Hustling: A Rogue Sociologist Meets the Gang

1:47 PM

Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg. 


For Zuckerberg's third pick, he selected Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. Venkatesh, an Indian American, arrived at the University of Chicago to begin graduate work in sociology. Eager to work with Professor William Julius Wilson, a leading sociologist of race and poverty then at Chicago, Venkatesh took up the invitation to collaborate with a new research project in order to design better public policy (pp. 4-5). Venkatesh discovered, rather abruptly, that the survey questionnaires and interviews he was asked to take were not going to elicit the information and honesty that Venkatesh sought for his questions about race, poverty, and the underground economy.

As a regular visitor to Chicago, I remember the Robert Taylor Homes, 28 high-rise buildings, 16 stories each, stretching for two miles along the Dan Ryan Expressway. In all, the Robert Taylor Homes provided 4,415 units of public housing administered by the Chicago Housing Authority. While I have no idea how many times I drove past those homes, I never dared to stop. I only got close once while trying to find my way to Comiskey for a baseball game between the Texas Rangers and the Chicago White Sox.

Boldly, Venkatesh went in with clipboard and survey to interview some families he selected at random based on the low income level of the tract according to U.S. Census data. On his way into a building, he saw the empty cavity of the elevator shaft, smelled urine on the concrete floor, and made his way up the stairwell. Along the way, he was confronted and detained by members of the Black Kings, a gang that controlled the building. J.T., the leader of that group of the gang, eventually met Venkatesh, and, after Venkatesh spent the night with junior gang members in the cold stairwell, J.T. spoke words that changed the shape of Venkatesh's research:
"You shouldn't go around asking them silly-ass questions," he said. "With people like us, you should hang out, get to know what they do, how they do it. No one is going to answer questions like that. You need to understand how young people live on the streets." (p. 21)
Thus begins a new phase of Venkatesh's education. J.T. even offered Venkatesh a day to be the "leader" of the gang, hence the book's title.

Through this window into life in the Robert Taylor Homes, Venkatesh explores a variety of themes. One theme for Venkatesh is simply how one does research. Venkatesh came to understand the difficulties of doing meaningful research. He could not transcribe the dialogues immediately as they happened. They were recreated after the fact and, so, are not a verbatim of the encounter. Venkatesh had to grapple with ethical decisions about illegal activity that he knew was lurking around the edges of things he saw regularly in his research.  Venkatesh saw the tradeoffs in who he used as sources. He sought to tell a deeper story than the "thin stories" journalists publish, as "they typically rely on the police for information, and this reliance makes the tenants turn their backs" (p. 242). Venkatesh came to a deeper understanding of the challenges in telling the story of people with "objectivity." It is difficult, if not impossible, to be neutral, to be an outsider, to the stories of those whom he encountered.

Second, Venkatesh discovered that his relationships with those of the Robert Taylor Homes were born of "hustling" (p.188), an individual's use of power to accomplish goals. While protected by J.T., J.T. benefited from and used some contents of Venkatesh's research. Building president Ms. Bailey also used the research to her benefit, but she also challenged Venkatesh, "Of course, you're learning! But you also are hustling" (p. 188). Venkatesh came to see that he was not there entirely for altruistic reasons. He was there to do research, to gather data, to publish, to advance his academic career. Honesty about these matters shapes the understanding of how Venkatesh would do his research and, apparently, continues to influence the subsequent work that he has done in New York. The closer Venkatesh came to those he intended to research, the more complex his conclusions necessarily had to become.

Third, Venkatesh acquired a deeper analysis of power as it was exercised in the urban environment of what was then the Robert Taylor Homes. Police and ambulances rarely entered the area. In all, little presence of local government was encountered, according to Venkatesh. He began to see the dynamics of the gang's power over the building as well as the exercise of power within the gang. Following J.T., he saw how J.T. personally exercised power. The day that J.T. allowed Venkatesh to lead the gang, Venkatesh had to determine a violent consequence in a dispute between two gang members. J.T. explained that "they [the gang members] need to fear you" (p. 130). Venkatesh challenged a fear-based leadership style. In time, he sees the complexity of J.T.'s leadership as well as the complexity of Ms. Bailey's leadership. Also, Venkatesh throws into the mix the power of a leader of a youth recreational center and the power of the police. The reader also encounters powerful descriptions of the challenges facing women in the Robert Taylor Homes. Venkatesh saw something of his own power amidst his research:
With other tenants I played the role of objective social scientist, however inaccurate (and perhaps impossible) this academic conceit may be. I didn't necessarily feel that I was misrepresenting my intentions. I always told people, for instance, that I was writing up my findings into a dissertation. But it was obvious that there was a clear power dynamic and that they held the short end of the stick. I had the choice of ending my time in the projects; they did not. Long after I was finished studying poverty, they would most likely continue living as poor Americans. (p. 246)
Understanding the dynamic of power and how it shapes people's interactions is a critical element of understanding the lives of others.

Gang Leader for a Day does not offer simple recommendations for better public policy regarding race and poverty, but it does bring the reader into the more complex hues of life in a particular place that endured decades of poverty. As we continue to wrestle with issues of race and poverty across the United States, we are best served, not by those "terrible simplifiers" (to borrow the phrase from Moisés Naím) but by those who help us to see the joys and sorrows, the hopes and fears, of lives very different than our own.

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