Professor Turns 'Gang Leader for a Day' Columbia University sociology professor Sudhir Venkatesh spent seven years following a street gang that dealt crack around a Chicago housing project. His experiences are captured in his book, Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets.
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Professor Turns 'Gang Leader for a Day'

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Professor Turns 'Gang Leader for a Day'


What if you could climb deep inside the life of a crack-dealing street gang, so deep that you slept on filthy, crack-den floors, the group's kingpin watched your back, and you knew the neighborhood's whole network of prostitutes, upstanding neighbor ladies and players? As a naive sociology grad student, Sudhir Venkatesh stepped into that world. Seven years later, he started writing about his experience, and that story is captured in his new book, "Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets." Sudhir, welcome to NEWS & NOTES.

Professor SUDHIR VENKATESH (Columbia University): It's great to be here. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So this book started as a school project. Tell me what you were working on at first?

Prof. VENKATESH: Well, this was a project of mine for my dissertation as a graduate student, and I just wanted to understand the different attitudes that African-American youth had who were in middle-class neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods and so on. And I was fielding a survey, like any good sociologist, and I quickly discovered that the survey - asking people questions and giving them the answers to choose from, was just not the way to learn about social conditions in urban neighborhoods - are not the best way.

CHIDEYA: You talk about being inside these virtual walls of the campus, you know, told, okay, don't go into the park alone. Don't do this, don't do that. But you went into the park alone. You met some older men. What did they tell you?

Prof. VENKATESH: A lot of the listeners might - who go to schools in big cities might understand that, you know, you get these security maps, and they quite literally say don't cross this street. And, of course, the first thing you want to do is cross the street.

And I went into Washington Park on Chicago's south side and met some retired African-American men who were spending their days fishing and who really were living history for me. You know, I had these books, but they would give me the ins and out of the black political machine, the state of race relations in the city. And everything that I was reading in these textbooks seemed dead because they could say exactly the same thing with so much more spirit, and I wanted to find a way to spend time with folks like that instead of just asking them a few questions and hoping they could give me short answers.

CHIDEYA: They basically told you, okay, I'm glad you talked to us, but talk to some younger guys. So what did you do?

Prof. VENKATESH: So they sent me to a few neighborhoods. I constructed a survey, and I said okay, let me go see if I can start up some conversations. I went to the Robert Taylor Homes, a very poor public-housing development in Chicago. And I walked into this stairwell, and I met this street gang that was selling drugs in the stairwell, and they wondered who I was, and they thought I was a gang member, and they thought I was a Mexican gang member.

They started calling me Julio, and I administered the survey to them, and they just laughed. And they thought, okay, you must be from another gang because nobody's going to ask stupid questions like this. They kept me there, and I had...

CHIDEYA: You had multiple-choice questions like how do you feel being poor and black?

Prof. VENKATESH: How do you feel to be black and poor, exactly?

CHIDEYA: Yeah, how do you feel now about even asking that question?

Prof. VENKATESH: As I'm telling you this, I'm shaking my head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. VENKATESH: What was really interesting was they gave - the first things that came out of their mouth was listen - one of the leaders said we're not - I'm not black. I'm - you have to understand the difference: Negro, black, African-American, and gave me this incredible racial classification that I need - and just more and more knowledge was coming from them that I couldn't incorporate in this survey. So I decided to hang out with them as much as I could.

CHIDEYA: And he said specifically, I'm an N-word. How did you feel when he said that?

Prof. VENKATESH: I was a little taken aback. And I didn't understand why he was saying it, and then - again, he went into the reasons, and it was really that he wanted to signal that he was from the underclass. He was from the poor sector, the poor strata of African-Americans, and he wanted to differentiate himself from middle-class African-Americans who had, you know, experienced mobility.

CHIDEYA: So you met Miss May, who is the mother of a guy you became close to, J.T. You spent some time hanging out in her kitchen. How did you see her, and how did you see her son?

Prof. VENKATESH: So the book is really about this evolving relationship between me and this major street-gang leader in the neighborhood, J.T., and I would - he would take me around the neighborhood and introduce me to people, and I sort of felt like I was under his thumb. And when he felt it was dangerous or when he felt he didn't want me outside, he'd send me to his mom's house, Miss May, and she would sit there and she would explain to me - again, kind of a living history - she would tell me why the projects were built, what it was like for mothers of street-gang leaders, how she played a role in this community.

I think probably the most important thing I learned from her was the first she said to me is don't pity me. Don't treat me as a victim. I'll take responsibility for life here and what I've done, and she said don't talk to just the men. Talk to the women. They will tell you a whole different side about life in poor communities.

CHIDEYA: You did talk to the women, and you know, you found out a bit about how they earned and saved and shared their money. How did you perceive these gender differences, and what did the women do, for the most part?

Prof. VENKATESH: So if we go back 30, 40 years in public housing, we might remember something called the man-in-the-house rule, and that existed in many poor communities, that women received aid from the government on behalf of their children, and often they couldn't - they had to hide the men who were living in the home.

So in places like public housing and the Taylor homes with 30,000 people, 70 percent were women with children. They were in the public. They were the political voices. And, you know, and the conditions were so bad, the physical conditions, that one apartment, the sink might work. Another apartment, the bathroom might work.

So five or six families were getting together, showing in one place, cooking in another and so on, and they developed these extraordinary ties of sharing and support so that even today, 10 years after some of these families have left and moved out into other parts of Chicago, they still move in networks of five or six families around the city helping each other. It's extraordinary resilience and support in the African-American community.

CHIDEYA: Now you hung out with J.T., who much to your surprise went to college, but you also saw him administer a beat-down to a guy named C-Note. How did that change your perception of him?

Prof. VENKATESH: For the first 18 months, two years perhaps, I was really under his thumb. You know, and he looked like a war boss, somebody you'd see in these Mafia movies, where everyone would know his name. He'd be giving, you know, money to the kids and things like that. And I couldn't get out from under his grip. And one day he didn't see me, and he was punishing this squatter who refused to obey what, you know, he wanted the squatter to take his - he had a car mechanic, little alleyway mechanic operation, and he wanted him to take it off the basketball court.

The squatter wouldn't do it, and J.T. beat him up. And I watched him do this. And you know, just very quickly any kind of romantic illusion I had about these street gangs was just dispelled because of the immediate ways in which they would resort to violence. And in this community, where this a big underground economy, that's really the side that was most shocking was that at any moment, things could just explode. It could become very violent either with people getting beat or worse, with drive-by shootings and gun violence.

CHIDEYA: You talk about a guy named Officer Jerry. Who's he, and what was he like?

Prof. VENKATESH: I remember going back and reading the newspaper reports about policing in the community when it was being built, and just after 1970 or so, you'd hear police say this place is too dangerous for us to come into. I mean, imagine a place where the police felt it was too dangerous for them. And those statements happened over and over and over.

And what would end up happening is that either police would not come in or you'd get these kinds of rogue cops, these folks like this guy Officer Jerry who would come and shake down residents and act really in an unaccountable way. And resident rightly just feared the police because they would experience these sorts of beatings and shakedowns, and I talk about and I describe some of that in the book, and also the ways in which other police officers tried to change the image of policing by doing things more responsibly. So you had a lot of internal divisions within the police and that most of us don't see when we think about some of these inner-city communities.

CHIDEYA: You're teaching now at Columbia. What's the first thing you tell your students to do when they go out in the field?

Prof. VENKATESH: It's funny, I had a parent of a student call me after the book came out and said you're not sending my kid to hang out with crack-dealing gangs, are you? I said no, I'm not doing that. But I am telling them that there's a value in stepping outside the ivory tower or going across the street. I send them into Harlem. I send them to the Upper East Side to talk to the rich kids. I really think it's important that we get our students out of the classroom and engaged with people one on one, because that is really where I think the fount of knowledge will come from.

CHIDEYA: Sudhir, thanks a lot.

Prof. VENKATESH: Oh, thank you. It's been a pleasure.

CHIDEYA: Sudhir Venkatesh is the author of "Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets." He's also a sociology professor at Columbia University.

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