A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets
Sociologists and anthropologists are a strange bunch. Oftentimes, they risk their lives so that you can learn more about the world around you. In this case, Sudhir Venkatesh lived with gangs.
So that you can find out how it is to be a “Gang Leader for a Day.”
About Sudhir Venkatesh
Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh is an Indian American sociologist, former professor of sociology at Columbia University. Currently, he works for Facebook.
He has written three more sociological studies, in addition to “Gang Leader for a Day”: “American Project,” “Off the Books” and “Floating City.”
“Gang Leader for a Day Summary”
We’ve treaded along this territory in the past.
Scott Berkun, for example, worked for a year without pants so as to find out what working for WordPress looks like. To up the ante, Joshua Foer became the 2006 U.S.A. Memory Champion so as to be able to write a book on memory and mnemonic techniques from experience. And Suki Kim even went undercover in North Korea!
However, you probably can’t compare any of this to what Sudhir Venkatesh did.
Namely, he decided to live for a while among the gangs around Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, one of the most notorious places in the United States.
Completed in 1962, the project was originally “the largest public housing development” in America; however, half a century later, there’s almost no family living in the area without at least one member of it in prison.
The streets are littered. Arson fire has blackened the houses. Police cars avoid the area. Emergency calls are routinely ignored.
So, what happened?
That’s a long story. And “Gang Leader for a Day” is not a book about that. It’s a book about what happens at the moment.
And what happens is much more ambivalent and hazy that what the media would like to believe.
First of all, even though 96% of the people living there are unemployed, entrepreneurship flourishes. Some work as psychics, others as drug dealers, and, yet a third group – as prostitutes. Pirating gas and electricity is a source of income for many. Just like fixing cars – which is as legal as it gets in the Robert Taylor Homes area.
And the ones who rule it all?
Gang leaders. The Black Kings especially. (The gang is probably “The Gangster Disciples”: Venkatesh had to choose some other name to hide their identity.)
However, it’s not all violence and guns and drugs. At a place where neither the police nor the ambulance cars ever arrive, it’s actually the gangs who keep some social order. They help the elders. They drive the wounded kids to the hospitals. And they even force the children to go to school.
It all comes at a price, though. It’s called protection money. And it seems that, at Robert Taylor Homes, everybody’s paying it.
Because, at the projects, you’re either with someone or against everybody.
And the latter is not an option.
Key Lessons from “Gang Leader for a Day”
1. Gang Culture Is a Strangely Ambivalent Culture
2. There’s a Reason Why Drug Dealers Usually Live with Their Mothers
3. No, You Can’t Be a Gang Leader – Even for a Day
Gang Culture Is a Strangely Ambivalent Culture
You’ve watched so many movies depicting gang culture that you’re pretty sure what it encompasses. Guns, violence, drug trafficking – and lots of money.
True enough – but not entirely true.
As Sudhir Venkatesh found out, the Robert Taylor Homes are both ravaged, but also protected by gangs. Namely, gangs terrorize many people; but, also, they are the only ones who protect the elderly and the children in an area where the police and the ambulance cars never arrive.
There’s a Reason Why Drug Dealers Usually Live with Their Mothers
If you’re reading us on a regular basis, you already know why.
Namely, Venkatesh’ study was first made known in the highly popular book “Freakonomics” – and, in fact, we’ve mentioned it in its summary. “A Gang for a Day” came few years later. But, the conclusion remained the same: drug dealers live with their mothers simply because they don’t earn enough money.
Most of the Robert Taylor Homes’ dealers earn about $3.30 per hour – insufficient for livelihood!
No, You Can’t Be a Gang Leader – Even for a Day
JT, the leader of Black Kings – the gang Venkatesh became part of during his study – allowed the author of our book to take his place for a day.
Things turned out to be much more complex than he had hoped for. He was expected to be a CEO and a manager, member of the security and the police forces, a jury and a judge.
So, yeah: it’s just like – and so much unlike – the movies!
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