In all inner-city neighborhoods, however, there is a problem minority that varies between about 12.1 percent (in San Diego, for example) and 28 percent (in Phoenix) that comes largely from the disconnected youth between ages 16 and 24. Most are not in school and are chronically out of work, though their numbers are supplemented by working- and middle-class dropouts. With few skills and a contempt for low-wage jobs, they subsist through the underground economy of illicit trading and crime. Many belong to gangs.
Their street or thug culture is real, with a configuration of norms, values and habits that are, disturbingly, rooted in a ghetto brand of core American mainstream values: hypermasculinity, the aggressive assertion and defense of respect, extreme individualism, materialism and a reverence for the gun, all inflected with a threatening vision of blackness openly embraced as the thug life.
Such street culture is simply the black urban version of one of America’s most iconic traditions: the Wild West. America’s first gangsta thugs were Billy the Kid and Jesse James. In the youth thug cultures of both the Wild West and the inner cities, America sees inverted images of its own most iconic values, one through rose-tinted glass, the other through a glass, darkly.
While there is some continuity between the old Western and thug cultures learned through extensive exposure to the media, that of the urban streets originated more in reaction to the long centuries of institutionalized violence against blacks during slavery and Jim Crow.
Orlando Patterson, “The Real Problem With America’s Inner Cities”, The New York Times (10 May 2015), SR6.