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Gang Leader for a Day Book Review -- An Interesting Look into the Dark World of Gang Life

Updated on January 23, 2012

In the book titled Gang Leader for a Day written by Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, I received a glimpse into a culture of pervasive poverty, public housing, organized gang crime, and police corruption. Sudhir was a graduate student studying Sociology at the University of Chicago during the time he was collecting data for the book. It was during this time that Sudhir developed an interest in understanding how some African Americans came to live in marginal and impoverished environments, how they felt about it, and how that environment operates. Initially, Sudhir, under the guidance of his university advisors, planned to use surveys aimed at residents of a public housing development on the south side of Chicago named Robert Taylor Homes to collect the data. Needless to say he attempts to use surveys as a research method proved to be ineffective. This was partially attributed to the significant distrust on part of his research subjects to outside visitors. Residents of Robert Taylor Homes lived in a culture which gangs, and community are authoritative, either you were a member of the culture or you were and outsider. It was also during this time that Sudhir became the unexpected acquaintance a gang leader – his name was J.T.. J.T., being somewhat intrigued with Sudhir's research, invited him to gain first hand experience of what life was really like in the housing development...Sudhir accepted and thus began not only observing his subjects but also participating in their society. Sudhir used observation, participation, and subject interviews to collect his data and gain a better understanding of their culture. He eventually would learn much more than what he initially planned. During his four years studying the residents of Robert Taylor Homes, Sudhir encounters hundreds of individuals across all levels of their social stratification.

Sudhir's research really highlighted the family perspective for his research subjects in the housing development. The sense of family is strong for members of the housing development. This is evident in one example documented by Sudhir in which he learns how the mother of a young daughter is sent away to prison. To protect the child and prevent her from being sent to foster care, different residents within the housing development took turns caring for her. Additionally, Ms Bailey, a long term resident and Housing President for Robert Taylor Homes plays a motherly role for residents. In one case, Ms. Bailey adamantly states that “no children will go hungry in her building”, she proves this in numerous cases....even to the extent of bringing children into her own home to give them meals. This adaptive behavior was brought on by necessity. The people of Robert Taylor Homes feel isolated with a repeated notion that no one will help them, thus they help themselves. This ideology carries over into all aspects of their lives...from police protection, building maintenance, to ambulance service. The services that you and I take for granted, are unexpected for Sudhir's research subjects.

Religion is one aspect that is largely absent throughout this culture. Throughout the text the only significant mentions of religion are by the gang leaders in which they discuss paying off leaders of religious institutions in order to maintain a place to congregate and hold meetings. I'm not really sure how to understand the lack of religion – or at least the lack of mention of religion in Sudhir's book. It could be that their need for basic necessities for everyday life inhibits their ability to pursue and maintain religious interests.

Education or lack thereof was prevalent throughout the individuals Sudhir interviewed...most of his subjects never completed high school. However, some gang members did attend college. J.T., one of the high level gang leaders went to college, and his officer T-Bone did as well. In J.T.'s case he found it increasingly difficult to contend with white coworkers in a legitimate job (because he was black) and thus felt that gang life was more lucrative since he could easily pull in $75K - $200K per year as a gang leader. J.T. also required all of his gang officers to at least have a GED. It is clear that the vast majority of members within this culture are uneducated; however, gang members seem to (at least according to Sudhir) have higher educational standards.

Economically, in Robert Taylor Homes housing development, drugs and stolen goods supplied by the gang fuel the economy. Based on Sudhir's interviews and my understanding of their economic system, a large portion of their money originates with the gang and their illegal distribution of drugs to outsiders. This money is then distributed to gang members who in turn redistribute the money to members within the Robert Taylor Home housing project for goods and services (car repair, food, clothing). The residents then use this money to pay taxes back to the gang for protection. And the circle continues. Their economy is deeply rooted in gang-related activities, and any disruption of the gang activities will subsequently impact the lives of nearly all residents in the housing development. In other words, when the gang does not make money, no one does. I can understand why gang-turf-wars were so violent and frequent.

Ethnic-Racial observations are not 100% clear per Sudhir's interviews; however, one can discern that the subjects of his research were predominantly African American.

The political system maintained within the Robert Taylor Home house project appeared to be governed by the gang and its leaders. The gangs served as the primary enforcers of the policies contained within their culture. The gangs managed the affairs when say for example someone abused a prostitute. The gang would ensure the person responsible for the abuse was properly dealt with. To somewhat balance the power the gang held, president of the housing development (Ms. Bailey) also served as a mediator in some cases between residents and the gang. She would sometimes enlist the assistance of squatters to enforce her policies. Interestingly, as Sudhir repeatedly points out, legitimate authority (aka police officers) is rarely if ever seen as an enforcer of policy.

Sudhir experienced many challenges during his data collection process. For example, while observing and participating with gangs he directly or indirectly exposed himself to extortion, illegal drug distribution, gang wars, and possibly murder. He also experienced legal issues which required him to consult the advice of an attorney to better understand the laws around information that he was collecting from the gang. However, probably his most ethical concern arose when mislead J.T. about the intentions of his research. Sudhir led J.T. to believe that he was the focus of Sudhir's research and that his ultimate goal was to write his biography. Sudhir did this to gain his trust and ultimately access to his lifestyle.

Sudhir's book is fascinating look at the attitudes, beliefs, and opinions of a culture which many do not know exist. Even more fascinating is that it helps to explain the motivation for people to live in these types of conditions. He mentioned that some sociologist believe in a culture of poverty, in which attitudes and traditions associated with poverty are passed down from generation to generation. This equals a generations that does not value work. Most associate this type of culture with poor African Americans. However, Sudhir's research methods allowed him to obtain first hand experience of how people that live in housing developments and are involved in gang activities, really feel. They feel there is no other way to make it and the street life is a viable method to make a living. Interestingly, most of the low level gang members eared just slightly over minimum wage – and they are probably unaware. Nonetheless, humans have a unique ability adjust their expectations – given enough time, and enough exposure to feeling one has inadequate access to basic necessities – you may adjust and being to feel it is normal – that poverty and gang life may not be too bad.

Click here for reviews of Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets.

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