Student Showcase: From Robber Barons to Robberies; How Racial and Economic Inequality in America creates Organised Crime [Chidera Umeukeje, BA International Relations, year 2]

Student Showcase: From Robber Barons to Robberies; How Racial and Economic Inequality in America creates Organised Crime [Chidera Umeukeje, BA International Relations, year 2]

This blog post was written by Chidera Umeukeje, a 2nd year BA International Relations student undertaking the module A History of International Crime.

When discussing organised crime in the United States today, groups such as MS-13 and the 18th street gang are pointed to as examples of the phenomenon and targeted as the perpetrators. While the activities of these groups are dangerous to society and should be punished, a less discussed topic is how inequality in American society led to the existence of these groups. The removal of focus from the role of inequality in organised crime is not new in American history. At its peak in the early 20th century, organised crime had been ingrained into the fabric of society, from popular culture and politics to business and marketing, the phenomenon of illegal activity was widespread in America and while many such as Thayer (1922) point to the influx of immigrants in the 19th century as the cause, evidence suggests that existing racial and economic inequality in America allowed for the formation of these groups among immigrant communities. In fact, activities such as theft, slavery, human trafficking and economic fraud which are considered organised criminal activities today occurred since America’s existence and were carried out by the white American upper class (Woodwiss 2001). Although these activities ensured American wealth, they also created an environment of inequality and corruption conducive for the rise of the organised criminal gangs among poor immigrants in the late 19th century.

Royal African Company Supplying Slaves to Jamestown (National Park Service 2015)

The history of racial and economic inequality begins after European discovery of America in 1492. The desire of white European immigrants to settle in the region and gain wealth from its resources led to various unethical economic practices such as deceit and exploitation of Native Americans and slavery. From trade to land negotiations, European immigrants employed unethical tactics to gain unfair advantage and wealth. Ault (2017) records that several treaties created by American governors such as William Henry Harrison saw the deceit of Native Americans and the exchange of their homelands for little compensation. While unfair treaties were made with Native Americans to gain control of their land and resources, slaves were trafficked and imported from parts of the world such as Africa to work on the land for the production of cash crops such as cotton. Chengu (2015) notes that slavery “allowed the United States to seize control of the world market for cotton” and ensured American wealth. This wealth only benefited the white American upper class who were the slave owners. Slaves were treated badly and harsh punishments such as whipping, hanging, beating, burning were meted out for small infractions. Aguirre (1999) records that 1161 slaves were executed in America between 1790-1850. These activities, which are considered criminal today were the driving forces of the American economy and gained economic success for the American upper class. While American slavery was eventually abolished in 1865, the harsh business practices of exploitation and the scene of inequality remained as a new class of exploitative individuals commonly referred to as Robber Barons emerged.



Robber barons were elite businessmen of American society whose shrewd business practices of theft, deception and economic fraud made them extremely wealthy and created a large income gap in America. These men engaged in a variety of unethical business practices ranging from unfair compensation of workers and cheating business partners to cheating of customers and bribing government officials. Hal (1958) described business leaders in the United States from about 1865 to 1900 as “a set of avaricious rascals who habitually cheated and robbed investors and consumers, corrupted government, fought ruthlessly among themselves, and in general carried on predatory activities”. Notable among these Robber Barons were men such as Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller (Abadinsky 2010). According to DiLallo (2015), Carnegie employed various unethical business practices to amass a steel empire. Among them was the production of steel at the expense of worker safety, payment of low wages to workers and attempts to break labor unions. DiLallo also notes that Carnegie’s tactic of breaking the unions led to the Homestead strike of 1892 which saw the killing of many workers resulting from hostilities between his company and union workers.  This situation of inequality, violence and corruption in America created a breeding ground for the organised crime gangs formed in the late 19th century.

In the 19th century there was a mass influx of immigrants from Southern Europe, Italy, Russia and Asia into America. National Geographic (2012) records that America received more than 10 million immigrants from mainly Asia, Central Europe, Eastern Europe and Southern Europe between 1870 and 1900. While many of these immigrants came to America seeking better lives and jobs, they were faced with the harsh reality of inequality upon their arrival. Library of Congress (2019) records that there were never enough jobs and that these immigrants were paid less than American workers by employers and ” often stereotyped and discriminated against”. As in many societies, poverty and inequality bred crime within these immigrant communities with the creation of Jewish, Italian and Russian gangs who exploited members of their own community for financial gain. Abadinsky (2010;55-57) records that these gangs were employed by politicians and rich entrepreneurs to carry out violent activities in exchange for financial remuneration and legal protection. Tonry (2000) adds that these gangs organised prostitution and gambling rings and forcefully controlled the labor unions within their communities, sometimes taking bribes from the exploitative employers instead of championing the interests and needs of the workers or even directly extorting the workers. This exploitation and corruption was a joint effort from the gangs and upper class but society and law enforcement placed blamed on the immigrant communities.

As noted above, immigrants were often stereotyped and discriminated against and this did nothing to improve public opinion about the source of organised crime. In society, the immigrant population was painted as the source of the problem while the involvement of corrupt politicians and entrepreneurs was largely ignored. Theories such as the Alien Conspiracy theory which implied that immigrants aimed to destroy American civilization spread publicly (Smith 1976) and there was widespread hatred for the immigrant population. The police did little to aid the situation as they contributed to the narrative while inciting fear in the masses by permeating the idea of the existence of a powerful secret criminal organisation or mafia, which controlled all illegal activity. The police also lacked the skills and resources necessary to tackle these organised crime groups as the majority of police officers did not speak immigrant languages, instead they encouraged the organised criminal groups to confine their activities to the immigrant ghettos (Repetto 2005). Society placed the blame of organised crime on immigrant minorities whose safety they did not care about and the discussion of crime surrounded the race and ethnicity of its perpetrators. Albanese (2004) describes this societal need to explain organised crime based on the ethnicity of the perpetrators rather than the crime itself as the ethnicity trap. Today society still falls for the ethnicity trap as ethnic minorities are blamed for organised criminal activities of groups such as MS-13 and no attention is paid to the structures of inequality and corruption that allow them to exist.


Picture of MS-13 Tattoos (Wikimedia commons)

Just like the Irish, Russian and Italian gangs formed in the late 19th century, gangs such as MS-13 were born from poverty, discrimination and an unequal society. Original members of the MS-13 were Salvadorian immigrants in the United States escaping the 1980-1992 war in El Salvador. Sheridan (2004) records that these immigrants were delayed asylum by the United States, classed as undocumented immigrants and were often targets of prejudice. In fact, there was a high rate of discrimination of Central Americans within the asylum-seeking process. Rosemary (1986) records that despite the high levels of violence in El Salvador, only 3 percent of Salvadorian applicants were granted asylum in 1984. Without a legal status in the United States, Salvadorian immigrants were vulnerable to exploitation by employers who paid them little and offered them poor working conditions (AJ 2018). While MS-13 originally evolved to protect the interests of Salvadorians who had immigrated to America, just like the immigrant gangs of the late 19th century they quickly became criminal and exploited members of their community. Giaritelli (2019) notes that the immigrant community is often on the receiving end of extortion, violence, and other crimes from the gang. American racial discrimination and economic exploitation of immigrants once again caused the rise of an organised criminal group. Presently, public sentiment mirrors that of the 19th and 20th centuries, as society falls for the ethnicity trap once again and immigrants are blamed instead of inequality.


Trump Wall Rally in Florida (Wikipedia)

Today the narrative about immigration is deeply connected with organised crime. From political leaders to the masses many believe that the influx of immigrants from south and central America leads to the creation of gangs such as MS-13. In 2018, the president of the United States, Donald Trump made unsubstantiated claims that many individuals in a group of migrants coming to the United States border from Honduras were members of MS-13 (Padro et al: 2018). This narrative aimed to create fear among the American public and incite public support for the president’s plans to build a wall between Mexico and the United States aimed at reducing illegal immigration. The narrative is that immigrants from Central America bring organised crime with them and it has garnered public support among members of the public who agree (Padro et al;2018). Once again the real causes of organised in America crime which lie in racial and economic inequality, exploitation and corruption have been ignored and members of the public have opted to blame immigrants.

While many Americans may want to ignore the racial and economic inequality prevalent in American society, the situation has bred and will continue to breed organised crime groups. Government action should be more focused on dismantling the corrupt systems which allow for the exploitation and discrimination of minorities and public opinion should look beyond the ethnicity of gang members and instead focus on tackling societal prejudice against minorities. Overall, America needs to recognize that it has a racial and economic inequality problem and it needs to identify that this problem leads to the creation of organised criminal groups. As is often said, identifying the cause of the problem might lead to a solution.


A. Aguirre, Jr., “Slave executions in the United States,” The Social Science Journal, vol. 36, issue 1 (1999), pp. 1–31.

AJ (2018) How U.S. Involvement In Central America Led To a Border Crisis [online] available from <> [5 December 2019]

Abadinsky, H. (2010) Organized Crime. Cengage Learning

Albanese, J.S. (2004) ‘North American Organised Crime’. Global Crime 6 (1), 8–18

Ault, A. (n.d.) A Territorial Land Grab That Pushed Native Americans to the Breaking Point [online] available from <> [4 December 2019]

BANNAN, ROSEMARY S.. 1986. “THE WORLD AS SANCTUARY”. Review of This Holy Ground: Church Sanctuary and Central American Refugees. Crosscurrents 36 (1). Wiley: 110–12. Thayer, W. (1922). Throwing Away Our Birthright. The North American Review,215(795), 145-154. Retrieved from

Bridges, Hal. (1958) “The Robber Baron Concept in American History” Business History Review (1958) 32#1 pp. 1–13 in JSTOR

Chengu, G. (2015) How Slaves Built American Capitalism [online] available from <> [4 December 2019]

DiLallo, M. (2015) Robber Barons: The Definition of the Dark Side of Capitalism [online] available from <> [4 December 2019]

Giaritelli, A. (2019) They Escaped MS-13 in Central America Only to Find the Gang Thriving in Northern Virginia [online] available from <> [3 December 2019]

Library of Congress (2019) Immigration to the United States – American Memory Timeline [online] available from <//> [2 December 2019]

National Geographic Society (2012) Immigration to the U.S. in the Late 1800s [online] available from <> [4 December 2019]

Reppetto, T.A. (2005) American Mafia. New York: Owl Sheridan, M.B. (2004) ‘In N.Va. Gang, A Brutal Sense Of Belonging’. Washington Post [online] 28 June. available from <> [4 December 2019]

Smith, D.C. (1976) ‘Mafia: The Prototypical Alien Conspiracy’. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 423 (1), 75–88

Tonry, M. (2000) Crime and Justice: An Annual Review of Research. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press

Woodiwiss, M. (2001) Organized Crime and American Power: A History. Toronto ; Buffalo: University of Toronto Press