When I arrived at Howard University in the fall of 1994, I experienced culture shock.  But not the kind you’d expect from a middle-class teenage girl from the South Side of Chicago.

If I saw a guy on campus wearing a red baseball cap, I mentally checked him off as affiliated with the People Nation. If the hat was blue, I categorized him in the Folk Nation. Then, if either other those hats were cocked to the “wrong” side, I shook my head and thought he better be prepared to get jumped.

It took a couple of weeks to come to terms with the fact that my Chicago indoctrination of gang colors and signs had no place on the East Coast. I didn’t have to grow up in the hood to be exposed to and affected by gang culture. The early 1990s murder tally and crack aftermath left indelible scars. Not to mention an era where an accidental scuffing of a Nike Air Jordan gym shoe could result in a shooting.

The handshakes, colors and designer sportswear aren’t the overt symbols of Chicago gangbanging anymore. In fact, the corner boy uniform these days is white T-shirts and baggy jeans. Gone are the days of charismatic leaders like Jeff Fort of the Blackstone Nation and Larry Hoover of the Gangster Disciples.  The federal lockup of those street legends wiped out hierarchies in street organizations. Most young guys on the block couldn’t point old school leaders out of a lineup. Today’s so-called gang members are actually splintered sects or a ragtag bunch of guys lording over individual blocks.

A much different picture from what’s being spun about Chicago.

Even though it’s not the most violent city in the country, Chicago is the urban face of gunplay and renewed pressure around gun legislation. But murders are hardly at their apex. (See 10 years ago and then go back another 10 years. And then another 10.) But the local and national story around the current wave of Chicago violence points to gangs as the easy culprit. “Gang related” or “gang affiliated” are often the only descriptors behind the name of the deceased or the one held in custody.

Explaining violence is a bit more complicated. Fragmentation of the drug trade results in unlikely street alliances. Cliques of teenage boys form block-by-block on many South and West Side neighborhoods with names that sound more like record labels than gangs, such as "Hit Squad" and "No Limit."

“When it comes to gangs and gang cultures in Chicago, there's a lot of young people that claim those names of the different gangs. But a lot of them are not gang members,” says Bennie Lee, a former Vice Lord who now works with youth.

Here’s an example of how that happens in high-crime, stressed communities: A high school freshman goes to school outside his community and runs into different groups on the way. Those groups see him as opposition. He ends up hanging with people who are from his same neighborhood because they take the same public transportation. They form a clique and if that clique is part of a loose gang, voila, he’s claiming it.

“The problem we see as far as shooting and so-called gang activity, it really ain't a gang problem. It’s social problem,” Lee says.

Gambling debts, girlfriend trouble, honking a horn too loud on an unfamiliar block all add up to interpersonal conflicts among people with unmet social-emotional needs; people with hurt feelings acting out of personal desperation.

The Chicago Police Department says people label themselves as gang members. Each year the nonprofit Chicago Crime Commission puts out an incredible gang book, which many find laughable because of the outdated and duplicate mug shots of gang leaders.

The gang label is tossed around “because they need an enemy. So the gang is an enemy,” Lee says.

I’m not saying there aren’t gangs in Chicago. I’m not suggesting the gangbangers of yesterday were pussycats. The city wrestles with illegal guns and law enforcement has to find initiatives keep the streets safe. No question about it, there are too many senseless, heartbreaking, galling, irrational murders happening. But it’s hard to solve the problem if the causes aren’t fully explained.  

Using the term gang cavalierly has higher stakes in a hyper-segregated city like Chicago. It allows people to see violence as a crime among “those people” and to scapegoat young people. Dismissing shootings as always simply gang violence gives Chicagoans permission to think this is not a citywide problem. Until inequities around race, poverty, and segregation in Chicago are addressed, gang labels let us all off the hook.

Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter at WBEZ-Chicago and co-author of The Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall and Resurgence of an American Gang.