History Of Organized Crime In The US Research Paper


Org Crime Organized crime underwrites the bulk of political, social, and economic history in America. What has often been mentioned in passing as legitimate business activities can and often should be reframed as organized crime, such as the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the colonial mercantilism that it supported (Woodiwiss, 2003). When organized crime is taken out of its Hollywood context, which portrays organized crime as an immigrant problem, some patterns emerge that clarify the function and structure of organized crime in America. Organized crime tends to flourish in "societies that experience rapid and intense social change," (Albini et al. 1995, p. 213). This is why the United States has been a hot spring of organized crime in various manifestations throughout the nation's history. In only a few hundred years, the United States has gone from colonial outpost to global superpower. Rapid change and cultural transformation foment organized crime, as do the influx of immigrants that transform the political, social, and economic landscape of the nation. Although organized crime does deserve to be looked at through the lens of criminal justice, a sociological framework provides a more meaningful and helpful analysis that can shed light on the future of public policy. Past policies attempting to address the problems associated with organized crime, such as threats to public safety, violence, extortion, fraud, theft, and any number of any other victim-centric issues may miss some of the bigger picture. The history of organized crime in the United States is as rich, varied, and nuanced as the nation itself.

According to Lyman & Potter (2000), the problems associated with organized crime include damages to the taxpayer system, increased costs of law enforcement, violence, and the exploitation of the underclass. However, the function of organized crime is often to mitigate perceived social ills. Organized crime in the United States has assumed several forms and functions. One of those functions has been to provide a proxy social, political, and economic system for disenfranchised communities. Another function of organized crime has been to participate in a liminal capitalist market system. Not all manifestations of organized crime had been lawless, either. As Woodiwiss (2003) points out, organized crime facilitated corporate power and fomented the growth of market capitalism in the United States. What might be called gray or black market activity through the benefit of hindsight would have been considered legitimate or at least condoned business dealings in the past. The Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Carnegies, Stanfords, and other major names in American corporate history, families that built some of the nation's proudest and most endearing institutions and enterprises, were "ruthless" and used "violent and corrupt means" to achieve their goals of acquiring wealth and power (Mallory, 2012, p. 18). The Robber Barons of American history are in many ways no different from corporate America in the 21st century, and its collusion with government (Mallory, 2012).

One of the methods by which nineteenth century capitalist enterprise worked was to infiltrate multiple domains of economic, political, and social power. "Although decisions and responsibilities were still concentrated at the top of corporate hierarchies, the complicated and fragmented new bureaucratic arrangements had the effect of making accountability for illegal or harmful activities more complicated," (p. 107). Therefore, a hallmark of organized crime is the confluence of different types of power. Power entails not only official posts held in government but actual methods of wielding power, including the dominance of the economy. With the profit motive, the ideal of individualism, and the American Dream firmly entrenched in the public consciousness, organized crime could flourish relatively untouched. A mistrust of big government and anti-federalist policies further entrenched organized crime models into the American economy and political system throughout much of the nation's history. Organized crime initially flourished because two seemingly contradictory elements: too little government intervention and too much government collusion with big business. What was needed was a radical shift in public values.

It was not until the end of the First World War that American social norms shifted toward an appreciation for government and good governance, largely due to the need for a more concentrated and pointed means of dealing with some of the ill effects of organized crime (Woodiwiss, 2003). Of course, the term "organized crime" was a new one, reflective of the new ethic in which government would champion the rights of the people. Lyman & Potter (2000) trace the origin of the term "organized crime" to the Chicago Commission of Inquiry in 1915. The term organized crime had been used in the late nineteenth century, but "serious efforts to define and discuss it as a distinct problem" began in the 1920s...


227). It would not be until the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) of 1961 that the federal government defined and operationalized specific elements that fall within the rubric of organized crime such as racketeering.
Organized crime became a symbol of illegitimate power and authority. Subsequent to the first wave of laws denouncing organized crime, corporations in America shifted their methodologies, thereby pushing organized crime in its more formal sense to the fringes of the marketplace and political arenas. The segregation of legitimate and illegitimate business activities is a relatively new development in American history. Prior to the First World War, the lines between legitimate and illegitimate business, between that which harmed people and that which benefitted the dominant culture, were blurred. African-Americans, Native Americans, and all other disenfranchised groups had always been victims of violence, coercion, intimidation, and subordination that should and do fall under the rubric of organized crime. Unemployment, lack of housing, disenfranchisement, and anomie have allowed organized crime to flourish especially well in disadvantaged communities in the United States (Mallory, 2012). Much early 20th century organized crime was market-driven, although there was also a potent political purpose in enabling disenfranchised groups to wield more power than they would have otherwise.

Organized crime had been viewed as a collusion between the interests of business tycoons and corrupt government officials, Following the First World War, a few important shifts in public consciousness emerged, coinciding with serious changes in the American demographic and cultural history. The most important change was in immigration patterns, leading to the ability to scapegoat immigrant groups. Organized crime had been indigenously American, with roots in the American Dream and the expansion of white capitalist culture. Starting in the early to mid twentieth century, organized crime became an immigrant issue. It was "an outside threat to otherwise sound U.S. laws and institutions," (p. 227). Thus, the fear mongering that enabled xenophobia and prejudice became part and parcel of anti-organized crime discourse. The existence of organized crime perpetuated anti-immigrant sentiments, and anti-immigrant sentiments paradoxically served to perpetuate organized crime by validating the U.S. versus them, insider vs. outsider, and cops vs. robbers mentality. As Albanese (2011) points out, organized crime is "interethnic," and "ethnicity is not a very powerful explanation for the existence of organized crime" (p. 12). Rather, organized crime is better understood more as a reaction to market forces and opportunities. Structural-functionalism also provides a valid framework for understanding organized crime, even as conflict and strain theories likewise explain some of the ways organized crime has functioned and flourished.

Large and rapid influxes of new immigrants led to the types of social change that fertilize the seeds of organized crime. The Irish immigrant influx after the potato famine in the 19th century led to millions of Irish people coalescing in small geographic zones. As a result, the Irish "established their own neighborhoods and with their large ethnic vote established the corrupt political machine, which allowed them to control both the legal and illegal enterprises of the cities where they settled," (Mallory, 2012, p. 19). Similar patterns emerged in other ethnic communities.

Unfortunately, the oversimplification of organized crime and racist discourse surrounding treatment of organized crime has also led to a "dumbing down" of the rhetoric and legislation used to address the very real problems created by organized crime (Woodiwiss, 2003). The most significant modern manifestation of dumbed down policies is the war on drugs, which should have dismantled itself peacefully as did prohibition of alcohol. Instead, the war on drugs has led to the bolstering of organized crime syndicates. The war on drugs has technically been waged since the passing of the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914, which gave rise to "nationally organized crime groups" and massive police complicity in them (Mallory, 2012). From 1920 to 1933, alcohol prohibition provided "another market opportunity for expansion of organized crime in the United States," (Mallory, 2012, p. 22). The 18th Amendment to the Constitution enabled a thirteen-year flourishing of the black market alcohol trade. The Wickersham Commission in 1931 studied the impact of prohibition on criminal activity, and the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th. Yet drug prohibition remains in place.

Already engaged in the drug trade, organized crime syndicates had by this time developed the hierarchical organizational structure they are renowned for, and which has been frequently depicted on film and television shows. Interestingly, Mallory (2012) credits Arnold…

Sources Used in Documents:


Abadinsky, H. (2013). Organized Crime. Belmont: Wadsworth

Albanese, J.S. (2011). Organized Crime in Our Times. 6th Edition. Burlington: Elsevier.

Albini, J.L. et al. (1995). Russian organized crime: Its history, structure, and function. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 11(4), 213-243.

Cornell University Law School. (2014). 18 U.S. Code § 1961 -- Definitions. Retrieved online: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/1961

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