CHICAGO — REGGIE WILHIGHT grew up with the Vice Lords, played ball with the Vice Lords, and was best buddies with a Vice Lord leader who lived four doors away.
But Mr. Wilhight never joined the powerful black street gang that dominated his Chicago neighborhood of Lawndale in the 1970s and still controls its drug- and crime-ridden turf today.
Despite the rapid spread of American street gangs in recent years, the majority of youths in neighborhoods with gang activity don't get involved. Even where gangs are most entrenched, as in Lawndale, the percentage of gang-aged youths who join rarely exceeds 50 percent, experts say.
Authorities on US gangs are only beginning to research the question of why some youths are pulled into gangs while others resist. Factors being considered include family, school, economic status, and other social relations, as well as individual psychology. For Wilhight, however, the answer is easy:
"I was more afraid of my grandmother than I was of the street gangs, to tell you the truth," he says. "I was more worried about my grandmother killing me than anyone else."
Wilhight credits his strong-willed grandmother and her Southern Baptist faith for keeping him alive and out of trouble. "Half the guys I grew up with are either dead or in jail," says the Chicago postal clerk.
Wilhight was raised from the age of 2 by his grandmother and grandfather, a porter for Illinois Central Railroad. Though far from wealthy, the family was stable, owned its own home, and could afford to send Wilhight to parochial schools. Between his grandmother and the principal, Wilhight made sure he studied hard.
"In school some kids were nerds, some were cool, and some in-between. I was in the square group," he says. Church stimulated Wilhight's interest in music, and he began what has turned into a 30-year devotion to piano playing.
Meanwhile, his best friend dropped out of grade school, started stealing cars and selling drugs, and sank in deeper as a hard-core Vice Lord. Unlike Wilhight, the friend came from a broken family. His mother, a heavy drinker, had served time for murdering his father. She fought constantly with her second husband.
As the neighborhood gang turned more ruthless and lethal, Wilhight regularly attended the funerals of friends - some as young as 11- and 12-years old. His buddy survived, mainly because he went to prison for grand larceny.
The closest Wilhight came to getting into trouble was after he graduated from college in 1980, married, and started working 16-hour days in the liquor store of an uncle who had some illicit business dealings on the side.
On her deathbed, Wilhight's grandmother asked him to promise to quit the job. He did.