I’ve had a remarkable public response to my Guardian story about Benny Ivey, the Simon City Royals, and the apparent growth of white gangs in Mississippi and America in recent decades, especially in areas outside of major cities such as the Midwest and the South. In the piece I had originally called “Evolution of a Redneck Gangster”—double meaning, get it?—I tell the harrowing story of a former Royals gang leader in Mississippi, and the reasons he joined the gang and got involved in crime in the first place. His reasons can sound very similar to those of the people of color who join the more highly publicized black, Hispanic and ethnic gangs in America: generational poverty, addiction, hopelessness, despair, lack of education and weak role models to teach the basics of life and success.
The story also explains the under-reported fact that white gangs—which include the Royals, white supremacist gangs and white biker “clubs,” all of which can be violent—have increased in many areas of the country outside of the typical urban areas. This is especially true in the South and in states like Mississippi and in the midwest in states like Wisconsin, which drew Royals from Chicago (or the Royals brand through prison and world-of-mouth) decades ago. I also include CUNY law professor Babe Howell explaining that law enforcement may far under-count white gang members in America, with most statistics we hear provided by law enforcement, presenting a circular problem that makes it hard to trust the statistics.
I also cite research by law professor Jordan Blair Woods showing that gang members are usually divided into separate categories than the “criminal street gang” group where most black and Hispanic gangs land, tending to populate gang databases. One study, cited in my article, attributed this to systemic racism and under-reporting by media, often encouraged in whiter areas that could suffer economically from reports of gangs. As a result, that researcher found, white gang members may not be either prosecuted as strongly as black and Hispanic gang members or offered needed interventions.
I can’t over-state how important I think Woods’ gang-categories point is. I talked to gang and violence experts in the U.S. who had never heard of the Simon City Royals, despite their deep roots in Chicago and as a member of the Folk Nation gang alliance alongside the Black Gangster Disciples. In a quote that didn’t make it into the story, Howell told me she thinks the fact that law enforcement under-count white gang members in general means that even the experts may not know enough about them.
Also, I think it’s important that much of the growth in white gangs seems to be in the middle of the country and in the South where national media, let’s be honest, historically has paid far too little attention and where local crime reporting often means quoting the cops and leaving it there with no context, causes or potential solutions making it into the stories. This information from the National Gang Center was in an earlier draft of my Guardian piece, but had to be cut for space. It’s interesting to note that the center cites the law enforcement data in graphs, but also states the following (my emphasis added):
The National Gang Center reports that middle America exploded with new gang cities from 1970 through 1995, increasing 32 percent in the South and 26 percent in the Midwest, compared to 6 percent in the Northeast, and 3 percent in the West. The Royals are now one of the largest and most violent gangs in Mississippi and growing in others, but without a direct connection back to Chicago.
The National Gang Center reports a similar racial disparity between police and youth gang identification, concluding that a local gang population reflects the racial-ethnic composition of the community combined with socioeconomic conditions. “Gangs tend to emerge in the most disadvantaged areas and thus naturally attract the disadvantaged youth residing in those areas,” it states.
Mississippi, though, has become an outlier of sorts these days, though—possibly out of frustration with the growing and reportedly increasingly violent Simon City Royals presence on the Gulf Coast—blurring the lines between the gang categories even in gang assessments and telling media that a majority of verified gang members in the state (53 percent) are now white. The Mississippi Association of Gang Investigators uses their current emphasis on white gangs to push back on the idea that a desired expanded gang law could target people of color. But information I found this spring showed that all 97 prosecuted under the existing gang law since 2010 were black, casting MAGI’s promotion of the majority-white gang members into a more cynical light.
I also like to tell people, as illustrated by CUNY law professor Babe Howell’s comments in my Guardian story, that gang databases are fraught and unreliable as the data are collected by law enforcement, and often inconsistently, so all numbers should be viewed with healthy skepticism.
Still, MAGI’s promotion of a majority-white gang population in Mississippi can be based in reality and math. Law enforcement report that the Simon City Royals comprise the state’s third-largest gang behind the Black Gangster Disciples and (black) Vice Lords. The state has white or largely white biker clubs, such as the Bandidos, and white supremacist gangs such as Aryan Brotherhood, which like the Royals and black and Hispanic gangs, operate in and out of prison at various times. The 53 percent would include gang members “verified” by law enforcement, and would include verified “white” members drawn from various gangs and small crews that the gang investigators include. So the math can work even if it feels unlikely at first. However, MAGI and law enforcement have not yet provided additional information, including further breakdowns of which gangs the various percentages are drawn from, so the investigation continues.
In the story, I spend some time in the middle section explaining that Mississippi is an outlier of sorts in both its blurring of gang categories (which I would argue probably needs to happen at this point) and that it openly pushes that it has a large and growing number of white gang members, probably to get support for an expanded gang law by building a case that it’s not about race. However, and it’s a big however, this does not rest easily beside the information that Mississippi law enforcement hav only used the existing gang law to prosecute African Americans.
Ultimately, my goals for this coverage are to challenge stereotypes about gang members of all races, make the root causes clear, reveal that white gangs are under-reported and show that systemic racism can exist on various levels of the criminal-justice system regardless of what it seems like on the surface. Oh, and to show the humanity of people growing up without hope or resources, which cuts across all races and ethnicities.