Gang Leader for a Day
by Sudhir Venkatesh
Dr. Venkatesh was born in 1966 in Chennai, India. When he was a child his parents immigrated to California. Dr. Venkatesh grew up in suburbia and graduated from the University of California with a B.A in mathematics in 1988 and headed out to the University of Chicago to get a degree in sociology (this may seem a bit of mismatch to some of you but sociology is very statistics driven field in a lot of ways so this actually meshes pretty well). He was lucky enough to work with Dr. William Julius Wilson, who was and remains powerfully influential in the fields of African American studies, sociology and the debate of race vs class. I mean let me put it this way: when I was studying for my Anthropology degree I stayed away from North America and focused on other continents, mostly preferring Asia but my long suffering advisor did throw me into classes on Africa and South America. That said... I've heard of Dr. Wilson and for that matter if you've watched the second season of the Wire, you've seen work directly influenced by him (I would love to have enemies react to my appearance the same way Omar's enemies react to his... as long as I could avoid poor Omar's fate but I'm off topic). Now I'm gonna admit I was sharpening knives to go after the subtitle of the book, which grandiosely declares him to be a rogue Sociologist, but since the author himself has repeatedly disavowed the title and claimed it was the invention of Penguin's press marketing department... I'm gonna give him a pass. On this issue anyway.
In the 1990s, Dr. Venkatesh was a struggling grad student looking to make it big and impress his adviser. So he decided to skip a lot of paperwork and just running into the bad neighborhoods of Chicago and start interviewing poor black people with a set of survey questionnaires.[note from the editor: Holy Mother of… he didn’t even get IRB approval? Any human research, even surveys, requires IRB approval. WTF?! How the hell did he not get drummed out of the program?] (Simple editor! His initial survey's had approval but not for the neighborhood he went into, afterwards, he didn't ask.). If you think this went badly for him, you are correct and should get yourself a cookie. Dr. Venkatesh found himself held hostage by a street gang (the Black Kings) overnight, forced to hang out in a drafty project stairwell; the now-defunct Robert Taylor Homes. He was suspected of being a spy for a Hispanic gang and escaped a beating due to a couple facts, first of all he had shown up looking like a reject from a grateful dead concert. Second even the most committed gangbanger spy of the 90s would never think to show up with a clipboard and a set of stapled together papers asking questions like “How does it feel to be black and poor?” I'm white as printer paper and from Oklahoma and even I know that's a dumb question. Lucky for him he was rescued by the gang leader, who for the purposes of this book is named JT (we'll come back to him). Well to be fair, he didn't just start there, in fact he got his start talking to old black men who hung out in the parks, that's when he got the idea that the world they lived in was very different from his. By talking to these elder gentlemen, he got a peek into the differences between the way middle class suburbanites and the urban poor saw the world. He also got a look at how the racial divide shapes those differences and was guided through this process by a group of interesting people, I'm going to talk about some of the community leaders and the role they played here.
First is JT himself, the gang leader who was going to play the role of Dr. Venkatesh's main informant (this is actually an anthropological term, it means someone who provides you information and access to a local community) and gateway into the community. JT was an interesting figure to me, here's a guy who had actually gotten out of the projects and came back, a college graduate who quit his job when he was frustrated in seeing his white co-workers promoted ahead of him, even if he was better at the job then they were. I can sympathize with that, I've seen stuff like that happen and it's a garbage way to run a business. JT decided he would have better career opportunities and more respect from others and for himself if he went back home, joined a gang and started selling crack. I would like everyone to stop and think about that sentence for a little bit. To be fair JT is rather successful, rising to leadership and working to get into the upper ranks of the gang. Dr. Venkatesh shows a look at JT as someone who operates as a combination of a manager for a business and infantry commander in an occupied city with competing militias. With a lot of the decisions that eerily remind me of decisions that had to made by different young Americans in far off places. This isn't the only thing that disturbs me about the book but I do have to note that I wonder how much Dr. Venkatesh is down playing the JT's role in the violence that pervaded that community. JT is often shown trying to keep violence from happening or if he is being violent, using it in a disciplinary manner. I have to admit though this might be my own prejudices towards what a leader of an armed band of crack dealers would act like shining through.
Another community leader is Ms. Bailey, the building president and de facto civilian leader of the local community. Her own power is shored up by her access to the legal government and ability to arrange services for the tenants, which she supplements by taking bribes and providing additional goods and services, often paid for with those bribes. Another is her ability to make arrangements with the small businesses in the area. The relationship between JT and Ms. Bailey is fairly interesting one; while JT clearly has superior force at his command, he still pays her bribes to let him operate in the building. Part of this is that this lets JT claim that his gang is actually a helpful force in the community by paying for things like back to school shoes and supplies for the children. Another is that in many ways Ms. Bailey represents the woman tenants in the building. This study took place after the Clinton Welfare reforms, which had a ruinous effect on family life in this community. If you were married and living with your spouse, it was possible that you wouldn't qualify for rent aide or food stamps. However even if your husband had a job, it wouldn't be enough to pay the rent and get food. So the husbands and fathers were forced to make themselves into ghosts to preserve their families homes and in their absence a stabilizing force in their community disappeared. I talked about this a bit in my review on the Elephant Don and a lot of the same logic applies here. Ms. Bailey's options and the options of the women living in the building to control and contain the young men who often join the gang are very limited and leads to many of the young men running fairly rampant.
The last leader I would like to talk about is C-Note, who is the de facto leader of the squatters (although he doesn't really exercise a lot of power, more like control over who can work near the building). He's the weakest in terms of power but can provide a lot of services. Many of the squatters provide a number of services like car repair and doing minor home repairs and such on the cheap. Additionally Ms. Bailey can press them into service as a militia in case of an emergency, a situation which again reminds me of another place and time. C-Note is often squeezed by Ms. Bailey and JT for money and services and being an old man past his physical prime has little choice in the matter. Still without him and the squatters life actually becomes a lot harder for the people of the community.
There are those who hail Dr. Venkatesh's methods as revolutionary (mostly publishing agents, I should note that Dr. Venkatesh has not done so). I am not among them, frankly if I had written the subtitle, it would been “Sociologist student stumbles into Anthropology, does questionable job.” Seriously what Dr. Venkatesh is doing in this book is basic Anthropology work, called ethnography where an Anthropologist goes out to a foreign community and gathers information on how it operates, what it believes in, how it's member relate to one another, as well as who is in charge and why. We even have a name for the method he almost used Participant Observation, I should note that most traditional practicers would argue that if Dr. Venkatesh wanted to do that he should lived in the community full time. Dr. Venkatesh violates a number of rules for this type of research as well. For example he lies to the people he's studying, usually by omission to avoid confrontations but lying nonetheless. This is frankly a problem when you do this kind of research, because often you're better educated, wealthier and have better government connections. He takes sides in community disputes, often by accident because he doesn't really know what he's doing. He lies to his advisers because he's afraid they'll cut short his research. Additionally Dr. Venkatesh allows his research to be used by the people in charge (Ms. Bailey and JT) against the people he got it from. When doing a full study on how the tenants and the squatters make money, he provides the information to the both above, who proceed to use this information to shake people down and demand higher pay outs to avoid legal trouble or gang violence. He claims in the book he had no idea this would happen, which I suppose is possible but shows him to be painfully naive. Most of these aren't acts of malice or a desire to screw people over but are done because Dr. Venkatesh wasn't trained for this and because he didn't tell his advisers and professors the full scale of what he was doing, nor realized he needed to be trained for this. So I'm not suggesting Dr. Venkatesh is a terrible person, but I am suggesting that a long list of mistakes were made in this research project.
That said, I do commend Dr. Venkatesh for being honest about his mistakes, even if he spends a bit of time trying to excuse them. It's hard for me to throw too many stones at him, because when I was in my early 20s, I was in another poverty stricken place making terrible decision often on bad intelligence while trying to do the right thing...Despite not always being entirely sure what that was. So I suppose I get it. This book disturbs me not just because of the sheer amount of rookie mistakes outlined above, but how much the projects remind me of some of the realities of the occupation. That fellow Americans would be forced to live under a corrupt, haphazard government and turn to illegal armed forces for security, forces that also prey upon them is frankly shameful. It is a problem that also remains for many Americans and I don't honestly see a solution for it coming on the horizon. This problem lingers because we refuse to grapple with it beyond the most superficial ways and it will continue to linger until we do resolve to confront it. Despite how this book bothers me, if you are looking for a book to provide you some of the basics of how poverty impacts people and shapes the choices available, or how communities who lack a government that can provide security and basic services behaves, interacts and solves conflicts, this is actually a fairly good book. It's not an academic resource, having been written for popular consumption, so I would keep that in mind. Dr. Venkatesh does not cite the work of many Anthropologists and Sociologists who came before him in this book but since this isn't a scholarly work I suppose I won't hit him too harshly for that. However, this book is also an example of rather terrible field work in a lot of ways, where Dr. Venkatesh gets his data through sheer luck and persistence as much as anything else. I'm giving Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh a C+ because of that. Some of you will find it to be B material quite easily but I'm one reviewing this. That said, it was miles better to read then Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco (that's right! I said it!), which is the book we had to read for our classes, so it has that going for it!
Next week, I'm feeling the need to turn back to graphic novels, so Lady Mechanika is up. Keep Reading!
This Review Edited by Dr. Ben Allen