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If you can't beat them, join them

An eloquent study of the Abo-American underclass that goes way beyond just academic interest, writes Pramit Pal Chaudhuri.

books Updated: May 05, 2008 19:38 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Gang Leader For A Day


Sudhir Venkatesh


PENGUIN


RS 395 PP 302



It takes a certain naivete for a sociology student to walk up to gangsters in a , Chicago housing project and ask them to answer a questionnaire that begins: "What does it feel to be black and poor? Very bad; somewhat bad; neither good nor bad; somewhat good; very good."



It takes a certain luck to get the local gang leader to invite you into his life for the next decade rather than have you disemboweled. And it takes a certain intellect to convert all this into a touching but non-polemical account of the American underclass.



Gang Leader for A Day

is about Sudhir Venkatesh's decade at the Robert Taylor Housing Project in Chicago, a time when he served as a Bosworth to John Henry 'JT' Torrance, the tenement's up and coming gang leader Venkatesh has earlier distilled his experience into a number of academic works, inspiring one chapter in the bestseller Freakonomics.



This is the personal memoir, plainly written and fascinating. Taylor, as one resident says is a "city within a city," a giant tenement that existed in the 80s-90s. Its population of thousands of black Americans survived on a mix of welfare cheques and crack cocaine sales.



Violence was sufficiently common and the authorities suitably indifferent to ensure both police and ambulances ignored even emergency phone calls from the project.



The subculture of the residents was defined not just by race; but alas by a specific class experience. JT tells Venkatesh to stop calling him 'black' or 'African-American'. "I'm a nigger Niggers are the ones who live in this building.



African Americans live in the suburb. African-Americans wear ties to work. Niggers can't find no work." Yet amid the filth, urine and drugs exists a community JT's Black Knights serve as the project's law and order authorities.



A typical day has JT evict a group of squatters from a flat - not because they are squatting but because the gang had 'assigned' them a different apartment number Later he gives money to an elderly lady who is organising an after-hours party for the local children.



JT then arranges for one of his goons to cart off a sick druggie to the hospital. The other side is Mrs Bailey, the building president and equivalent of a welfare minister She acted as a liaison with the Chicago authorities, funneling money and servic- es in the directions she wants.



But to "retain her authority, she had to collaborate with the other power groups, in this case the gangs, who helped shape the status quo." She doesn't call the police on the crack dealers. In return, the gang helps maintain and defend the project. Both help the residents and simultaneously prey on them.



The Black Knights and Bailey exact a 10-15 per cent tax on the project's informal economy, using bloody noses or the suspension of services to eldorce their writ. Trying to understand why the residents put up with this rule of the criminal and corruption baffles Venkatesh.



A carwasher half-jokingly says "the gang protects us... [They] make your life hell, but they're family And you can't choose your family" But ultimately it is because There Is No Alternative. The formidable JT is the central character of Venkatesh's memoir.



The latter becomes so entwined in the gang that he finds himself helping a JT lieutenant after he's shot by a rival gang. At one point JT hands over the reins of the Black Knights for a day to Venkatesh, which inspires the title.



Venkatesh, among other things, has to sit in judgement over a financial dispute between two gang members. However, it is JT who punishes the wrongdoer with four 'mouthshots' - full punches to the face. JT gives him a constant education in the tough commercial decisions that underlie a successful crack dealing operation.



Venkatesh comes to appreciate "how much a street gang's structure mirrored the structure of just about any other business in America." Just like firms in a competitive environment, it is economics rather than wars that determine the rise and fall of street gangs.



This supports scholars who argue black drug dealers are, in effect, the community's entrepreneurs forced by racism and a ghetto environment to make their money in the underground economy. Certainly JT comes through as an efficient and ruthless executive who has to watch the quality of his products, enforce contracts and give his subordinates pep talks - except that his minions also have to double as a militia.



Part of the story is the author's own maturing, the problems he faces trying to remain an objective scholar as he is drawn ever closer to people like JT. The residents are remarkably open with Venkatesh. At times Venkatesh's innocence beggars belief.



After spending months interviewing locals about their role in the underground economy, about the extra boarders or odd jobs they use to earn extra change, he briefs JT and Bailey about his work. The two promptly use the data to shake down tenants for more money The JT story winds to a close as the crack explosion that propelled gangs like the Black Knights to implode in the 1990s.



When Chicago decides to raze Taylor, the gang fails to find a new territorial base and JT ends up running a drycleaner There is an extensive literature on black ghetto culture. This one doesn't beat, say, Nathan McCall's Makes Me Wanna Holler But it is far more gritty and granular than John Singleton's movie Boyz n the Hood.



Nonetheless, it is a tale which never turns stale, no matter how often and however many ways it is told. Venkatesh's scholarly eye helps outline a remarkable community, surprisingly clear-sighted about its own failings despite an exceedingly hostile environment.



"Don't make us the victim," says Bailey "We'll take responsibility for what we can control. It's just that not everything is in our hands." A black American ghetto is no City of Joy but it is not a City without Humanity.