community need to change to conform to this already effective and equitable system” (75). Teachers and other authority figures fail to recognize their own privilege when they make these assumptions.

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An untitled cartoon by Professor Harris. This shows the running themes associated with children in inner-city schools and the associations many people have with these kinds of areas. This not only limits the students capabilities but also the teacher’s capability to provide a comprehensible education.

Richard F. Arthur, a former teacher in inner-city schools which are predominately lower income minority student schools, has first hand experience with these types of situations. As he explains, “teachers who come to the inner- city schools with middle class values may have difficulty relating to students who are not motivated and don’t seem to care about themselves or their futures” (Arthur 112). Coming from a better background, most teachers fail to recognize that these students are struggling to survive their day-to-day lives. Institutional racism along with economic and social inequalities play a huge role in the lack of motivation of minority youth to succeed. Trying to juggle problems at home with problems at school results in student burnout. If society continues to push minorities into these pre-determined boxes, they will begin to see themselves are nothing beyond the boxes. It is this type of thinking within our education system that reminds students that society expects them to be failures. Youth in the education that seem to have given up on themselves are a result of the perceived thought that the system has given up on them (Rios 210). As if feeling neglected in society was not enough, now minorities are forced to deal with ignorance and apathy from educators in their school. These students continuously suffer at the hands of institutional racism which ultimately pushes them to succumb to restrictive boxes set out by education systems.

After being blamed for their own failures, minority youth often fall victim to the social categories they are put into during school. Lower income neighbourhoods are rampant with petty crime and violence. If a child who lives in these neighbourhoods doesn’t receive the right type of acceptance and help in school, they fall back on what they are familiar with. Minorities don’t see a prosperous future for themselves in these neighbourhoods and in school programs that can’t look beyond their background. This is one of the driving factors behind why youth get involved with gangs. They don’t know any other lifestyle besides the one they grew up around. As mentioned before, the perception of youth gangs is heavily shaped by public perceptions and the role of different media outlets (Howell and Decker 2). The images shown in newspapers or on TV when reporting of gang violence almost always consist of minorities. As James Howell and Scott Decker discuss in their article, “the lure of the illicit economy and the drug kingpin lifestyle, which the media sensationalizes” (9) plays a key factor in youth school drop out rates. If students cannot see a potential profitable future as a result of schooling, they turn to what they believe is the next best thing. For many, this means entering the gang lifestyle. There is a stereotype when it comes to gang life that gangs are only about drug trafficking or obtaining weapons and ammunition. Reality is however, “there does not appear to be a large number of youth gangs that fit the stereotype” (8). A lot of gangs originate from friend groups. Although they did not come together with the intent to be part of this lifestyle, time and certain decisions has lead them to become what is formally known as a gang.  Most youth gangs emerge from need for acceptance and normalcy in life. They provide them with a sense of security, structure and belonging that may be lacking at home or at school. As Arthur explains, “the gang is loyal, while the important adults in the child’s life are often disloyal and even antagonistic. These kids lack self-esteem. They feel helpless, that they are worthless, and that everything is hopeless” (113). There is little hope for minority students in school especially if they are part of lower income families. There may be a student or two that are able to break past the stereotypes but reality for most minorities is that this does not happen. They can’t all break the traditional mold. There is also a great deal of pressure within minority communities about ‘making it’ in the world. This meant things such as, “managing cultural conflicts (such as) racial and intra-racial tension, family stress and language differences [along with the] victimization by non-immigrant and other ethnic groups” (Joe-Laidler and Hunt 6) to having to take care for siblings or other household chores at a young age. The expectation to succeed matched with the lack of equity and opportunity provided in schools lead to many minority students turning to different outlets for pain relief. The use of drugs was a way to receive short term pleasure when facing long term problems such as family conflicts, school discrimination and issues along with few job prospects (13). With the mix of substance abuse and being involved in gang activities, minority youth fall into the trap set out by institutions to maintain their power hold grip on the workings of society. As long as they keep pushing minorities lower on the social, economical, and political scale, they are able to guarantee their reign over society. To ensure this continues to happen, institutions decide to ‘turn a blind eye’ to the existing discrimination within their systems to benefit off the backs of a long history of racism within North America.

The Mugshot Series, a photo series by EJ Brown meant to highlight the immense discrimination faced by black men in the United States. The goal for these photos was to reverse existing stereotypes. Instead of having criminal mugshots after being charged for committing a serious offense, these are graduation mugshots after receiving a well-deserved degree.

Gang lifestyles are one of the few ways youth feel they can be productive and profitable in life. It’s a way to guarantee their own income and security in the future. It is also a place for minority youth to excel in unconventional ways. Gangs require a form of structure if they wish to work efficiently. This requires captains and leaders. Like a boss for any regular job, certain gang members organize and delegate tasks for their other members. As a result, gangs end up running their own version of a small business, proving that they do have the potential being successful in their future. One of the main reasons minorities stay in gangs is because of the lack of legitimate work or education opportunities (7). Because they are underestimated in society, they face heavy criticism when they try to enter the work place. If a minority has any sort of criminal background, obtaining any sort of job becomes instantly harder. However, looking at their actions in running and facilitating gangs, it is clear that minorities are just as capable as anyone else to become leaders and productive members of the work force. Instead of trying to change the behaviour and attitude of minorities, change should begin with the institutions that reinforce stereotypical ideas. There must be a willingness to change the framework of society. As Victor M. Rios explains, “educators, community workers, and researchers have to be willing to create an ongoing stream of support and resources, and a solid public relations approach, that will be there when a young person opens up and is ready to change” (212). Changing the attitudes and perceptions of authority figures will lead to a lasting change in the perception of individuals. Once we start caring about all students equally and provide the right tools to see them succeed, then we will be able to see true change occur in society. Stop underestimating the power of minorities. Remove the stereotypes that cloud your judgement and allow them to show you what they really are capable of when provided with the right resources and opportunities. Don’t let minorities fall victim to the never ending system of race and discrimination. Everyone has the right to a proper education that encourages growth and personal exploration.

Works Cited

Arthur, Richard F. “Inner-City Schools and the Forgotten Children” Minorities and Education, vol. 67, no. 4 (1989): 111-113. Retrieved from

Howell, James C. and Scott H. Decker. “The Youth Gangs, Drugs, and Violence Connection” Juvenile Justice Bulletin (1999): 1-12. Retrieved from

Joe-Laidler, Karen and Geoffrey P. Hunt. “Moving beyond the gang-drug-violence connection” Drugs (Abingdon Engl), vol. 19, no. 2 (2012): 1-16, DOI:10.3109/09687637.2012.702144

Jones, Terry. “Institutional Racism in the United States” Social Work¸ vol. 19, no. 2 (1974): 218-225. Retrieved from

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. “Just what is critical race theory and what’s it doing in a nice field like education?” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 11, no. 1 (1998): 7-24, DOI: 10.1080/095183998236863

Rios, Victor M. “Navigating the Thin Line Between Education and Incarceration: An Action Research Case Study on Gang-Associated Latino Youth” Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk (JESPAR), vol. 15, no. 1-2 (2010): 200-212, DOI:10.1080/10824661003635283

Yosso, Tara J. “Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth” Race Ethnicity and Education, vol. 8, no. 1 (2005): 69-91, DOI: 10.1080/1361332052000341006


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