Gang Leader For A Day by Sudhir Venkatesh

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Gang Leader For A Day by Sudhir Venkatesh

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: Sociology student Sudhir Venkatesh spent a decade studying the life of the urban poor in one of the worst ghettoes in America, hanging out with a notorious gang. This is his highly readable memoir of life on the projects, which records the survival of a community living a parallel existence to mainstream society. His methods and ideology may be questionable, but SV's 10 years of study gleans insights into black gang culture unobtainable elsewhere. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0141030913

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If you've ever wondered why young people join gangs, and what it's like to bring up a family surrounded by armed drug dealers, you'll find Gang Leader For The Day fascinating. Sociology student Sudhir Venkatesh wanted to learn by observing the poor, baulking at the abstract, mathematical research methods used by his professors in the University of Chicago. In 1989, armed with a clipboard and a questionnaire, he visited the Robert Taylor Homes, a notorious housing project. Instead of neatly answering his carefully-prepared questions - How does it feel to be black and poor? by selecting from very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good, he finds himself held hostage overnight by members of the Black Kings, a crack-dealing gang, at the behest of its charismatic local leader, J.T.

SV's reaction to his ordeal – returning the following day with beer to share with the gang – begins to forge a peculiar friendship between student and gang leader. He gets to hang out with gang members, and hustles his way into the life of the Robert Taylor, where his observations of the lives of the residents form his doctoral thesis. As it says in the title, he even gets to be gang leader for the day, when some three years into his relationship with J.T., he feels confident enough to suggest that J.T. doesn't do much for all the money he earns. He is consequently thrust into managing the Black Kings for a day (under the close supervision of J.T.), a moral tightrope walk he has to manage without recourse to guns.

SV's memoir of his time at Robert Taylor is a highly-readable mix of politics and socio-economics spiked with anecdote, humour, uplifting stories of survival and tragic tales of lives damaged and corrupted. Its narrator is a charming, pony-tailed nerd who acknowledges his flaws and naïveté, even his amorality at hanging around with drug dealers, all in the name of hustling for interesting material for his thesis. He has a great talent at drawing people out and also fading into the background in order to collect his data. In some ways, he becomes a pet of many living in the projects – they feed him, protect him, and try to teach him about the challenges in their lives. He is occasionally ostracised for breaking trust, but Robert Taylor residents are mostly forgiving of mistakes.

It's a life running in parallel with mainstream society. Police and ambulances rarely visited the Robert Taylor Homes, and the gangs operated in collusion with the flimsy official management of the buildings. You need to understand that the Black Kings are not a gang; we are a community organization, responding to people's needs, a senior member of BK tells SV. They justified their drug sales by saying that only the most useless members of society become addicted. Their so-called community efforts included encouraging building residents to vote – for their favoured candidate. A scene where teen gang members learn a lesson about voter registration from a feisty matriarch is both hilarious and triumphant, and one of many laugh-out-loud sections in Gang Leader.

There are those who will find the type of study SV undertook flawed from the outset. Arguments against this kind of ethnological study point to lack of objectivity, an unscientific premise and concerns that the social rules observed may only apply to this one group and are thus useless for drawing conclusions when applied to other groups, etc, etc. These studies may do nothing to help the people observed – it could be argued that it's mere poor people porn for readers who are never likely to encounter drug dealers and those affected by them. SV styles himself a rogue sociologist – a moniker which comes across as a little exaggerated – ethnological studies of this type are not new; William Foote Whyte's groundbreaking Street Corner Society was published in 1943, and it's argued that the world's first use of ethnography or participant observation was by Persian anthropologist Abu Rayhan Biruni, who lived 973-1048. However, studies of this length in an urban environment are unusual, and a testament to SV's dogged determination and what is described in the foreword as his two abnormalities: an overdeveloped curiosity and an underdeveloped sense of fear.

Some readers will criticise Gang Leader for its author's naïveté, sentimentality and collusion in gang culture and violence – he takes part in beating up the boyfriend of an abused teen. SV, from an intellectual, middle-class background, is undeniably thrilled to be accepted as the BK biographer – he is even unofficially appointed BK director of communications by a senior gang leader – an honour which horrifies and amazes him in equal measure. However, whatever conclusions readers may draw about SV, he is a remarkable listener. His time spent in Robert Taylor Homes resulted in invaluable data on the economics of gang culture, information which was only gleaned as a result of the trust built up during his long-term relationships with BK and the building residents. Part of the fruit of his studies can be found in a section of Freakonomics (jointly written by a self-styled rogue economist Steven Levitt), namely the chapter on the economics of drug dealing – entitled Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live With Their Moms?. Yes – J.T. lives with his mama, the kindly and indefatigable Ms Mae, who welcomes SV into her home, feeds him sweet potato pie and gets nothing but respect from her gang leader son. We learn that the gang's foot soldiers earn barely minimum wage and sometimes support their illegal activities by jobs in McDonalds. Enterprising gang members, like J.T. rise through the gangs by demonstrating their managerial and other skills, in a structure that mirrors mainstream companies, complete with CEOs.

Whatever its flaws, it's SV's personality that enabled him to be accepted, albeit with suspicion from some quarters, for many years by the wide range of residents that populated Robert Taylor Homes, now demolished. I heartily recommend you take the time to read this book – even if you conclude that SV is a bleeding-heart liberal and his studies are flawed, Gang Leader For A Day is both amusing, warm, shocking, tragic and frustrating in turn, and packed with anecdotes that will remain in your memory for a long time. The book has also been picked up by Hollywood, but I doubt a film version will equal the written word in demonstrating every shade of moral black white and grey that SV presents here - though I'd certainly go to see it.

Thanks to the publisher, Penguin, for sending Bookbag this highly readable memoir. I thoroughly enjoyed it and this rogue Bookbag reviewer recommends it highly to anyone with the most passing interest in the study of contemporary society.

If you enjoy social anthropology, and reading hard-won insights into little-known cultures (without having to go there), you'll love Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett. For an insight into urban youth by an author just out of his teens, Apples by Richard Milward was much admired by Bookbag's reviewer, and appears on our list of Top Ten Teen Books That Adults Should Read.

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