Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets

From the fall of 1989 through the fall of 1998, Sudhir Venkatesh, now a sociologist at Columbia University, hung out — often for many days in succession — with a gang called the Black Kings, in the largest and most infamous of Chicago’s large and infamous housing projects, the Robert Taylor Homes. Gang Leader for a Day is the third book by Venkatesh to grow out of this decade of immersive observation of life in these (now razed) buildings. The first two were forthrightly academic: American Project: The Rise and fall of a Modern Ghetto took a global and historical look at the projects. Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor examined, with specific details and inside knowledge, the interconnected methods, licit and otherwise, by which the residents of Robert Taylor tried to make a living — from drug dealing to back-alley car repair to prostitution to selling home-cooked meals. One aspect of his economic findings — the discovery that many low-level, low-income drug dealers live with their mothers — also found its way into Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s huge bestseller Freakonomics. The success of that book might have provided part of the impetus for Venkatesh to return to this subject in a more literary way.

In any case, Gang Leader for a Day offers a personal, memoiristic account of the author’s experience with the Black Kings. The result is a book that alternates compelling drama with the tedium that no doubt characterizes a lot of gang life. Venkatesh witnesses “mouth shots” — punches to the face inflicted as punishment on gang members who violate the rules of street-corner crack selling. He meets the sadistic “Officer Jerry,” a local cop on the take, as well as the more upright “Officer Reggie,” who steers clear of, but rationalizes, police corruption. He learns the gang’s structure and fiscal policies, which resemble cargo-cult shadows of corporate governance. Meanwhile, other residents of the community — like Ms. Bailey, the powerful tenant leader who has her own hydra-headed scams going — befriend Ventakesh and open up about their economic and social struggles.

Inevitably, the author becomes involved in the action he is there to observe. The book’s title derives from Venkatesh’s short-lived effort to run the Black Kings for a day — an incident that unfortunately peters out, narratively speaking. Venkatesh is asked to make decisions (some countermanded) about a clean-up detail and a minor dispute between gang members. The provocative notion of “Gang Leader for a Day” quickly dwindles into insignificance, with the episode ultimately demonstrating the banality and quotidian quality of the drug trade (let’s admit it: not so different in that respect from office life). Far more dramatic is the author’s involvement in helping to save the life of a gang member grievously wounded in a drive-by shooting carried out by rival gangs.

The book’s true center of gravity is found in the author’s long relationship with “J.T.”, the leader of the Black Kings gang. Proceeding from Venkatesh’s dissatisfaction with graduate-school statistics-based sociology, the allure that marginal groups seem to hold for him (he followed the Grateful Dead around for a while after college graduation), and the fact that, as he says, “I didn’t have many friends”, his connection to the Black Kings started out shaky and then grew stronger and stronger, before its inevitable attenuation. In fact, it often sounds a little like a love affair.

J.T. first comes upon Venkatesh when he has been detained and threatened by some gang underlings, whom he had approached with a few standard and unintentionally hilarious questions from a clipboard sheet. “How does it feel to be black and poor?” he had asked. “Very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good.” When J.T. happens upon this hapless interloper, Venkatesh says, “Everything he did, every move he made, was deliberate and forceful.” The next night, the author tells us, “I tried to sleep but the rest was fitful.” Shortly after that, we read, “I felt a strange kind of intimacy with J.T., unlike the bond I’d felt even with good friends…. I was overjoyed that he was curious about my work.” And: “It was pretty thrilling to have a gang boss calling me up to go hang out with him.” And: “I turned giddy at the prospect of continuing our conversations.” Venkatesh goes home to meet the family and immediately “forged a bond” with J.T.’s mother. As intense as the feelings are, they come to a familiar-sounding conclusion — by the end of the book, when the author visits J.T. during his fellowship at Harvard, he finds him “clingy.”

The roots of this romance seem clear: to be accepted by J.T. and his henchmen was clearly a major accomplishment for a high school social pariah (“replete with pocket protector, bad haircut, and an armful of math and science books”) who also had no friends in graduate school. One wonders if this evidently long-standing sense of being an outsider led the author into sociology in the first place — and into the conflicts of conscience that make Gang Leader for a Day so often fascinating. The author allows J.T. to think that his work will be a “biography” and then often agonizes about this deception. It comes home to him more and more forcefully that he may be legally at risk because of what he sees and knows. Why this risk doesn’t occur to him from the moment he witnesses his first drug sale I don’t quite understand, but I guess he was young, and I know love is blind. Venkatesh also intermittently wrestles with the general intellectual and journalistic questions raised by close involvement with and potential betrayal of one’s subject. He doesn’t resolve these age-old questions satisfactorily because they cannot be satisfactorily resolved — as Janet Malcolm so brilliantly and conclusively explains in her introduction to The Journalist and the Murderer.

The central epiphany in this book, when the scales begin to fall from the author’s eyes about some of his own motives, has much to do with these questions, and it comes, appropriately enough, courtesy of the ambiguous Robert Taylor powerhouse Ms. Bailey. And it proves all by itself one of the implicit theses of Venkatesh’s writing about this subject — that the hard knocks suffered and short straws drawn by the people he is observing give them a kind of weary but deep wisdom that many of us don’t have or try to ignore. “Why do you want to hang out?” Ms. Bailey asks.

“I suppose I’m learning. That’s what I do, study the poor.”

“Okay, well, you want to act like a saint, then you go ahead,” Ms. Bailey said, laughing. “Of course you’re learning! But you are also hustling. And we’re all hustlers. So when we see another of us we gravitate toward him. Because we need other hustlers to survive…. You need to get your information. You’re a hustler, I can see it. You’ll do anything to get what you want. Just don’t be ashamed of it.”

And I suppose one could say that Venkatesh has indeed hustled three books and a scholarly reputation out of this brave and foolhardy decade’s worth of associating with known criminals. But somehow he has managed to infuse this account of that time with a sweetness and naivet? that implicitly inform even the present-day point of view of this book — nowhere more clearly than when he tells of the Black Kings laughing at him, as they do often. They laugh especially hard when he is gang leader for a day and tries to use the word “nigger” with the nonchalance of a genuine Black King.