Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Gang Leader for a Day: a Book Review

Robert Taylor at Night

A Tale Told by an Idiot: Gang Leader for a Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh

I just read a great book. So why am I titling my review of this book in the above manner? Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociologist, formerly a graduate student at the University of Chicago, who takes it into his head to study poverty in the Chicago Housing Projects. In so doing, and in spite of all good sense and nearly totally abandoning the scientific methods of his profession, Venkatesh manages to learn more about the inner workings of a Chicago gang then most people before and since.
Imagine a young, na├»ve, Indian graduate student who stumbles into an abandoned housing project on the south side of Chicago at the height of the crack epidemic of the in 1989. Armed with nothing but a clipboard of survey questions about poverty and census data about poor African American families on the South Side of Chicago, Venkatesh launches himself into danger and into a great story. Like the gang members who hold him up at knife and gun point his first day, I had to laugh at this fellow who plans to ask these fellows multiple choice questions such as: “How does it feel to be black and poor?” Possible answers consist of: “Very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good.” In spite of his questionnaire, Venkatesh is mistaken for a Mexican gang member and is assumed to be spying on the gang.
With this introduction, Venkatesh makes a connection with members of the Black Kings gang. Wiser people would have spent the remainder of their days safely ensconced in the Ivory Tower, thanking the powers that be that they survived their youthful idiocy. Not Venkatesh. Instead he forms an acquaintanceship with one gang leader and over the next few years he is allowed to follow this young man, “J.T.,” as he organizes drug deals, meets with his superiors and disciplines his underlings. He meets J.T’s mother and regularly eats (only vegetarian) at her house. He learns how this gang manages the finances of running a successful crack cocaine business. He is becomes a regular visitor to the Robert Taylor Homes, now all razed, and is generally accepted there, in part because he has the Black Kings’ protection (although this deserts him when he visits the next building over in the complex).
I enjoyed this inside scoop on gang and project life and especially enjoyed following Venkatesh’s thought process about the moral complicity of his connection with a group with serious criminal activities. He also shares his self-doubt about his objectivity as he observes a community he is “embedded in” much like a journalist following a military unit in combat.
The title of the book is clearly intended to sell more copies. Venkatesh was declared gang leader by J.T. but his leadership role is highly circumscribed and largely kept a secret. Unfortunately the title sensationalizes a story that is largely a serious and thoughtful analysis of race relations, poverty, public housing, drugs and gangs in Chicago’s inner city.
If you get a chance, read this book. It is a fascinating tale and a learning experience.


Kathe said...

Definitely sounds like an interesting read.

self taught artist said...

thanks for sharing, will try to get it at our little library. good review :)

JL said...

I heard about that book and read a brief interview with the author. He's a guy I'd like to sit down and talk with over a beer or two. Or tea, if that's what he does.

From his brief description, none of it is anything I don't already know, but it sounds like the ride is well worth it.

His salient point in the interview is his shifted perception of what, exactly, constitutes 'crime'. Speaking from personal experience, you get into worlds like that, even as an observer, and there will be a point at which you will find yourself a participant. To what degree I think depends on the individual...

Sorry to ramble on. But my take on those environments is that, 1) dope dealing makes a few people very rich, and the rest of everybody else lives on about minimum wage or less, and 2)the reason 'drug enforcement' is so impossible is because almost everybody in those areas engages in it! And I mean EVERYBODY, from the 2-year-olds to the elderly grandmas. No lie.

I'm a big fan of legalizing. Watching the drug wars and police activity my whole life, just, you know, quit it. It's stupid.

TutleyMutley said...

I heard an interview with the author at the weekend (on BBC Radio4) - how he witnessed brutal attacks and how it was impossible to remain scientifically 'objective' and aloof. He went to the police...The book is on my 'wish list'!

Michelle Lasley said...

Great review. I also read this book and wrote a short blurb about it. He definitely sets an interesting tone with his questionnaire, "How does it feel to be black and poor?" I really enjoyed how you encapsulated that moment.

Did you or any of your readers have any ideas on how to mitigate those changes (razing of the Chicago projects) in a maybe more fair manner?