The University of Chicago Magazine August 1995
Return to August 1995 Table of Contents


In this department: Irving Spergel has a plan for fighting gang violence, and research citations on the "Eve" theory, the drug Methotrexate, new books from Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and Richard Epstein, and gender differences in mental testing.

Attack on All Fronts

He has no magic bullet to fight gang violence, but Irving Spergel's plan seems to work: Fire all you've got.

IRVING SPERGEL ISN'T TRYING to eliminate gangs because, generally speaking, he doesn't think that's possible. That hasn't stopped the School of Social Service Administration professor and author of The Youth Gang Problem: A Community Approach (Oxford), who has spent decades studying juvenile delinquency, from trying to reduce the problem. Three years ago, he started testing a new strategy in the Little Village area of Chicago. Now the results from his Gang Violence Reduction Project are coming in: Spergel's ideas appear to be working. This summer, the U.S Department of Justice announced plans to take his strategy national with a five-city program.

Spergel, who holds a joint appointment in sociology, isn't claiming to have a quick fix, or a simple one. In fact, his approach springs from research, which he conducted for the Justice Department, showing that simple answers are exactly what don't work: Gang members just need counseling and jobs; police just need to put more of them in jail; schools and youth agencies just need to warn pre-adolescents about gangs.

Counseling alone, he says, doesn't reach a gang's hardcore members. More arrests don't cut recidivism. And what Spergel calls the "public-health model" of "inoculating" kids against gangs--an approach popular today--doesn't alter the outside influences that breed gangs. Nor are such preventative measures efficient, he says: "Even in the worst areas, it's just a small number that are becoming serious gang members."

So in a violence-plagued Mexican-American neighborhood in southwest Chicago, Spergel is trying a "coordinated, comprehensive" tack. Organizations used to working separately now work together: police, probation officers, youth workers, job agencies, schools, churches, and community groups. Youth workers tip off police to imminent gang retaliations; police try to get to know gang members personally. The result is a program unique, Spergel says, in its multiple strategies: suppressing crime, intervening and offering opportunities for gang members, and organizing a community.

Also unique, he says, is the target population: not new gang members, who typically are as young as age 12, but the hardcore members--the 17- to 24-year-old males committing the worst violence, like drive-by shootings and homicide.

A program targeting this age group, Spergel says, should have the greatest effect on gang violence. Even without intervention, young men usually leave the gangs before their mid-20s; by intervening, Spergel hopes to hasten that departure.

To start, explains Spergel, "You need an intermediary--a former gang member or a youth worker from the community--who'll be a source of initial contact. Then you build on that contact, explain who you are." Eventually gang members learn what kind of help job agencies and other groups in the program can offer. The aim is to give options, not lectures, says Spergel, and "help replace the gang structure," which often fills a void left when kids drop out of school or clash with their families.

"But we've also got to protect the community," he adds. And the project does, according to police data comparing the number of gang offenders and incidents in Little Village to similar areas in Chicago, both now and during the years before the project began. So far, it has contacted about 200 members of the area's gangs, the Latin Kings and the Two-Six. The effect on gang violence is significant, he says, though sometimes it's seen only by a drop in the rate of increase in gang crimes.

These results helped convince the Justice Department to try Spergel's program in five other cities: Bloomington, Illinois; San Antonio, Texas; Mesa and Tucson, Arizona; and Riverside, California. Now in a six-month planning phase, the cities' programs will run for three years. Spergel, joined by SSA professor Michael Sosin, AB'72, and Candice Kane of Illinois' criminal-justice planning agency, is helping to set up the projects and will evaluate their effect.

"There're so many variations of the gang problem," says Spergel, who believes his model can be tailored for each city's situation: whether the gang problem is emerging or chronic; what ethnic groups make up the gangs; whether the need for recreation, status, or jobs is most important in fostering the gang presence.

Such variables hint at the myriad causes behind gangs. Spergel has studied the topic long enough to see how easily these issues get muddled, and he's eager to separate myth from reality--to point out how problems like violence, drugs, and poverty are related to but separate from gangs.

Most Chicago gang kids, for example, "are involved in drug distribution" at a street level, yet, he emphasizes, "it's not the cause of the fighting. So much of the violence in the Latino community is simply a function of status." The most gang-ridden U.S. cities generally aren't those with the most violent crimes, he points out, nor are they the cities like New York or Philadelphia, where drugs are a bigger concern. "The newspapers and the media," notes Spergel, "kind of put it all together."

In a sense, his "systemic" view of gangs is a reason for hope: Although the factors behind gangs are many, they're not all dominant in any one city. But then he throws in a historical comparison--his research on gangs extends back to America's 19th-century Irish gangs, whose murderous group fights often lasted for days. The gang problem of the past decade "is more serious than we've ever had in our history--because of the weaponry, and because we have so many people in gangs," Irving Spergel notes. "It's spread through so many parts of the country."--A.C.


Genetic Genesis.

In the Bible, Adam came first, but in modern biology it was Eve, when late-1980s reports on maternally inherited DNA claimed that today's Homo sapiens descend from a female ancestor--possibly African--who lived a mere 100,000 to 200,000 years ago. Now, it's Adam's turn. Chicago ecology and evolution graduate student Hiroshi Akashi joined Robert Dorit of Yale and Walter Gilbert of Harvard in a study, published in Science, that looked for mutations in a section of the Y chromosomes of 38 men from around the world. Surprisingly, the 38 DNA sequences matched exactly. One explanation is that all modern men share an ancestor--"Adam"--or ancestors so recent that mutations haven't had a chance to occur. The "Eve" theory of a one-continent origin for humans gets a boost, say the authors, from Adam's relatively similar birthday. Their estimate: 270,000 years ago.

Good Medicine.

Add one more to a common drug's long list of uses. Methotrexate, reports U of C medicine professor Stephen Hanauer in the New England Journal of Medicine, eases symptoms of Crohn's disease, a painful inflammatory illness that often requires major surgery. Given current drugs' frequently intolerable side effects, the finding should be a relief to Crohn's sufferers--half a million in the U.S. alone.

Truth and Beauty.

To some, it's as if the works of Shakespeare were written in an unknown language. Isaac Newton's 1687 Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica--a monument in the history of science--has always been an intellectually forbidding achievement. Now, however, Newton's powers of insight and the beauty of his Latin prose and mathematical craftsmanship are illuminated for the student of physics. In Newton's Principia for the Common Reader (Oxford), Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist and Chicago professor emeritus Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar explicates Newton's masterpiece from its rules of motion to its culmination in the law of universal gravitation.

Bright Lights, Dim Bulbs.

Call it a draw, of sorts: Men score higher than women on mental-ability tests--and they score lower. That's what Chicago education professor Larry Hedges and graduate student Amy Nowell found in a comprehensive look at sex variations in mental testing. Pooling three decades of data, the two saw little difference between women's and men's average scores. Yet more men fill out the high and low extremes. Their Science report doesn't explain the difference's origin but does, Hedges believes, show a need for substantial educational intervention--both to help low-scoring men enter the work force, and to boost women's participation in high-aptitude areas like science and engineering.

Simplify, Simplify.

Too many laws, intelligible only to the nation's too many lawyers. An inevitable result of a complex society? Not to U of C law professor Richard Epstein. His alternative, outlined in Simple Rules for a Complex World (Harvard): a stripped-down legal system based on just six principles, grounded in common-sense notions like individual freedom and property rights, yet powerful enough to handle modern social and technological quandaries. Citing the success of common law, Epstein argues that simple rules are far better than elaborate, mandated solutions--and lead to greater fairness and efficiency: "Government works best when it establishes the rules of the road, not when it seeks to determine the composition of the traffic."

Go to: Return to August 1995 Table of Contents