Gang Leader for a Day Book Report Essay
The story starts out as Sudhir Vankatesh starts his first-year as grad student at the University of Chicago, in the fall of 1989. He had just moved there from the suburbs of Southern California, particularly U. C. San Diego. He gives detail about the environment he was now living in. Here he was on the prestigious grounds of the University, yet his very back yard, was a poor black neighborhood that was far from prestigious. During the first few weeks he explains how he had orientations. They were warned not to walk outside the areas that were not patrolled by the Universities police.
They were even given detailed maps on where they should not go for safety reasons. Even the parks right across the street was considered off limits by the school. This was the South West edge of Hyde Park, where the University housed most of it grad students. He says that he soon realized the Ivory Tower was more of an Ivory fortress. These areas were divided and for good reason. On one side was a beautifully manicured Gothic campus, with privileged students which were mostly white. On the other side were down and out African Americans offering cheap labor, selling drugs or pan handling.
The differences were night and day. When he got there he did not have many friends so he liked to take walks. He enjoyed getting to know the city and as a sociologist he was interested in the different ethnic neighborhoods. For starters Sudhir, like many new students wanted to impress his professors and figure out what his research interests might be. He began attending seminars where Professors asked the normal questions… how an individual’s preference develops, can we predict human behavior, what are the influence of education etc.
The standard way of answering these questions was to conduct surveys and break them down into statistical data . This was discussed in chapter 1 of our texts. A survey is defined as a poll in which the researcher gathers facts or attempts to determine the relationship among facts (Kendall, D. 2010 p. 33). He talks about how sociology is separated into two different categories, those who use quantitative and statistical data and those who study life by direct observation called ethnographers. These were also discussed in chapter 1 of our texts.
Sudhir was leaning towards the side of those that used direct observation as sitting in a classroom discussing statistics did not seem as interesting to him. He decided he was going to go talk personally with one of the professors, Mr. Bill Wilson, a prominent African American scholar at the University. Wilson was about to start a new project and invited Sudhir to help. His goal was to better understand how young blacks were affected by specific neighborhood factors. Wilson gave him the job of coming up with a survey questionnaire and then take the surveys to some poor black neighborhoods in Chicago.
Sudhir was looking for people to take a multiple-choice survey on urban poverty, so he went into an abandoned building in one of Chicago’s poorest housing projects with a handful of surveys. Little did he know what he was walking into! This 23 year old who wanted only a few answers on what it meant to be poor and black in America, was taken hostage by a local gang. They thought he was a “Mexican” from a rival gang. He was held in the stairwells of this abandoned housing project the entire night until the gangs leader would arrive to decide what to do with him.
This was Sudhir first meeting with the Black Kings gang leader J. T. After what was probably a scary yet interesting night J. T finally decided to let him go, but not without some words of advice. He told Sudhir that he would never learn anything with these surveys, if he wanted real answers he would have to spend time with these people. Apparently Sudhir took this as an invitation and came back a few days later. The gang members thought he was crazy but J. T. said if he wanted to hang out then let him. Sudhir took a different approach this time.
The first meeting he realized that these people were not very receptive to interview type questions; they had probably had their fair share of those types of questions from the police and social workers. So this time he asked no meaningful questions and instead just made small talk, relying more on his observations. Sudhir respects J. T. ‘s rules and did not want to seem intrusive. Sudhir learned that J. T wasn’t the average gang leader. He was actually a very smart and talented young man, who went to college on a scholarship for sports and had even taken some sociology classes.
Even more of a surprise to Sudhir was that J. T also had a normal job at one time at a corporation. J. T. however quit and came back to the gang life because he was angry due to the fact that he worked twice as hard as everyone else and got half the credit. J. T was beginning to trust him and take him around Robert Taylor so that he can learn what its really like to be “poor and black” in the projects. J. T. seemed interested in Sudhir as well, asking many of his own questions like “do you always use those surveys, and why are they multiple choices?
Can you get a good job after your research, and why don’t you study your own people? ” Sudhir was ecstatic on the inside that J. T. was so interested in his work and that was probably the start of a bond between these two. Sudhir felt that he was getting a unique perspective of life in these poor neighborhoods rather than just relying on the dry statistics of unemployment, crime and family hardships. Sudhir routinely came back to get to know J. T. and his gang. He was meeting everyone and really getting to know them for who they were.
Some of the people he met were C-Note, a tenant that got his name because he can find 100 ways to make 100 dollars (Venkatesh, 2008 p. 69). Brass, a heroin addict that moved around a lot. Lenny Duster, a man who talked to teenagers about the rights, responsibilities, and power of voting. Mrs. Bailey, the buildings president who took care of everyone. Autry Harrison, who was club director over at Robert Taylor B at a boys and girls club. Clarice, a prostitute who may or may not have been related to J. T. Sudhir also met J. T. ’s own mother Mrs. Mae, along with J. T. ’s close gang members like T Bone, who was the Black Kings treasure and Price J. T. ’s security chief. At this point he was getting an eye opening experience of the many people who lived in this neighborhood on a more personal level. Sudhir was also getting a more inside perspective of how the community ran. Sudhir witnessed time after time how this poor neighborhood kept turning back to the gang for help. Mrs. Beasley would ask J. T. to help out with money for the kids in the housing unit. The gang provided protection for some tenants.
Price would settle fights when a customer thought he was charging too much, and all the tenants got together, when a woman named Bee Bee flipped out over a guy giving her daughter an S. T. D. This is what puzzled Sudhir, as it would have been in the community’s best interest to go to the police for some of these issues; however the community told him that the police would not do anything, and instead they had to rely on their community. Here they were turning to a gang that promoted drug sales and caused their own bit of violence, but it was true, they had no choice.
If something had to get done it was that gang that stepped up and solved the problems. They were the ones with the power and the money. The community may not have agreed with everything they stood for, but they were still the ones they turned to. Most sociological literature on gangs since the late 19th century says that gangs had heated relationships with everyone from parents and shop keepers, to the police. This didn’t seem true in the case of the Black Kings. J. T. seemed to have a good relationship with most of them, or at least he was respected by them. .J. T. ’s gang acted more of a de facto administration.
This was covered in out texts in chapter 9. Yes J. T. was a law breakers but he was also a law maker. While members of the community paid taxes to the gang for these services, without the gang’s enforcement, things in the projects might be even worse than they would be without the gang. Sudhir began to realize that the dynamics of the gang and the surrounding community was more complex that he had thought. The gang itself was run just like a regular corporation. They had levels of power and head leaders’ overseeing every aspect of what went on. The gang even had a board of directors.
Their financing was in depth and goal oriented. It looked just like a pyramid that went from the most powerful down to the minimal and expendable foot soldiers that simply sold drugs for the gang. It was a business in every aspect. J’T was a manager and he had a sales team. It was a completely underground economy. There was inside workings like paying off the politicians to protect the gangs and bribing the CHA so that they could continue to keep their business in the homes. People like J. T. and his organization ruled the neighborhood like cogs in a well working machine.
Though Sudhir still struggled with believing that a crack selling gang could help a community, it seemed that whatever J. T. was doing was working. J. T said that his drug economy was useful because it redistributed the addicts’ money back into the community. J. T. was actually doing some proactive stuff for the community. For example Sudhir watched him support youth programs like basketball games and give money to help the women and children get medical care. Other tenant leaders would also get money for random needs. J. T. would avoid gang wars as it was bad for business.
He also mandated that all his members stay off drugs and get their high school diploma. Drug sales were not to be sold in the park when children were around. J. T. tried to use his power to benefit the community and it was working. Life was hard as a tenet of the Robert Taylor homes. There were so many people that would squat in the buildings, unable to get their own place. Many were jobless. Less than 40% of the people in the Robert Taylor homes graduated high school. Chicago’s winters were cold and summers were hot. The housing projects did not always have heat and air but it was better than nothing.
The living conditions were poor and housing project itself was falling apart. Sudhir talks about the stairwells not being lit, probably in his benefit, as they smelled of urine and who knows what else. Time after time it was the gang that did what they could to make life easier for these people in their community. This just showed how desperate people get in poverty. Poverty was discussed in our texts in chapter 8. The rule of thumb in this area, as described by Mrs. Bailey, was to take care of the problem first and worry about how you took care of the problem later.
Needs were immediate in this community for survival, there was no lea way. By this time it had been a few years now that Sudhir had been basically living with these people. He had learned a lot but still had trouble talking with some people as many tenants’ saw him as associated with the Black Kings. However he had become a part of their society more than he had ever planned. He had also told his professors about his dissertation topic about an in depth study on the Black Kings crack gang, however they did not seem as enthusiastic about it. They only seemed interested in the standard sociological issues.
Sudhir was frustrated at sociology and the fact that nothing was being done to help the poverty that he saw. His professor Bill Wilson also expressed concern with Sudhir’s safety and said he was too close to the people. During this same time that his professors were worried about him, Sudhir was given the opportunity to take J. T. ’s spot as gang leader for the day. Sudhir encounters dealing with drug dealers, thieves, and making unforeseeable decisions Even though he could not completely fulfill the position, as he would not carry a gun, hurt anyone or sell to anyone, it was still an eye opening experience into the daily pressures of J.
T. ’s responsibility’s. Sudhir realizing that there is more to the housing complex and community than just J. T. ’s gang, he decided to follow Ms. Bailey, the building president to see how her business works. He finds some answers to better understand the situation at Robert Taylor. After a while, he sees Mrs. Bailey wheeling’s and dealings to get the people of Robert Taylor more clothing and food. She only gives these perks to certain people, specifically not people on drugs. Ms. Bailey also would hold meetings for the residences to speak their opinion; however it all seemed to be a front.
She says they need to think that something is going on in the building, although she makes it very clear that the CHA is of no help and it is her that gets things done. She is the closest thing to a leader in the homes that’s not gang related, yet she uses the gang for their help. Mrs. Bailey was another lager part that the community relied on. Sudhir did not stop there. He also talked with many others in the community as most were opening up to him. He learned from Reggie, a police officer that many police were in on the drug deals. Some cops were jealous that drug dealers were making more money than them.
He learns from some of the tenant how they might have side jobs or allow people to hide drugs or people themselves in their apartments as a source of extra income. In talking with Mrs. Bailey and J. T. Sudhir kind of messes up when he shared everyone’s earnings with them. This caused J. T. to go tax people since they weren’t being honest with their income. Pretty much every tenant was mad at him because they had opened up and trusted him. Thing were already tense around the Robert Taylor homes because word had gotten out that the buildings were going to be torn down.
This did not help Sudhir’s case as some of the tenants thought that he might have something to do with this. Sudhir spent most of his time hanging out with J. T. again as he was one of the few that still trusted him. Sudhir was also being allowed into some of the leaders meetings as J. T. was promoted. Things were changing dramatically as the plan for the demolition of the Robert Taylor Homes. The new economic were changing, sales went down considering most sales were done there at the homes. It was difficult as J. T. tried to secure new territory that would be profitable. The law was also now getting involved and arrests were soon a concern.
Sudhir and J. T. were growing apart as they both were busy. Sudhir was getting deeper in to his Harvard fellowship. Sudhir was also offered a teaching position at Columbia University and meant he would be moving. J. T. eventually quit the gang business and managed his cousin’s dry cleaning business. He also started up his own barber shop which eventually failed. J. T. had saved up enough money to supplement his lower income. This would be the end of their time together. The book Gang Leader for a Day was discussed in the book Freakonomics although not in detail like Sudhir wrote in his book.
The books relate as Steven Levitt describes, “If you figure out what peoples incentives are then you have a good chance in knowing how they will behave” ( Dubner, S & Levitt, S. 2005). This is what Sudhir did while doing his research; these people had an incentive to simply survive. “Sudhir Venkatesh was born with two abnormalities,” says Freakonomics co-author Stephen Dubner, “an overdeveloped curiosity and an underdeveloped sense of fear. ” Dubner continues: “A lot of writing about the poor tends to reduce living, breathing, joking, struggling, sensual, moral human beings to dupes who are shoved about by invisible forces. This book … hows, day by day and dollar by dollar, how the crack dealers, tenant leaders, cops and Venkatesh himself tried to construct a good life out of substandard materials” ( Dubner, S & Levitt, S. 2005). Other academics have criticized the book extensively for these methodological and ethical lapses, and those criticisms are valid. It’s a fine line to walk between researching a community in order to benefit them versus researching to benefit yourself. Venkatesh has made a lot of money as a result of this book and his ongoing research, and I’m not sure the members of the Robert Taylor Homes have not seen much of that come back to them.
That’s a sticky ethical question the book didn’t seem to answer in any great detail. But all in all just the fact that Sudhir wrote the book, I personally feel was helpful. I think that many of us judge and assume we know what people are like without getting to know them. Like J. T. first told Sudhir… you won’t learn anything about us from your silly questions, you have to hang out with us to get to know someone. Sudhir wrote this book to show all the different life styles in the projects and he did an exceptional job in my opinion.
It also teaches us about how it’s hard to live in poverty in the projects and it’s hard to lead a gang. Lives in the projects are poor and are full of businesses consisting of drug dealing, weapons, and prostitution. I was unaware of the underground economics that went on until reading this book. In the projects, youth doesn’t stand a chance to the gang leaders. They may have a chance to go to school but that chance is quickly squashed when the need for money to survive becomes a priority and so they join a gang. They are forced to start training for drive by shootings and drug dealing at a young age.
This story teaches us of how many people out there have such different lifestyles and the way they live, yet have a lot more in common with these people than we thought. Just like my family, these people help each other and they live life as one, as a big family.
Venkatesh, S. A. (2008). Gang leader for a day: A rogue sociologist takes to the streets. New York: Penguin Press. Levitt, S. D. , & Dubner, S. J. (2005). Freakonomics: A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything. New York: William Morrow Kendall, D. (2010) Sociology in our times: The essentials 8th ed. Ohio: Wadsworth,Cengage Learning