“Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets” by Sudhir Venkatesh

by Patrick Baker

Whoever has problems with the word “nigger” might very well have problems with Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. The N-word appears on nearly every page and begins to ring in the ears after a while. Yet (or perhaps, “for”) the word and its use are emblematic of the larger problem at issue in the book: the everyday life of poor blacks in America’s cities and the way it is studied and approached by academics and government alike.

    Early in the book, Venkatesh recounts how, as a young sociology PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, he finds out the hard way that his subjects are not, as he thinks, “black” or “African American” (N.B. the sociologist being trained today would use euphemisms like “urban” or “inner-city”). Having entered a gang-controlled building in the Lake Park projects to ask its inhabitants, among other things – “How does it feel to be black and poor?: (a) very bad, (b) somewhat bad, (c) neither bad nor good, (d) somewhat good, or (e) very good” (14) – Venkatesh receives from a young gang leader, J.T., the answer that sets the tone for the rest of the book, not to mention for his career as a sociologist: “I’m not black. . . . I’m not African American either. I’m a nigger.” J.T. explains, “Niggers are the ones who live in this building. African Americans live in the suburbs. African Americans wear ties to work. Niggers can’t find no work.” And finally – and here is the point for academics, politicians, and the American public – “You ain’t going to learn shit with this thing [i.e. the sociology survey]. . . . How’d you get to do this if you don’t even know who we are, what we’re about?” (16). Indeed, one wonders how the findings of sociology keep from stinking if the field does not recognize the basic identity of its subjects.

    Venkatesh gained renown for his description of the economics of crack dealing in Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics. Venkatesh’s research on drug dealing came from his attempt to answer J.T.’s challenge. For the next several years after their first encounter, Venkatesh followed J.T. around the Chicago projects, especially the infamous Robert Taylor Homes on the city’s South Side. Here are just a few of the fascinating things he learned about and reports on: the inner workings of gangs and their hierarchy; gangs’ symbiotic relationship with supposedly legitimate entities, like building managers, the housing authority, social workers, and even local government and the police; the unreported, underground economy in which residents, nearly all of them officially unemployed, participate; the absence of medical care, ambulance service, and law enforcement, and what residents do to compensate; the fear instilled by rogue criminals (i.e. those without gang affiliation) and the rare yet dependable drive-by shooting; the community-oriented outlook of drug dealers; the true sense of community that reigns in a place considered inhuman and unlivable by outsiders. In short, Venkatesh learns what it means to be a “nigger,” which turns out to be much worse, much better, and much more interesting than the rest of us imagine.

    Gang Leader for a Day provides the layman with an education in ghetto life. For the scholar, and more specifically for the social scientist or sociologist, it raises important questions – and challenges sacred assumptions – about the validity of statistically-based quantitative research. A predominant belief in social science is that statistics are the only way to measure salient features of economy, social life, psychology, and well-being. Only by sifting through large quantities of data can patterns be identified. Furthermore, according to this line of thought, qualitative studies, such as the one Venkatesh used for his book, tend to be too anecdotal or case-specific, and thus they cannot be used to formulate broad conclusions. But as long as statistics are based on questions as self-delusional as “how does it feel to be black and poor” – self-delusional, in this specific case, because for J.T. and his gang, blacks and African Americans are by definition not poor; so-called “niggers” are – how could their analysis lead to accurate generalizations? Social scientists have long been wary of the veracity of surveys, and they have long held their own prejudices and presuppositions suspect. What Venkatesh shows, though, is that their quantitative methods are haunted by a more basic problem: lack of experience, the experience that comes from daring to do extensive field research in places considered dangerous. It is this experience that is necessary for data to be meaningfully collected and intelligently interpreted. And thus it is experience that is necessary in order to reach informed policy decisions. It cannot be substituted by asking how it feels to be “black and poor.” According to Venkatesh, it can only be answered by going to see for oneself.

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