by Peter Byrne
Venkatesh, Sudhir, Gang Leader For A Day, A Rogue Sociologist Crosses The Line, Penguin, London, 2008, ISBN 978-0-713-99993-8, 302 pages.
(Swans - June 30, 2008) How did a young academic on the make first become a PR voice for retailers of crack cocaine and then hit the best seller list by exposing them? A tabloid view of Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader For A Day seems justified by its marketing strategy. Look at the mendacious title. In fact the author didn't lead the gang for half a minute and the rogue sociologist moniker is meant to tell us he's university-serious but not university-dull. All of Chapter IV appears faked, like a reply to a publisher's urging to ginger up the story. Nothing new so far. For better or worse a trend has been engorging for years now of academic researchers trying to go beyond university publishers and learned journals by spectacular takes on their subject. It's understandable. Lonely in their tenured towers, they want bigger sales, notoriety, and TV time, like everybody else. Venkatesh entered celebrity ranks when his research went into the phenomenal publishing success of 2006, Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner. See chapter three of that work with the eye-catching title, Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms? (It's because they hardly make a living wage.)
Sudhir Venkatesh was brought to America as a child from India. He grew up in a white middle-class suburb of San Diego that became his point of reference when he ventured on to the wilder shores of America. The cops were cops there, not part-time criminals in on the fix, and the ambulance drivers didn't have pariah areas they refused to enter. Venkatesh never quite admits that home was a bore and drove him to look for excitement elsewhere. Even in rogue mode and straining at his academic leash, he remains his mother's good boy full of sensitive explanations for his peccadilloes.
His father was a professor with an overweening respect for his job. Young Sudhir, something of a nerd, had a taste for non-macho sports like tennis and soccer, and took his share of bullying. At home he could negotiate with his reasonable-if-cautious immigrant father. First he divested himself of the parental ambition to have a bioengineer in the family. For a year he hid behind the idea of being a theoretical mathematician before gaining reluctant assent to study sociology. This led him to graduate work at one of the great seats of that discipline.
Anyone arriving from afar at the University of Chicago can't help but be struck by its curious position. A cluster of Gothic elegance huddles up against Hyde Park, a middle-class townlet, prolific of civic enlightenment and liberal-leaning politicians, Barack Obama among others. (Chicago blacks call Hyde Park "the why-can't-everyone-just-get along?" part of town. Page 234). But on all sides of this oasis stretch some of the most appalling Afro-American slums in the country. The convenience of having a dark continent at hand has always put fire into the bellies of the university's social observers. Venkatesh in turn can't resist the pull of this mysterious pool of diversity and immediately decides to pluck the material for his dissertation from within walking distance.
Chicago has always been a prime example of northern industrial city racism: No Jim Crow laws but de facto segregation imposed by aggressive ethnic minorities and politicians who need their votes. Prosperous whites remained aloof in their outlying neighborhoods. African-Americans were restricted to specific areas by vigilante pressure and weapons like urban renewal and public housing policy. In 1958-62 the Chicago Housing Authority honored this tradition when it built the Robert Taylor Homes. It placed a small city of 28 high rise buildings within what was already an overcrowded black slum. The 4,400 apartments that would house 30,000 people covered only 7% of a 96-acre plot. The estate would be an island surrounded by wasteland at the center of a larger island that was the black ghetto. The ethnics loved that.
It would have taken constant vigilance to make the Taylor Homes function. The downward slide started before the mortar dried between the bricks. Funding was either cut or sidetracked by corruption. Twenty thousand kids had two skimpy child care centers. The inhabitants didn't take well to being caged and isolated. The emergency services soon declared the Taylor Homes a no-go area. Bottles and sometimes even bullets rained on them from the windows when they dared show up.
Ironically, conditions worsened with the civil rights movement. Stable, working families moved out into areas where they could no longer be excluded. From the 1970s onward 90% of the inhabitants lived exclusively on welfare. More than 90% of households were headed by a female. Dilapidation continued and the Taylor Homes became the epicenter of the city's gang and drug problem. The powers-that-be replied in a Chicago voice: Let the niggers stew in their own juice.
The black gangs filled the vacuum. These were not the organizations of the 1960s that on occasion could contribute to solidarity in the community and if needs be defend it physically. In the 1980s with the arrival of crack cocaine the gangs had become thoroughgoing exploiters of their own people. If they kept order, it was so as not to disturb their drug sales. Their customers were not only local; some were whites from the ethnic neighborhoods. In the Mafia tradition, largesse was only distributed to confirm the gang's total control. In 1986 when Venkatesh got interested in black gangs, they were the only real authority in the Taylor Homes. He soon found that any community sentiment that remained was like that between jailers and prisoners.
Not that these conditions bothered Venkatesh. They seem rather to have thrilled him. But on the surface he worked in the academic tradition of cool, value-free observation. The roguery he refers to only concerns the emphasis in his work. He would base it more on personal contact with the people he studied than on analyzing great quantities of data about them on his computer. In this he ran the risk the theorists of sociology have always warned against: getting too personally involved with the people he was investigating. In Gang Leader For A Day, Venkatesh dodged that pitfall for a while, but then gave up and jumped in empathizing with his contacts as if they were minor characters in a novel. His book is in fact creative nonfiction, a timid adventure story that explores a fascinating milieu.
It all began when he met J.T., the Black Kings' gang leader. Venkatesh wandered into the Lake Park project to ask his survey question: "How does it feel to be black and poor?" The "shorties" or foot soldiers of the gang greeted him with incredulity, laughter, and threats. Wasn't he a spy for a rival Mexican gang? J.T., their leader, stepped in:
I'm not black. I'm not African American either. I'm a nigger. Niggers are the ones who live in this building. African Americans are the ones who live in the suburbs. African Americans wear ties to work. Niggers can't find no work. (Page 16)
But J.T., intelligent and thirtyish, was interested. He told the budding sociologist not to ask stupid questions if he wanted to learn anything. Hanging out with the people you wish to understand was the only way.
The researcher suddenly had it made. J.T's protection and friendship would allow him access to the Taylor Homes and provide him with an articulate gang leader as informant. Why was the drug-dealing thug so welcoming? Vanity in large part: "He was desperate to be recognized as something other than just a criminal." (Page 83) The yearning for mainstream prominence and TV exposure isn't limited to academics. In addition J.T. had been undermined as a perfect career criminal by a college degree. He learned hypocrisy and wanted to give the impression that the gangs were actually rendering service to the people of the projects. Venkatesh, the discreet observer, doesn't seem to have contested this pipe-dream head on.
Soon J.T. came to think that his friend's university dissertation would be about him, a Life and Times of J.T. Shrewdly, Venkatesh never scotched the illusion, letting it ride as a kind of joke between the two men while he filled his notebooks. This intentional misunderstanding is emblematic of Venkatesh's ambiguous presence in the Taylor Homes. He's a fly on the wall playing at being a buddy. At one point he gives information from his informants to the gang, which uses it against them. No wonder he goes out of his way to note the least sign of decency in the people of the projects. He's full of guilt and knows very well that one day he will wing off to a good teaching job.
But Gang Leader For A Day would be no more the saga of J.T. than it would be the dissertation in question. Rather it's the story of the author's efforts to acquire information for his dissertation. It's sufficiently respectful of sociology not to cast the drug dealer in a leading man's role. But it eschews the graphs, numbers, and facts-with-conclusions method of a university study. Touching as it does on poverty, drugs, violence, and off-the-shelf sex, it makes piquant reading for the non-specialist.
Because the author is a character participating in the action, Gang Leader For A Day is a sober, academic variety of gonzo journalism. Venkatesh puts himself forward as a blank slate supported only by common sense and a few basic principles of his science. He underscores his naïveté and ignorance of street life. This faux-naif mask, along with his brown skin, makes him less threatening to ghetto people. It also puts him in the posture of a constant learner and a solver of mysteries, an age-old trick of novelists to help pace narrative. Like them he will make use of suspense, and dramatize his personal peril and the conflicts that arise when his questions touch taboo subjects.
As the story unfolds, there's a constant mumble off stage of Venkatesh recalling his own inner doubts and problems of conscience. But he understandably comes to no conclusions on his moral position. Straight talking would threaten his research and literary ambition. J.T. and the Black Kings are despicable criminals whose main business is dispensing crack cocaine to their community and anyone else with money to pay for it. The brutality and inhumanity of their various rackets defy belief. They actually charge homeless people for the right to sit in a stairwell on a winter's night.
If Venkatesh the sociologist sat in an office crunching data we wouldn't mind his calling cocaine and heroin "product" as though they were cooking oil or a line of clothing. But he has chosen an approach that goes beyond ethnography, relying on personal contact and friendship. This makes his hiding behind the detachment of a scientific observer intolerable. We wait in vain for him to stop marveling at the efficiency with which the Black Kings exert criminal control over the Taylor Homes. We want him to stand up and tell J.T. that he's a canker on the human race.
The author did not in fact escape the trap his professors warned him against. He got too close to the objects he studied. To understand all is to forgive all, and after years of contact no one understood better than Venkatesh how the Black Kings operated. This familiarity led him to what many of his critics see as a serious misjudgment. In 2000 when the Taylor Homes were being torn down, Venkatesh published American Project: The Rise and Fall of a Modern Ghetto. He argued that the Taylor Homes should be saved and refurbished. Current urban planners insist that a concentration of poverty and racial segregation in dysfunctional high-rise buildings cut off from the larger community inevitably breeds havoc. Venkatesh had invested so much emotionally in Taylor Homes and the Black Kings that he couldn't let go of them.
That said, the professor of sociology and African American Studies at Columbia University is worth reading. He tells the neat commuters, hurrying to the office in their suits and ties, what actually goes on in those neighborhoods they are careful never to enter. Another of his studies, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, 2006, shows how people without any visible means of support keep from falling off the city map.
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