In 1989, a University of Chicago graduate student named Sudhir Venkatesh decided to leave his cocoon-like campus, and find out what life was like in his city's notorious public housing projects. So he wandered into the decrepit Lake Park projects in Chicago's Oakland neighborhood, introduced himself to a group of teenagers shooting dice, whipped out a clipboard, and asked them this question: "How does it feel to be black and poor? Very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good?""You got to be f-cking kidding me," the ringleader said. And the whole dumbstruck group convulsed with laughter. Hearing how ridiculous his own question sounded, Venkatesh realized then and there that he was wasting his time. The residents of this squalid building were living lives completely alien to his middle-class upbringing. He wasn't going to get inside their heads with patronizing multiple-choice questions. But foolish as he felt, Venkatesh caught a break that day, one that eventually set him on a path to a rock-star reputation within sociology, and a professorship in the Ivy Leagues. The toughs Venkatesh stumbled on were low-level foot soldiers with the Black Kings, an enormous regional outfit whose Lake Park operations were controlled by a formidable gangland general named J.T. Against all odds, Venkatesh struck up an instant bond with the man. Unlike just about everyone else who lived at Lake Park, J.T. had been to college, and had even studied sociology in preparation for a short-lived career in the legitimate business world. A narcissist, J.T. imagined his life to be worthy of biography, and invited Venkatesh into his inner circle as a sort of court scribe. For the next seven years, Venkatesh would become eyewitness to the inner workings of gang life. His remarkable account of those years -- contained in a newly released book, Gang Leader for a Day: A rogue sociologist takes to the streets-- is required reading for anyone who wants to understand why gangs continue to thrive among the West's underclass. The first thing one notices about the world Venkatesh describes is this: There are no fathers. Everyone at Lake Park -- even J.T., who commands 200 gangsters and, in a good year, makes six figures from crack-dealing -- lives with their momma. The young men don't dream of settling down with a family. Rather, they seek to emulate the polygamous J.T., who uses his drug proceeds to lodge various girlfriends in separate apartments. With no father figures to guide them, these men internalize the juvenile conception of manhood peddled by rap videos, and fritter away their adolescent years pursuing it through streetcorner posturing and brawling. The nature of the local economy is the second thing that stands out: Except for the corner stores (which are run by Arabs), there is little legitimate free-market activity. Virtually all of the money coming in to Lake Park comes from two sources: government welfare and drugs. The few people who apply actual market-able job skills within the community -- such as the mechanic "C-Note," who gets his name because he has "a hundred ways to make a hundred dollars" -- are so rare as to be minor celebrities.
As a result, criminality is normalized: The idea of studying hard, going to college and getting a respectable job -- the formula for success applied by waves of European and Asian immigrants to North American since the late 19th century -- is dismissed as a white man's fantasy.Gang life is at the centre of all these pathologies. But as Venkatesh explains, the local residents' attitude toward the Black Kings is actually quite conflicted. Because violence attracts police, and police scare away customers, J.T. has an economic interest in keeping life in the projects peaceful. For a small cut of the action, his henchmen provide a security detail for the local crack dens, and protection for prostitutes. They also drive sick residents to the hospital, organize basketball games, and even stage get-out-the-vote drives on behalf of the local black political machine. There is plenty of violence in Gang Leader for a Day. But it is not random. Like all petty tyrants, J.T. understands that his legitimacy rests on providing some semblance of order. Read the full article here.