"The Roughnecks and the Saints" 

William J. Chambliss

Society, November/December 1973, pp. 24-31

 

THE SAINTS

 

            The Saints were a group of eight promising young men from "good" white upper-middle class families. They attended Hanniabal High: a moderate size high school in a suburb near a large metropolitan area. The Saints were active in school affairs, were enrolled in the pre‑college program and received good grades. At the same time, they were some of the most delinquent boys at Hannibal High.

 

         The teachers, their parents, and people in the community knew that these boys occasionally sowed a few wild oats. They were totally unaware, however, of the extent to which the Saints engaged in delinquency. No one realized that "sowing their wild oats" completely occupied the daily routine of these young men. The Saints were constantly occupied with truancy, drinking, wild driving, petty theft and vandalism. Yet not one was officially arrested for any misdeed during the two years I observed them.

 

         This record was particularly surprising in light of my observations during the same two years of another gang of Hannibal High School students, six lower‑class white boys I call the Roughnecks. The Roughnecks were constantly in trouble with police and community even though their rate of delinquency was about equal with that of the Saints. What was the cause of this disparity? The result? The following consideration of the activities, social class and community perceptions of both gangs may provide some answers.

 

THE SAINTS FROM MONDAY TO FRIDAY

         The Saints' principal daily concern was with getting out of school as early as possible. The boys managed to get out of school with minimum danger that they would be accused of playing hookey through an elaborate procedure for obtaining "legitimate" release from class. The most common procedure was for one boy to obtain the release of another by fabricating a meeting of some committee, program or recognized club. Charles might raise his hand in his 9:00 chemistry class and ask to be excused (a euphemism for going to the bathroom). Charles would go to Ed's math class and inform the teacher that Ed was needed for a 9:30 rehearsal of the drama club play. The math teacher would recognize Ed and Charles as "good students" involved in numerous school activities and would permit Ed to leave at 9:30. Charles would return to his class, and Ed would go to Tomes English class to obtain his release. Tom would engineer Charles' escape. The strategy would continue until as many of the Saints as possible were freed. After a stealthy trip to the car (which had been parked in a strategic spot), the boys were off for a day of fun.

 

            Over the two years that I observed the Saints, this pattern was repeated nearly every day. There were variations on the theme. But in one form or another the boys used this procedure for getting out of class and then off the school grounds. Rarely did all eight of the Saints manage to leave school at the same time. The average number avoiding school on the days I observed them was five. 

 

            Having escaped from the concrete corridors the boys usually went either to a pool hall on the other (lower‑class) side of town or to a cafe in the suburbs. Both places were out of the way of people the boys were likely to know (family or school officials), and both provided a source of entertainment. The pool hall entertainment was the generally rough atmosphere, the occasional hustler, the sometimes drunk proprietor and, of course, the game of pool. The cafe's entertainment was provided by the owner. The boys would "accidentally" knock a glass on the floor or spill cola on the counter not all the time, but enough to be sporting. They would also bend spoons, put salt in sugar bowls, and generally tease whoever was working in the cafe. Since the boys' business was substantial (between the horsing around and the teasing they did buy food and drinks) the owner tolerated their transgressions.

 

THE SAINTS ON WEEKENDS

 

            On weekends, the automobile was even more critical than during the week, for on weekends the Saints went to Big Town large city with a population of over a million, 25 miles from Hannibal. Every Friday and Saturday night most of the Saints would meet between 8:00 and 8:30 and would go into Big Town. Big Town activities included drinking heavily in taverns or nightclubs, driving drunkenly through the streets, and committing acts of vandalism and playing pranks.

 

            By midnight on Fridays and Saturdays the Saints were usually thoroughly high, and one or two of them were often so drunk they had to be carried to the cars. Then the boys drove around town, calling obscenities to women and girls; occasionally trying (unsuccessfully so far as I could tell) to pick girls up; and driving recklessly through red lights and at high speeds with their lights out. Occasionally they played "chicken." One boy would climb out the back window of the car and across the roof to the driver's side of the car while the car was moving at high speed (between 40 and 50 miles an hour); then the driver would move over and the boy who had just crawled across the car roof would take the driver's seat.

 

            Searching for "fair game" for a prank was the boys' principal activity after they left the tavern. The boys would drive alongside a foot patrolman and ask directions to some street. If the policeman leaned on the car in the course of answering the question, the driver would speed away, causing him to lose his balance. The Saints were careful to play this prank only in an area where they were not going to spend much time and where they could quickly disappear around a corner to avoid having their license plate number taken.

 

            Construction sites and road repair areas were the special province of the Saints' mischief. A soon‑to‑be‑repaired hole in the road inevitably invited the Saints to remove lanterns and wooden barricades and put them in the car, leaving the hole unprotected. The boys would find a safe vantage point and wait for an unsuspecting motorist to drive into the hole. Often, though not always, the boys would go up to the motorist and commiserate with him about the dreadful way the city protected its citizenry.

 

            Leaving the scene of the open hole and the motorist, the boys would then go searching for an appropriate place to erect the stolen barricade. An "appropriate place" was often a spot on a highway near a curve in the road where the barricade would not be seen by an oncoming motorist. The boys would wait to watch an unsuspecting motorist attempt to stop and (usually) crash into the wooden barricade. With saintly bearing the boys might offer help and understanding.

 

            A stolen lantern might well find its way onto the back of a police car or hang from a street lamp. Once a lantern served as a prop for a reenactment of the "midnight ride of Paul Revere" until the "play," which was taking place at 2:00 A.M. in the center of a main street of Big Town, was interrupted by a police car several blocks away. The boys ran, leaving the lanterns on the street, and managed to avoid being apprehended.

 

            Abandoned houses, especially if they were located in out‑of‑the‑way places, were fair game for destruction and spontaneous vandalism. The boys would break windows, remove furniture to the yard and tear it apart, urinate on the walls and scrawl obscenities inside.

 

            Through all the pranks, drinking and reckless driving the boys managed miraculously to avoid being stopped by police. Only twice in two years was I aware that they had been stopped by a Big City policeman. Once was for speeding (which they did every time they drove whether they were drunk or sober), and the driver managed to convince the policeman that it was simply an error. The second time they were stopped they had just left a nightclub and were walking through an alley. Aaron stopped to urinate and the boys began making obscene remarks. A foot patrolman came into the alley, lectured the boys and sent them home. Before the boys got to the car one began talking in a loud voice again. The policeman, who had followed them down the alley, arrested this boy for disturbing the peace and took him to the police station where the other Saints gathered. After paying a $5.00 fine, and with the assurance that there would be no permanent record of the arrest, the boy was released.

 

            The boys had a spirit of frivolity and fun about their escapades. They did not view what they were engaged in as "delinquency," though it surely was by any reasonable definition of that word. They simply viewed themselves as having a little fun and who, they would ask, was really hurt by it? The answer had to be no one, although this fact remains one of the most difficult things to explain about the gang's behavior. Unlikely though it seems, in two years of drinking, driving, carousing and vandalism no one was seriously injured as a result of the Saints' activities.

 

THE SAINTS IN SCHOOL

            The Saints were highly successful in school. The average grade for the group was "B." with two of the boys having close to a straight "A" average. Almost all of the boys were popular and many of them held offices in the school. One of the boys was vice‑president of the student body one year. Six of the boys played on athletic teams.

 

            At the end of their senior year, the student body selected ten seniors for special recognition as the "school wheels"; four of the ten were Saints. Teachers and school officials saw no problem with any of these boys and anticipated that they would all "make something of themselves."

 

            How the boys managed to maintain this impression is surprising in view of their actual behavior while in school. Their technique for covering truancy was so successful that teachers did not even realize that the boys were absent from school much of the time. Occasionally, of course, the system would backfire and then the boy was on his own. A boy who was caught would be most contrite, would plead guilty and ask for mercy. He inevitably got the mercy he sought.

 

            Cheating on examinations was rampant, even to the point of orally communicating answers, as well as looking at one another's papers. Since none of the group studied, and since they were primarily dependent on one another for help, it is surprising that grades were so high. Teachers contributed to the deception in their admitted inclination to give these boys (and presumably others like them) the benefit of the doubt. When asked how the boys did in school, and when pressed on specific examinations, teachers might admit that they were disappointed in John's performance, but would quickly add that they "knew he was capable of doing better," so John was given a higher grade than he had actually earned. How often this happened is impossible to know. During the time that I observed the group, I never saw any of the boys take homework home. Teachers must have been "understanding" very regularly.

 

            One exception to the gang's generally good performance was Jerry, who had a "C" average in his junior year, and experienced disaster the next year and failed to graduate. Jerry had always been a little more nonchalant than the others about the liberties he took in school. Rather than wait for someone to come get him from class, he would offer his own excuse and leave. Although he probably did not miss any more classes than most of the others in the group, he did not take the requisite pains to cover his absences. Jerry was the only Saint whom I ever heard talk back to a teacher. Although teachers often called him a "cut up" or a smart kid." they never referred to him as a troublemaker or as a kid headed for trouble. It seems likely, then, that Jerry's failure his senior year and his mediocre performance his junior year were consequences of his not playing the game the proper way (possibly because he was disturbed by his parents' divorce). His teachers regarded him as "immature" and not quite ready to get out of high school.

 

THE POLICE AND THE SAINTS

            The local police saw the Saints as good boys who were among the leaders of the youth in the community. Rarely, the boys might be stopped in town for speeding or for running a stop sign. When this happened the boys were always polite, contrite and pled for mercy. As in school, they received the mercy they asked for. None ever received a ticket or was taken into the precinct by the local police.

 

            The situation in Big City, where the boys engaged in most of their delinquency, was only slightly different. The police there did not know the boys at all, although occasionally the boys were stopped by a patrolman. Once they were caught taking a lantern from a construction site. Another time they were stopped for running a stop sign, and on several occasions they were stopped for speeding. Their behavior was as before: contrite, polite and penitent. The urban police, like the local police, accepted their demeanor as sincere. More important, the urban police were convinced that these were good boys just out for a lark.

 

THE ROUGHNECKS

            Hannibal townspeople never perceived the Saints' high level of delinquency. The Saints were good boys who just went in for an occasional prank. After all, they were well dressed, well mannered and had nice cars. The Roughnecks were a different story. Although the two gangs of boys were the same age, and both groups engaged in an equal amount of wild‑oat sowing, everyone agreed that the not‑so‑well‑dressed, not‑so‑well‑mannered, not‑so‑rich boys were heading for trouble. Townspeople would say, "You can see the gang members at the drugstore night after night, leaning against the storefront (sometimes drunk) or slouching around inside buying cokes, reading magazines, and probably stealing old Mr. Wall blind. When they are outside and girls walk by, even respectable girls, these boys make suggestive remarks. Sometimes their remarks are downright lewd."

 

            From the community's viewpoint, the real indication that these kids were in for trouble was that they were constantly involved with the police. Some of them had been picked up for stealing, mostly small stuff, of course, "but still it's stealing small stuff that leads to big time crimes. Too bad," people said. "Too bad that these boys couldn't behave like the other kids in town; stay out of trouble, be polite to adults, and look to their future."

 

            The community's impression of the degree to which this group of six boys (ranging in age from 16 to 19) engaged in delinquency was somewhat distorted. In some ways the gang was more delinquent than the community thought; in other ways they were less.

 

            The fighting activities of the group were fairly, readily, and accurately perceived by almost everyone. At least once a month, the boys would get into some sort of fight, although most fights were scraps between members of the group or involved only one member of the group and some peripheral hanger‑on. Only three times in the period of observation did the group fight together: once against a gang from across town, once against two blacks and once against a group of boys from another school. For the first two fights the group went out "looking for trouble” and they found it both times. The third fight followed a football game and began spontaneously with an argument on the football field between one of the Roughnecks and a member of the opposition's football team.

 

            Jack had a particular propensity for fighting and was involved in most of the brawls. He was a prime mover of the escalation of arguments into fights.

 

            More serious than fighting, had the community been aware of it, was theft. Although almost everyone was aware that the boys occasionally stole things, they did not realize the extent of the activity. Petty stealing was a frequent event for the Roughnecks. Sometimes they stole as a group and coordinated their efforts; other times they stole in pairs. Rarely did they steal alone.

 

            The thefts ranged from very small things like paperback books, comics and ballpoint pens to expensive items like watches. The nature of the thefts varied from time to time. The gang would go through a period of systematically lifting items from automobiles or school lockers. Types of thievery varied with the whim of the gang. Some forms of thievery were more profitable than others, but all thefts were for profit, not just thrills.

 

            Roughnecks siphoned gasoline from cars as often as they had access to an automobile, which was not very often. Unlike the Saints, who owned their own cars, the Roughnecks would have to borrow their parents' cars, an event which occurred only eight or nine times a year. The boys claimed to have stolen cars for joy rides from time to time.

 

            Ron committed the most serious of the group's offenses. With an associate who was never identified, Ron attempted to burglarize a gasoline station. Although this station had been robbed twice previously in the same month, Ron denied any involvement in either of the other thefts. When Ron and his accomplice approached the station, the owner was hiding in the bushes beside the station. He fired both barrels of a double‑barreled shotgun at the boys. Ron was severely injured; the other boy ran away and was never caught. Though he remained in critical condition for several months, Ron finally recovered and served six months of the following year in reform school. Upon release from reform school, Ron was put back a grade in school He dropped out of the Roughnecks and began running around with a different gang of boys. The Roughnecks considered Ron's new associates as "nerds" and they were apparently less delinquent than the Roughnecks. During the following year Ron had no more trouble with the police.

 

            The Roughnecks, then, engaged mainly in three types of delinquency: theft, drinking and fighting. Although community members perceived that this gang of kids was delinquent, they mistakenly believed that their illegal activities were primarily drinking, fighting and being a nuisance to passersby. Drinking was limited among the gang members, although it did occur, and theft was much more prevalent than anyone realized.

 

            Drinking would doubtless have been more prevalent had the boys had ready access to liquor. Since they rarely had automobiles at their disposal, they could not travel very far, and the bars in town would not serve them. Most of the boys had little money, and this, too, inhibited their purchase of alcohol. Their major source of liquor was a local drunk who would buy them a fifth if they would give him enough extra to buy himself a pint of whiskey or a bottle of wine.

 

            The community's perception of their drinking as prevalent stemmed from the fact that it was the most obvious delinquency the boys engaged in. When one of the boys had been drinking, even a casual observer seeing him on the corner would suspect that he was drunk.

 

            There was a high level of mutual distrust and dislike between the Roughnecks and the police. The boys felt very strongly that the police were unfair and corrupt. Some evidence existed that the boys were correct in their perception.

 

            The main source of the boys' dislike for the police undoubtedly stemmed from the fact that the police would sporadically harass the group. From the standpoint of the boys, these acts of occasional enforcement of the law were whimsical and uncalled for. It made no sense that the police would come to the corner occasionally and threaten them with arrest for loitering when the night before the boys had been out siphoning gasoline from cars and the police had been nowhere in sight. To the boys, the police were stupid on the one hand, for not being where they should have been and catching the boys in a serious offense. And unfair on the other hand, for trumping up "loitering" charges against them.

 

            From the viewpoint of the police, the situation was quite different. They knew, with all the confidence necessary to be a policeman, that these boys were engaged in criminal activities. They knew this partly from occasionally catching them, mostly from circumstantial evidence ("the boys were around when those tires were slashed"), and partly because the police shared the view of the community in general that this was a bad bunch of boys. The best the police could hope to do was to be sensitive to the fact that these boys were engaged in illegal acts and arrest them whenever there was some evidence that they had been involved. Whether or not the boys had in fact committed a particular act in a particular way was not especially important. The police had a broader view: their job was to stamp out these kids' crimes; their tactics were not as important as the end result.

 

            Over the period that the group was under observation, each member was arrested at least once. Several of the boys were arrested a number of times and spent at least one night in jail. While most were never taken to court, two of the boys were sentenced to six months' incarceration in boys' schools.

 

THE ROUGHNECKS IN SCHOOL

            The Roughnecks' behavior in school was not particularly disruptive. During school hours they did not all hang around together, but tended instead to spend most of their time with one or two other members of the gang who were their special buddies. Although every member of the gang attempted to avoid school as much as possible, they were not particularly successful and most of them attended school with  something to be gottensurprising regularity. They considered school a burden through with a minimum of conflict. If they were "bugged" by a particular teacher, it could lead to trouble. One of the boys, Al, once threatened to beat up a teacher and, according to the other boys, the teacher hid under a desk to escape him.

 

            Teachers saw the boys the way the general community did, as heading for trouble, as being uninterested in making something of themselves.  Some were also seen as being incapable of meeting the academic standards of the school. Most of the teachers expressed concern for this group of boys and were willing to pass them despite poor performance, in the belief that failing them would only aggravate the problem.

 

            The group of boys had a grade point average just slightly above "C." No one in the group failed any of their grades, and no one had better than a "C" average. They were very consistent in their achievement or, at least, the teachers were consistent in their perception of the boys' achievement.

 

            Two of the boys were good football players. Herb was acknowledged to be the best player in the school and Jack was almost as good. Both boys were criticized for their failure to abide by training rules, for refusing to come to practice as often as they should, and for not playing their best during practice. What they lacked in sportsmanship they made up for in skill, apparently, and played every game no matter how poorly they had performed in practice or how many practice sessions they had missed.

 

TWO QUESTIONS

            Why did the community, the school and the police react to the Saints as though they were good, upstanding, nondelinquent youths with bright futures but to the Roughnecks as though they were tough, young criminals who were headed for trouble? Why did the Roughnecks and the Saints in fact have quite different careers after high school careers which, by and large, lived up to the expectations of the community?

 

            The most obvious explanation for the differences in the community's and law enforcement agencies' reactions to the two gangs is that one group of boys was 'more delinquent" than the other. But which group was more delinquent'? The answer to this question will determine in part how we explain the differential responses to these groups by the members of the community and, particularly, by law enforcement and school officials.

 

            In sheer number of illegal acts, the Saints were the more delinquent. They were truant from school for at least part of the day almost every day of the week. In addition, their drinking and vandalism occurred with surprising regularity. The Roughnecks, in contrast, engaged sporadically in delinquent episodes. While these episodes were frequent, they certainly did not occur on a daily or even a weekly basis.

 

            The difference in frequency of offenses was probably caused by the Roughnecks' inability to obtain liquor and to manipulate legitimate excuses from school. Since the Roughnecks had less money than the Saints and teachers carefully supervised their school activities, the Roughnecks' hearts may have been as black as the Saints', but their misdeeds were not nearly as frequent.

There are really no clear‑cut criteria by which to measure qualitative differences in antisocial behavior. The most important dimension of the difference is generally referred to as the "seriousness" of the offenses.

 

            If seriousness encompasses the relative economic costs of delinquent acts, then some assessment can be made. The Roughnecks probably stole an average of about $5.00 worth of goods a week. Some weeks the figure was considerably higher, but these times must be balanced against long periods when almost nothing was stolen.

 

            The Saints were more continuously engaged in delinquency but their acts were not for the most part costly to property. Only their vandalism and occasional theft of gasoline would so qualify. Perhaps once or twice a month they would siphon a tank full of gas. The other costly items were street signs, construction lanterns and the like. All of these acts combined probably did not quite average $5.00 a week, partly because much of the stolen equipment was abandoned and presumably could be recovered. The difference in cost of stolen property between the two groups was trivial, but the Roughnecks probably had a slightly more expensive set of activities than did the Saints.

 

            Another meaning of seriousness is the potential threat of physical harm to members of the community and to the boys themselves. The Roughnecks were more prone to physical violence; they not only welcomed an opportunity to fight, they went seeking it. In addition, they fought among themselves frequently. Although the fighting never included deadly weapons, it was still a menace, however minor, to the physical safety of those involved.

 

            The Saints never fought. They avoided physical conflict both inside and outside the group.

At the same time, though, the Saints frequently endangered their own and other people's lives. They did so almost every time they drove a car, especially if they had been drinking. Sober, their driving was risky; under the influence of alcohol it was horrendous. In addition, the Saints endangered the lives of others with their pranks. Street excavations left unmarked were a very serious hazard.

 

            Evaluating the relative seriousness of the two gangs' activities is difficult. The community reacted as though the behavior of the Roughnecks was a problem, and they reacted as though the behavior of the Saints was not. But the members of the community were ignorant to the array of delinquent acts that characterized the Saints' behavior. Although concerned citizens were unaware of much of the Roughnecks' behavior as well, they were much better informed about the Roughnecks' involvement in delinquency than they were about the Saints'.

 

VISIBILITY

            Differential treatment of the two gangs resulted in part because one gang was infinitely more visible than the other. This differential visibility was a direct function of the social class of the families. The Saints had access to automobiles and were able to remove themselves from the sight of the community. Even routine decisions such as where to go to have milk shake after school, the Saints stayed away from the mainstream of community life. Lacking transportation, the Roughnecks could not make it to the edge of town. The center of town was the only practical place for them to meet since they did not have access to automobiles and any non-central meeting place put an undue hardship on some members. Through necessity the Roughnecks congregated in a crowded area where everyone in the community passed frequently, including teachers and law enforcement officers. They could easily see the Roughnecks hanging around the drugstore.

 

            The Roughnecks, of course, made themselves even more visible by making remarks to passersby and by occasionally getting into fights on the corner. Meanwhile, just as regularly, the Saints were either at the cafe on one edge of town or in the pool hall at the other edge of town. Without any particular realization that they were making themselves inconspicuous, the Saints were able to hide their time‑wasting. Not only were they removed from the mainstream of traffic, but they were almost always inside a building.

 

            On their escapades the Saints were also relatively invisible, since they left Hannibal and traveled to Big City. Here, too, they were mobile, roaming the city, rarely going to the same area twice.

 

DEMEANOR

            To the notion of visibility must be added the difference in the responses of group members to outside intervention with their activities. If one of the Saints was confronted with an accusing policeman, even if he felt he was truly innocent of a wrongdoing, his demeanor was apologetic and penitent. A Roughneck's attitude was almost the polar opposite. When confronted with a threatening adult authority, even one who tried to be pleasant, the Roughneck's hostility and disdain were clearly observable. Sometimes he might attempt to put up a veneer of respect, but it was thin and was not accepted as sincere by the authority.

 

            School was no different from the community at large. The Saints could manipulate the system by feigning compliance with the school norms. The availability of cars at school meant that once free from the immediate sight of the teacher, the boys could disappear rapidly. This escape was always well enough planned that no administrator or teacher was nearby when the boys left. A Roughneck who wished to escape for a few hours was in a bind. If it were possible to get free from class, downtown was still a mile away, and even if he arrived there, he was still very visible. Truancy for the Roughnecks meant almost certain detection, while the Saints enjoyed almost complete immunity from sanctions.

 

BIAS

            Community members were not aware of the transgressions of the Saints. Even if the Saints had been less discreet, their favorite delinquencies would have been perceived as less serious than those of the Roughnecks.

 

            In the eyes of the police and school officials, a boy who drinks in an alley and stands intoxicated on the street corner, who steals a wallet from a store, or associates with someone who has committed a burglary, is a delinquent. An upper-middle class boy who gets drunk in a nightclub or tavern, even it he drives around afterwards in a car is perceived as someone who has made a mistake. Stealing a lantern from a construction site is not perceived as a serious delinquency but shoplifting a pair of gloves from a department store is.

 

            In other words, there is a built in class-bias in the definition of what constitutes "serious" delinquency. Just as driving under the influence is treated by law enforcement agencies with greater leniency than possession of drugs (see last chapter) so are the delinquencies of middle-class youths seen as less serious than the delinquencies of lower class youths. Why this is so is best explained by the way the law enforcement system is organized and who has the power to affect it.

 

THE ORGANIZATION OF POLICING

            Visibility, demeanor, and bias describe the characteristics of the Saints, Roughnecks and police that account for the day-to‑day operations of the police. Why do these surface variables operate as they do'? Why did the police choose to disregard the Saints' delinquencies while breathing down the backs of the Roughnecks?

 

            The answer lies in the class structure of American society and the control of legal institutions by those at the top of the class structure. Put quite simply, if the police treat middle-class delinquents (or cocaine snorting college students) the same way they treat lower-class delinquents (or black ghetto crack users) they are asking for trouble from people in power. If, on the other hand, they focus their law enforcement efforts on the lower-classes they are praised and supported by "the community": that is, the middle-and upper-class white community.

 

            There is no conscious conspiracy to arrest and imprison the lower classes for acts less harmful, or at least no more harmful, than the crimes of the middle and upper classes. There is no community leader telling the police to look on street corners and in the ghettoes for crime. The law does not dictate that the demeanor of lower‑class youth bespeaks future criminality and that of upper middle‑class youth promises future success. Rather, the decisions of the police and teachers grew from their experience; experience with irate and influential upper‑middle‑class parents insisting that their son's vandalism was simply a prank and their drunkenness only a momentary "sowing of wild oats;” experience with cooperative or indifferent, powerless, lower‑class parents who acquiesced to the laws' definition of their son's behavior.

 

            Role occupants in organizations are rewarded for acts that minimize strain and maximize rewards for the organization. Police who arrest poor kids for stealing bicycles or selling drugs are doing a good job and are promoted to Sergeant. Police who arrest upper-middle class kids for being truant and hanging out in pool halls create strains that no police chief wants. It does not take many encounters with irate parents and their high priced lawyers for the police to learn to ignore the drug dealing on college campuses or the vandalism of middle-class kids. It just makes organizational sense to look for crime in the ghetto and not the suburbs and to send middle-class kids home with a warning rather than arrest them and face the inevitable criticism of superiors.

 

ADULT CAREERS OF THE SAINTS

            The community's confidence in the potential of the Saints and the Roughnecks apparently was justified. If anything, the community members underestimated the degree to which these youngsters would turn out "good" and "bad."

 

            Seven of the eight members of the Saints went on to college immediately after high school. Five of the boys graduated from college in four years. The sixth one finished college after two years in the army, and the seventh spent four years in the air force before returning to college and receiving a B.A. degree. Of these seven college graduates, three went on for advanced degrees. One finished law school and for awhile was active in state politics, one finished medical school and is practicing near Hannibal, and another completed a Ph.D. in history and is teaching at a small state university. The other four college graduates entered sub-managerial, managerial or executive training positions with larger firms immediately upon graduation and while changing firms from time to time three of the four remained in managerial positions throughout their careers. The fourth, Charles, went to work for the government for a period of time then quit and began selling real estate.

 

            The only Saint who did not complete college was Jerry. Jerry failed to graduate from high school with the other Saints. During his second senior year, after the other Saints had gone on to college, Jerry began to hang around with what several teachers described as a "rough crowd." At the end of his second senior year, when he did graduate from high school, Jerry took a job as a used‑car salesman, got married and quickly had a child. Although he made several abortive attempts to go to college by attending night school, ten years after he graduated from high school Jerry was unemployed and had been living on unemployment for almost a year. His wife worked as a waitress.

 

ADULT CAREERS OF THE ROUGHNECKS

Some of the Roughnecks lived up to community expectations, some did not. A number of them were, indeed, headed for trouble.

 

            Jack and Herb were the athletes among the Roughnecks and their athletic prowess paid off handsomely. Both boys received unsolicited athletic scholarships to college. After Herb received his scholarship (near the end of his senior year), he did an about‑face. His demeanor became very similar to that of the Saints. Although he remained a member in good standing of the Roughnecks, he stopped participating in most activities and did not hang on the corner as often. When I met him in the parking lot of a shopping center the summer after high school graduation he was dressed in a suit and tie. He came up to me and shook my hand (an unheard of gesture for him only a few months earlier), took me to his car and introduced me to his mother. Suddenly Herb was the "gentleman" the college he would be attending expected their students to be.

            Jack did not change. If anything, he became more prone to fighting. He even made excuses for accepting the scholarship. He told the other gang members that the school had guaranteed him a "C" average if he would come to play football, an idea that seems far‑fetched, even in this day of highly competitive recruiting.

 

            During the summer after graduation from high school, Jack attempted suicide by jumping from a tall building. The jump would certainly have killed most people trying it, but Jack survived. He entered college in the fall and played four years of football. He and Herb graduated in four years, and both are teaching and coaching in high schools. Jack is the Vice Principal of his high school. They are married and have stable families. Jack appears to have a more prestigious position in the community than does Herb, though both are well respected and secure in their positions.

 

            Two of the boys never finished high school. Tommy left at the end of his junior year and went to another state. That summer he was arrested and placed on probation on a manslaughter charge. Three years later he was arrested for murder; he pleaded guilty to second degree murder and served twelve years of a 30‑year sentence in the state penitentiary and was released.

 

            Al, the other boy who did not finish high school, also moved to another state in his senior year. When Al was twenty four he was accused of murdering a man in a fight. He served fourteen years of a life sentence in a state penitentiary for first degree murder. While in prison Al got into a fight and was stabbed as a result of which he was paralyzed from the waist down. Upon release from prison Al purchased a small grocery store which he ran successfully until his death.

 

            Wes is a small‑time gambler. He finished high school and "bummed around." After several years he made contact with a bookmaker who employed him as a runner. Later he acquired his own area and has been working it ever since. His position among the bookmakers is almost identical to the position he had in the gang; he is always around but no one is really aware of him. He makes no trouble and he does not get into any. Steady, reliable, capable of keeping his mouth closed, he plays the game by the rules, even though the game is an illegal one.

 

            That leaves only Ron. Some of his former friends reported that they had heard he was "driving a truck up north," but I was unable to find him.

 

LABELING AND THE SELF-FULFILLING PROPHESY

            The community responded to the Roughnecks as boys in trouble, and the boys agreed with that perception. Their pattern of deviance was reinforced, and breaking away from it became increasingly unlikely. Once the boys acquired an image of themselves as deviants, they selected new friends who affirmed that self‑image. As that self‑conception became more firmly entrenched, they also became willing to try new and more extreme deviances. With their growing alienation came freer expression of disrespect and hostility for representatives of the legitimate society. This disrespect increased the community's negativism, perpetuating the entire process of commitment to deviance. Lack of a commitment to deviance works the same way. In either case, the process will perpetuate itself unless some event (like a scholarship to college or a sudden failure) external to the established relationship intervenes. For two of the Roughnecks (Herb and Jack), receiving college athletic scholarships created new relations and culminated in a break with the established pattern of deviance.

            For one of the Saints (Jerry), his parents' divorce and his failing to graduate from high school brought about significant changes in his interpersonal relationships. Being held back in school for a year and losing his place among the Saints had sufficient impact on Jerry. It altered his self‑image and virtually to assure that he would not go on to college as his peers did. Although the experiments of life rarely can be reversed, it is likely that if Jerry had not experienced the "special consideration" of his teachers that kept him from graduating with his peers that he too would have "become something" had he graduated as anticipated. For Herb and Jack outside intervention and labeling worked in the opposite way than it did for Jerry.

 

            Selective perception and labeling: the discovery, processing and punishing of some kinds of criminality and not others means that visible, poor, non-mobile, outspoken, undiplomatic "tough" kids will be noticed, whether their actions are seriously delinquent or not. Other kids, who establish a reputation for being bright (even though underachieving), reasonably polite and involved in respectable activities, who are mobile and moneyed, will be invisible when they deviate from sanctioned activities. They will "sew their wild oats, perhaps even wider and thicker than their lower‑class cohorts, but they will not be noticed. When it is time to leave adolescence most will follow the expected path, settling into the ways of the middle class, remembering fondly the delinquent but unnoticed flings of their youth. The Roughnecks, and others like them, may turn around, too. It is more likely, however, that their noticeable deviance and the reaction to it will have been so reinforced by police and community that their lives will be effectively channeled into careers consistent with the self-image they developed in adolescence.

 

AFTERTHOUGHT

            Since I published the article in 1978 I have kept in touch with some of the boys in the two gangs. Subsequent contacts and conversations have raised some interesting, if unanswered, questions about their subsequent careers. Wee the patterns of deviance established in adolescence and the reaction of significant actors in the community reproduced in adulthood. As we have seen, the saints apparently became successful, upper middle class adults; but were they also law abiding?

 

            One of the Saints who became a lawyer had to leave the state in which he was practicing law because of a pending law suit alleging criminal violation of trust. The suit was dropped after he paid a substantial amount of money to the plaintiff.  The law suit alleged not only a violation of trust but complicity with organized crime figures. He re-located as a lawyer to Atlantic City, New Jersey where, one of his former class mates told me he works closely with organized crime figures. I have no way at this time of verifying this information.

 

            Did the Saint who became a medical doctor or those who worked for corporations commit criminal acts? Did they smoke pot or snort cocaine as adults as they did in college? Were they involved in price fixing, insider trading, or tax evasion? When I interviewed them recently and raised these questions I was met only with laughter and the admission, as one put it, "well, maybe a little pot occasionally and of course tax evasion." It is impossible to say how criminal the Saints were as adults for although I have kept contact with most of them over the years, except for one, Charles, the closeness we shared when they were teen-agers has eroded with time. They also can be expected to be considerably more circumspect about their adult crimes than they were about their juvenile "games."

            The prophylactic of power to avoid scrutiny and detection of criminal acts and being labeled criminal that covered the Saints as adolescence may well be protecting them as adults.  Those in low places, like the Roughnecks, are much more likely to be arrested and imprisoned while people in high places, like the Saints, usually avoid paying such a high price for their crimes.

 

            The most important question this study of the Roughnecks and the Saints raises is this: How many poor, young, men-black, brown, and white-incarcerated for minor offenses, would be in college today instead of prison had they been treated by the police and the community the way the Saints were treated? How many Saints would be in prison instead of going on to college had they been treated as were the Roughnecks? We cannot answer this question for certain but the impact on a person’s life of labeling, stigma, and negative self-images is a powerful force in determining who we are and what we become. One lesson is inescapable: The less the intervention in the minor crimes of juveniles the better off they and society will be.

 

William J. Chambliss is Professor of Sociology at George Washington University.  His areas of research are criminology and the sociology of law.

 

[1] All the names in this article including the name of the high school are pseudonyms.