Friday, June 28, 2013

Gang Leader

I recently finished reading Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets (2008).  It was actually a very quick--and very interesting--read.  Venkatesh arrives at the University of Chicago with an interest in studying sociology.

Once enrolled, he quickly begins to notice that academic sociologists don't necessarily spend a whole lot of time living with or speaking to the people about whom they're busy compiling statistics and issuing policy recommendations.

As Venkatesh points out, "the field of sociology had long been divided into two camps: those who use quantitative and statistical techniques and those who study life by direct observation" (2).  The latter, "usually called ethnographers" tend to organize their observations about "a particular sort of question: How do people survive in marginal communities? for instance, or What makes a government policy work well for some families and not for others?" (2)

Quantitative sociologists, however, prefer more scientific--i.e."quantitative"-- measures.  "They argued that [the ethnographers' approach] isn't nearly scientific enough and that the answers may be relevant only to the particular group under observation" (4).

Interested in the study of race and poverty, Venkatesh connects with an eminent academic, who instructs him to learn how to create a questionnaire and conduct an interview.  Venkatesh also begins to frequent the poorer neighborhoods around the University of Chicago--all of the areas that the campus life agencies warn U of C students not to go.

After spending time with older black men in the park, Venkatesh decides to take one of his surveys to one of the Chicago housing projects one Saturday morning and see what people have to say about the issues of race and poverty.

Venkatesh's description of what he finds there is eye-opening to say the least. 
The lobby here was empty, so I quickly skirted past another set of distressed mailboxes and passed through another dank lobby.  The elevator was missing entirely--there was a big cavity where the door should have been--and the walls were thick with graffiti.
As I started to climb the stairs, the smell of urine was overpowering.  On some floors the stairwells were dark; on others there was a muted glow.  I walked up four flights, maybe five, trying to keep count, and then I came upon a landing where a group of young men, high-school age, were shooting dice for money. (11)
This marks Venkatesh's first introduction to the lower-tier members ("shorties") of the Black Kings.  As he quickly realizes, the Black Kings control the building: stairwells are often used as bathrooms, drugs are dealt from the lobby, guns and cocaine are stashed in people's apartments, usually in exchange for protection or a fee.

Venkatesh's naivete could have gotten him killed, obviously, but instead it paradoxically saves him.  When the gang members ask him what he's doing there, he tells them quite honestly: "I'm a student at the university, doing a survey, and I'm looking for some families."

After they pat him down and threaten him, they glance at his clipboard and tell him to ask a question.
The first question was one I had adapted from several other similar surveys; it was one of a set of questions that targeted young people's self-perceptions.
"How does it feel to be black and poor?" I read.  Then I gave the multiple-choice answers: "Very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good." (13)
Needless to say, they laugh.

Out of this (rather frightening) episode of innocence and ignorance, however, comes an opportunity.  Venkatesh befriends J.T., a mid-level leader of the Black Kings, and spends the next six years getting to know the gang and the community of which they are a part.

As Venkatesh's analysis shows, the problem of gang involvement in urban housing projects is neither simple nor straightforward.  Yes, they deal drugs.  Yes, they cause death and create violence.  And yet, for many of the residents, they are the only form of "protection" available.

As Venkatesh quickly finds out, if you're black and you're poor and you live in the projects, when you call the police, the police never come.  If you're black and you're poor and you live in the projects, you call an ambulance, the ambulance never comes.  The residents' relationship to the social service efforts that those of us living outside of these housing projects often think the urban poor should be grateful to receive are ambivalent and tortuous at best.

Gang Leader for a Day offers no simple solutions, no easy answers and no platitudes because, as Venkatesh's study makes clear, there aren't any.  "Get a job!"  "Increase funding and services!" "Decrease funding and services!"  "Eliminate gun violence!"  "Stay in school!" "Eliminate gangs!" are appealing slogans that show a complete lack of understanding of the nature and complexity of the problems that the urban poor face.

In the end, Venkatesh's book offers many things to think about and a critical lens through which to view the political efforts to "remedy" issues of race and poverty in urban America.

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