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  1. 1. AS/A2 sociology Gang Leader For A Day – by Sudhir Venkatesh A Rogue Sociologist Crosses the Line. First published 2008. 1
  2. 2. Notes – for each quote, AS/A2 sociologymake a sociologicalobservation ‘Is this an offer?’ ‘Nigger, this is the offer of a lifetime. Guaranteed that if you do this, you’ll have a story for all college friends.’ He suggested that I try for a day. This made me laugh how could I possibly learn anything worthwhile in a single day? ‘One day’ he said ‘Take it or leave it. That’s all I’m saying. One day.’ Sudhir Venkatesh spent a decade living with the Black Kings gang in South Side Chicago. These extracts contain, as they say on TV, strong language and violence from the start. In the preface he says that the book is about ‘an outsider looking at life from the inside.’ Selected Extracts Chapter one – How does it feel to be black and poor? As part of my heavy course load at the University of California I began attending seminars where professors parsed the classic sociological questions: How do an individual’s preferences develop? Can we predict human behaviour? What are the long-term consequences, for instance, of education on future generations? The standard mode of answering these questions was to conduct widespread surveys and then use complex mathematical methods to analyse the survey data. This would produce 2
  3. 3. AS/A2 sociologystatistical snapshots meant to predict why a given person might, say fail to land a job, or endup in prison, or have a child out of wedlock. It was thought that the key to formulating goodpolicy was to first formulate a good scientific study.I liked the questions these researchers were asking, but compared with the vibrant life I sawon the streets of Chicago, the discussion in these seminars seemed cold and distant, abstractand lifeless. I found it particularly curious that most of these researchers didn’t seem interestedin meeting the people they wrote about. It wasn’t necessarily out of any animosity – nearly allof them were well intentioned – but because the act of actually talking to research subjectswas seen as messy, unscientific, and a potential source of bias.Mine was not a new problem. Indeed, the field of sociology has long been divided into twocamps: those who use quantitative and statistical techniques and those who study life by directobservation, often living among a group of people.The quantitative sociologists often criticised the ethnographic approach. They argued that itisn’t nearly scientific enough and that the answers may be relevant only to the particular groupunder observation. In other words, to reach any important and generalisable conclusions, youneed to rely on statistical analyses of large data sets like the US census or other massivesurveys.My frustration with the more scientific branch of sociology hadn’t really been coalesced yet.But I knew I wanted to do something other than sit in a classroom all day and talkmathematics.I had had little exposure to African-American culture at all, and no experience whatsoever inan urban ghetto. I had moved to Chicago just a year earlier from California, where I hadattended a predominately white college situated on the beach, UC San Diego. What littleknowledge I had of modern gangs came from movies and newspapers – and of course, theconstant caution issued by the U of C about steering clear of certain neighbourhoods. 3
  4. 4. AS/A2 sociologyAt first Venkastesh attempts to interview – but I wasn’t getting anywhere. Most of theconversations ended up meandering along, a string of interruptions and half finished thoughts.So I set about looking for young black men.The Lake Park Projects looked good, at least on paper, and I randomly chose Building Number4040.‘Nigger, what the fuck are you doing here?’ one of them shouted, I tried to make out theirfaces, but in the fading light I could hardly see a thing.I tried to explain again, ‘I am a student at the university, doing a research survey, and I amlooking for some families.’ – they start laughing at him and someone pulls something from hiswaistband – At first I couldn’t see what it was, but then I caught it caught a glint of light and Icould see it was a gun. He moved it around pointing it at my head once in a while, andmuttering something over and over – ‘I’ll take him,’ he seemed to be saying.A few of them seemed to think I was an advance scout from a Mexican gang, conductingreconnaissance for a drive-by attack. At the front a large man powerfully built but with a boyishface. His name was J.T., and while I couldn’t have known it at this moment, he was about tobecome the most formidable person in my life, for a long time to come.I explained the project as best I could. It was being overseen by a national poverty expert, Isaid with the goal of understanding the lives of young black men in order to design betterpublic policy. My role, I said was very basic: conducting surveys to generate data for a study.I read him the same question that I had read the others. He didn’t laugh, but he smiled - - Howdid it feel to be black and poor?‘I’m not black,’ he answered, looking around at the others knowingly.Well then how does it feel to be, African American and poor?’I tried to sound apologetic, worried that I had offended him. 4
  5. 5. AS/A2 sociology‘I am not African American either, I’m a nigger.’‘Niggers are the ones who live in this building’ he said at last, ‘African Americans live in thesuburbs. African Americans wear ties to work. Niggers can’t find no work.’He looked at few more pages of the questionnaire. ‘You ain’t going to learn shit with this thing.’‘How’d you get to do this if you don’t even know who we are, what we’re about?’He then spends the next few hours sitting talking to gang members in the stairwell – Once in awhile, I tried to interject a research question – What kinds of jobs did the people who lived herehave? Why weren’t the police in the building? – but they seemed less interested in answeringme than in talking among themselves about sex, power and money.J.T. started tossing questions at me. What other black neighbourhoods, he asked, was I goingto with my questionnaire? Why do researchers use multiple-choice surveys like the one I wasusing? Why don’t they just talk with people? How much money can you make as a professor?Then he asked what I hoped to gain by studying young black people, I ticked off a few of thepressing questions that sociologists were asking about urban poverty.‘I had a few sociology classes,’ he said. ‘In college. Hated that shit.’J.T. talked to me about the proper way to study people. ‘You shouldn’t go around asking themsilly-ass questions.’ He said. ‘With people like us you should hang out, get to know what theydo, how they do it. No one is going to answer questions like that. You need to understand howyoung people live on the streets.’The surveys in my bag felt heavy and useless. I realised that if I wanted to understand thecomplicated lives of black youth in inner city Chicago, I had only one good opportunity toaccept J.T.’s counsel and hang out with people.I felt a strange kind of intimacy with J.T. unlike the bond I’d felt with good friends. I sensed Iwas getting a unique perspective on life in a poor neighbourhood. There were plenty ofsociological studies on economically disenfranchised youth, but most relied on dry statistics of 5
  6. 6. AS/A2 sociologyunemployment, crime and family hardships.They weren’t very receptive to interview questions, they probably had plenty of that from cops,social workers and the occasional journalist.Chapter two – First Days on Federal Street.It would take me a few years to learn about J.T.’s life in detail.I rarely took notes in front of J.T., because I didn’t want to make him cautious about what hesaid. Instead I waited until I got back to my apartment to write down as much as could recall.I hadn’t admitted to myself that the man I sat next to was, at bottom a criminal, I was toocaught up in the thrill of observing the thug life first hand.There was something else too that helped me ignore the morality of the situation. TheUniversity of Chicago scholars who had helped invent the field of sociology, back when it wasfirst became a legitimate academic discipline, did so by venturing into the murkier corners ofthe city. They became famous through their up close study of the hobo [tramps], the hustler,the socialite; they gained access to brothels and speakeasies [illegal drinking dens] and thesmoky back rooms where politicians plied their art. Lately I’d been reading the works of thesescholars. So even though I was hanging out with drug traffickers and thieves, at heart I felt likea good sociologist.J.T. was Venkatesh’s gatekeeper: I hadn’t thought about the drawbacks of having myresearch so dependent on the whims of one person.Professor Wilson was Venkatesh’s supervisor: I wanted to bring J.T. to Bill Wilson’s attention,but I didn’t know how. I was already working on some of Wilson’s projects, but these werelarge, survey-based studies that queried several thousand people at a time. Wilson’s research 6
  7. 7. AS/A2 sociologyteam included several thousand people at a time. Wilson’s research team includedsociologists, economists, psychologists and a dozen graduate students glued to theircomputers, trying to find hidden patterns in the survey data that might reveal the causes ofpoverty. I didn’t know anyone who was walking around talking to people, let alone gangmembers in the ghetto. I felt I was doing something unconventional bordering on rougebehaviour.So while I devoted time to hanging out with J.T. I told Wilson and others only the barest detailsof my fieldwork. I figured that I’d eventually come up with a concrete research topic thatinvolved J.T. at which point I could share with Wilson a well-worked out set of ideas.Ms Mae spoke to me as though she were teaching a child about life, not giving an academicresearcher answers to scientific questions. Indeed, the time I was spending with families feltless and less like research. People who knew nothing about me nevertheless took me insidetheir world, talked to me with such openness and offered me the food that they had probablybudgeted for their own children.No one back at the U of C had prepared me to feel such strong emotional connections to thepeople I studied.Talking to J.T.: ‘I’ve got to write some of this down.’- My heart froze after I realised what I’d justsaid. I had never actually told J.T. that I was keeping notes on our conversations, I alwayswaited until we split up before writing down what had transpired. Suddenly I feared he wouldthink everything we’d witnessed and discussed, including all the illegal activities, and shut medown. But he didn’t even blink.In my brief exposure to J.T. and others in the building, I had already grown dismayed by thegap between their thoughtfulness and the denigrating portrayals of the poor I’d read insociological studies. They were generally portrayed as hapless dopes with little awareness or 7
  8. 8. AS/A2 sociologyforesight. The hospitality that Ms Mae showed and the tennants’ willingness to teach me notonly surprised me but left me feeling extraordinarily grateful. I began to think I would never beable to repay their generosity. I took some solace in the hope that if I produced good, objectiveacademic research, it could lead to social policy improvements which might then better theirliving conditions.In most of the sociological literature I’d read about gangs… [they were] portrayed as anuisance at best, and more typically a major menace.J.T.’s gang seemed different. It acted as the de facto [real] administration of Robert Taylor [thebuilding]: J.T. may have been a lawbreaker, but he was a lawmaker as well. The Black Kingspoliced the building more aggressively than the Chicago police did. Roughly once a month,they held a weekend basketball tournament. This meant that the playgrounds and surroundingareas got thoroughly spruced up..I had been hanging around J.T. and his gang for several months now, and I’d never seen J.T.engage in violence. In the weeks afterwards, I began to contemplate the possibility that I wouldsee more beatings, perhaps even fatal incidents. I still felt exhilared by my access to J.T.’sgang, but I was also starting to feel shame. My conviction that I was merely a sociologicalobserver, detached and objective, was starting to feel false. Was I really supposed to juststand by while someone was getting beat up? I was ashamed of my desire to get close to theviolence, so close to a culture that I knew other scholars had not managed to see. 8
  9. 9. AS/A2 sociologyChapter three – Someone to Watch Over Me.What was I, an impartial observer – at least that’s how I thought of myself – supposed to doupon seeing something like this? [a punishment beating of an old man in poor health] I actuallyconsidered calling the police that day. But I didn’t do anything. I am ashamed to say that Ididn’t even confront J.T. about it until some six months later, and even then I did so tentatively.I leaned on J.T.’s car, quivering from shock. He took hold of me firmly and tried to clam medown. ‘It’s just the way it is around here,’ he whispered, a discernable tone of sympathy in hisvoice. ‘Sometimes you have to beat a nigger to teach him a lesson. Don’t worry, you’ll getused to it after a while.’I thought no, No, I don’t want to get used to it. If I did, what kind of person would that makeme? I wanted to ask J.T. to stop the beating…I’d been spending so much time with the Black Kings, a lot of the tenants wouldn’t speak to meexcept for a quick hello or a bland comment about the weather. They plainly saw me asaffiliated with the B.K.’s and just as plainly they didn’t want to get involved with me.Autry sometimes sat for hours, leaning back in a chair with his skinny arms popped behind hishead, telling me the lessons he’d learned from his days as a pimp.J.T. talking to Venkastesh: ‘I didn’t bring you here. I can’t protect you. Not all the time anyway.You did this on your own.’ J.T. smiled, pressed his finger into my chest one last time, withforce, and walked away.Chapter four – Gang Leader for a Day. 9
  10. 10. AS/A2 sociologyA few of my professors were seasoned ethnographers, experts in the methodology of firsthandobservation. They were insistent that I avoid getting so close to any one source that I would bebeholden to him. Easier said than done. I hadn’t forgotten how agitated J.T. became when hesaw me breaching out into the community. By now J.T. wasn’t my only access to thecommunity, but he was certainly my best access. He was the one who had brought me in, andhe was the one who could open – or shut – any door. But beyond all that lay one simple fact:J.T. was a charismatic man who led a fascinating life that I wanted to keep learning about.J.T. spoke of his job with dispassion as if he were the CEO of some widget manufacturer – anattitude that I found not only jarring but, given the violence and destruction his enterprisecaused, irresponsible.He fancied himself as a philanthropist as a much as a leader. He spoke proudly of quitting hismainstream job in downtown Chicago to return to the projects and use his drugs profits to ‘helpothers’. How did he help? He mandated that all his gang members get a high school diplomaand stay off drugs. He gave money to some local youth centres for sports equipment andcomputers. He willingly loaned out his gang members to Robert Taylor tenant leaders, whodeployed them on such tasks as escorting the elderly on errands or beating up a domesticabuser, J.T. could even put a positive spin on the fact that he made money by selling drugs. Adrug economy he told me, was ‘useful for the community’, since it redistributed the drugaddicts’ money back into the community via the gangs philanthropy [charity].I was nervous not because I was implicating myself in an illegal enterprise. I hadn’t even reallythought about that angle. I probably should have. At most universities, faculty members solicit[get] approval for their research from institutional review boards, which act as the maininsurance against exploitative or unethical research. But at the time, with little understanding ofthese protocols, I simply relied on my own moral compass. 10
  11. 11. AS/A2 sociologyThis compass wasn’t necessarily reliable. To be honest, I was a bit overwhelmed by the thrillof further entering J.T.’s world. I hoped he would someday introduce me to the powerful BlackKings leadership.The thought of hitting someone in the face – delivering a ‘mouthshot’ - made me nauseous.‘Sudhir’ J.T. said ‘you have to realise that if you do that [not give out a punishment beating],then you lose respect. They need to see you are the boss, which means you have to hand outthe beating.’‘Nigger they need to fear you.’Chapter five – Ms Bailey’s NeighbourhoodAt the University of Chicago, Jean Comaroff, an accomplished ethnographer, said I wasspending too much time with men. Since two-thirds of the community were women raisingchildren, she suggested that I try to better understand how women managed households,secured services from the CHA, and otherwise helped families get by.‘You want to understand how black folks live in the projects. Why we are poor. Why we haveso much crime. Why we can’t feed our families. Why our kids can’t get work when they growup. So will you be studying white people?‘Yes’ I said. I understood, finally, that she also wanted me to focus on the people outsideRobert Taylor who determined how the tenants live day to day.‘But don’t make us the victim.’ She said. ‘We’ll take responsibility for what we can control. It’sjust that not everything is in our hands.’ 11
  12. 12. AS/A2 sociologyIncreasingly I found that I was angry at the entire field of social science – which meant to somedegree, that I was angry at myself. I resented the fact that the standard tools of sociologistsseemed powerless to prevent the hardships I was seeing. The abstract social policies that mycolleagues were developing to house, educate, and employ the poor seemed woefully out oftouch. On the other hand, life in the projects was starting to seem too wild, too hard, and toochaotic for the staid prescriptions that social science could master. It struck me as only partlyhelpful to convince youth to stay in school; what the value in giving kids low paying menial jobswhen they could probably be making more money on the streets?I felt as though the other scholars were living in a bubble.Was it possible, I wondered to be in the projects for any length of time and remain neutral, anoutsider, an objective observer?Chapter six – The Hustler and the Hustled.Four years deep into my research, it came to my attention that I might get into a lot of trouble.I did see a lawyer, and I learned a few important things.First, if I became aware of a plan to physically harm somebody, I was obliged to tell the police.Second, there was no such thing as ‘researcher-client confidentiality’, akin to the priviledgeconferred upon lawyers, doctors, or priests. If I withheld information I could be cited forcontempt. 12
  13. 13. AS/A2 sociologyI had become so involved in the daily dramas of tagging along with Ms Bailey and J.T. that I’dnearly abandoned my study of the broader economy my professors wanted to be thebackbone of my research.‘Let me try again. Either you’re with us – you feel like you’re in this with us and you respectthat – or you’re just here to look around. So far these niggers can tell that you’ve been with us.You come back every day. Just don’t change, and nothing will go wrong, at least not aroundhere.’Without Ms Bailey’s say-so, no one was going to speak with me about any illegal activities.I spent the next three months focused on meeting the matriarchs of the high rises. There wereplenty to choose from: more than 90% of the households in Robert Taylor were headed by afemale.While official statistics said that 96% of Robert Taylor’s adult population was unemployed,many tenants did have part-time legitimate jobs – as restaurant workers, cabdrivers, cleaningladies in downtown corporate offices and nannies to middle class familiesI was different from all the journalists and other outsiders who came by hunting up stories.They didn’t eat dinners with families or hang around at night to share a beer; they typicallyasked a lot of questions and then left with their story, never to return. I prided myself on thisdifference.It was embarrassing to think that I had been so wrapped up in my desire to obtain good data 13
  14. 14. AS/A2 sociologythat I couldn’t anticipate the consequences of my actions. After several years of in theprojects, I had become attuned to each and every opportunity to get information from tenants.This obsession was primarily fuelled by a desire to make my dissertation stand out andincrease my stature in the eyes of my advisors.Chapter seven – Black and Blue..are you telling me I need to worry if I write about cops? Two weeks later my car was brokeninto, the lock had been expertly picked. I began to fear the police much more than I had everfeared J.T. and the gangs, it was the cops that had the real power.Looking back, I think it would have been better to learn more about neighbourhood from thecops’ perspective. But this wouldn’t have been easy. Most of the tenants probably would havestopped speaking with me if they thought I was even remotely tied to the police. One reasonjournalists often publish thin stories about the projects is that they typically rely on the policefor information, and this reliance makes the tenants turn their backs.It wasn’t until months after my car was broken into that Reggie confirmed it had been thepolice who did it.I had actively misled J.T. into thinking that I was writing his biography, mostly by never denyingit. This might have been cute in the early days of our time together, but now it was purelyselfish not to tell him what my study was really about.Chapter eight – The Stay-Together Gang 14
  15. 15. AS/A2 sociologyI was able to learn a good bit about the gang leaders and their business by just hangingaround. Over time they seemed to forget that I was even there, or maybe they just didn’t care.By now I had spent about six years hanging out with J.T. and at some level I waspleased that he was winning recognition for his achievements. Such thoughts wereusually accompanied by an equally powerful disquietude at the fact that that I tookso such pleasure in the rise of a drug-dealing gangster. 15
  16. 16. AS/A2 sociologyI was able to learn a good bit about the gang leaders and their business by just hangingaround. Over time they seemed to forget that I was even there, or maybe they just didn’t care.By now I had spent about six years hanging out with J.T. and at some level I waspleased that he was winning recognition for his achievements. Such thoughts wereusually accompanied by an equally powerful disquietude at the fact that that I tookso such pleasure in the rise of a drug-dealing gangster. 15

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