Thugs, drugs and sociology?

Jonathan Rainey, Staff Writer

“Gang Leader for a Day,” by Sudhir Venkatesh, gives a unique glimpse into the closed life of the leader of one of Chicago’s crack-dealing gangs from a sociologist’s perspective.  Venkatesh’s book is non-fiction, which he carefully constructed using notes taken from years spent with the Black Kings of Chicago.

Venkatesh’s book recounts his days at the University of Chicago graduate school in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he stepped outside the traditional boundaries of sociological research and jumped headfirst into the lives of an urban gang to study how they lived and interacted with the community around them.

Coming from an upper class family in Southern California, Venkatesh has little idea of how people live in the ghettoes of Chicago.  Dressing like a Dead Head with a woefully under-developed sense of self preservation, Venkatesh takes a survey clipboard into one of the economically poorest areas of Chicago and begins asking questions like “How does it feel to be black and poor?”  He soon finds himself in an abandoned apartment building surrounded by gang members with a gun against his head.  However, this turns out to be his first encounter with the local leader of the Black Kings.  The gang leader, J.T., informs Venkatesh that surveys aren’t the way to learn about people, but that you have to spend time with them.

Venkatesh opts to do just that and begins to spend time with the gang.  Spending as much time as possible with J.T. and the gang, Venkatesh slowly gains an insider’s view into gang life.  He writes on not only the drug dealing and the prostitution involved, but also the gang’s economics, their politics, logistics, strategy, and even their intrinsic connection to the community which they support in their own way.  The book culminates in J.T.’s allowance of Venkatesh to lead the gang for one day.

Venkatesh stresses, mostly by example, throughout the book that in order to really study a people group, you have to know them on a personal level.  Statistics and trends help to show certain aspects of our broad culture, but Venkatesh clearly shows that the intricate workings of a culture where little record is kept drastically change how they are perceived.

The writing keeps the book moving at a fast pace.  Section breaks within the chapters usually signal when a new event or story takes place.  This makes for simple transitions and ensures the chronology is easy to follow.

One of the most fascinating parts about “Gang Leader for a Day” is how Venkatesh gradually develops such a close bond with J.T. over the course of his study.  For a full year, Venkatesh hides his non-traditional research from his advisors and colleagues at the university.  Much of the time, when he is not in class, he is with the gang.  Despite their socioeconomic differences, J.T. and Venkatesh develop a strong friendship.

Overall, “Gang Leader for a Day” shows through countless examples that the community, lives and relationships of the urban poor and gangs of Chicago cannot be reduced to statistics and graphs.  In order to truly know a group of people, especially to help them, one has to know the individuals and be willing to spend time with them.

“Gang Leader for a Day” is published by The Penguin Press and is available both at booksellers and the Rogers Library.