Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta’

On my now-defunct personal blog I used to give some of my blog entries their own soundtrack. You know, music one should play in the background to make reading the post more enjoyable. Before continuing on to read the rest of this post, please hit play on the Geto Boys:

<

p>

Sudhir Venkatesh’s latest book, Gang Leader for a Day, has finally hit the bookstore shelves (see WSJ review here). We’ve blogged about Sudhir several times before on SM (see 1 and 2). His previous book was titled, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor. Gang Leader for a Day chronicles Venkatesh’s time spent hanging in the projects while pretending to be the chief biographer of a Chicago-land crack dealer named JT:

“Gang Leader for a Day” provides an often compelling, if amateurishly written, account of his quest. Under the protection of J.T., a middle manager in a citywide crack-dealing operation, Venkatesh sets himself up at the Robert Taylor Homes, one of the nation’s largest and poorest housing projects. Over seven years of study, he hangs out with gangsters, witnesses drive-bys and – remarkably – even participates in the beating of a man accused of abusing his girlfriend. Venkatesh’s research provides groundbreaking insights into the corporate-like hierarchy of drug dealers. It reveals the intricate shadow economy of the high-rise hustlers and the ways legitimate neighborhood businesses support it. And, most effectively, it offers a heartbreaking glimpse of how residents struggle just to survive in a place where even emergency vehicles fear to venture. [Link]

<

p>

<

p>Sounds like Venkatesh really got into character. If he was a cop and not a sociologist I might have titled this post “Dhiren Brasco.” In fact, some of the reviewers openly wonder if Venkatesh may have gotten too close to his “subjects:”

I found this a difficult review to write. The book is very interesting and Venkatesh is one of the world’s best and leading social scientists (and I don’t say that lightly). Still, I thought his book was…how can I put it….somewhat evil, if I may call upon that old-fashioned concept. The book required him to work with, and often encourage, a vicious gang leader for up to six years. [via Marginal Revolution]

<

p>You know what I’m thinking? This would actually make a kick-ass movie as long as they let Venkatesh’s character be played by a South Asian actor. It would make for a really original screenplay I think. For those of you wanting a glimpse into the flow of the book, the NYTimes and Wall Street Journal have been publishing long excerpts:

After nearly three years of hanging out with J.T., I began talking to several of my professors about my dissertation topic. As it turned out, they weren’t as enthusiastic as I was about an in-depth study of the Black Kings crack gang and their compelling leader. They were more interested in the standard sociological issues in the community: entrenched poverty, domestic violence, the prevalence of guns, residents’ charged relations with the government – and, to a lesser extent, how the community dealt with the gang.

If I explored these subjects well, my professors said, I could explain how the Robert Taylor tenants really behaved, rather than simply arguing that they didn’t act like middle-class people.

Bill Wilson in particular was adamant that I adopt a wider lens on the gang and its role in Robert Taylor. Because sociology had such a strong tradition of “community studies,” he wanted me to write the definitive report on everyday life in high-rise housing projects.

He also said he’s started worrying about my safety in the projects. By this point, I had taken up golf as a way to spend more time with Wilson, an avid golfer. “I’m having nightmares, Sudhir,” he said once in the middle of the fairway, staring out blankly. “You’re worrying me, and I really want you to think about spending some time with others.” He drifted off, never instructing me about which “others” I should be observing, but I knew this was code for anyone besides the gang. [Link]

If any of you have already read this then let us know what you think.

44 thoughts on “Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta’

  1. A better gangsta video, at least for the outsourcing centers:)

    I’ll have to read the book. I’m surprised he didn’t get his a$!% kicked when asking that “how is it too be poor” question . . . you’d get shot asking something like that in New Haven back in that time period. (Even Michael J. White carried a gun to walk to his car.)

    After reading the book, to put it all into context, it might be worth re-reading Clockers–the product of another visit to the projects. No disrespect to Venkatesh, but the way the book is promoted comes across as a condescending, “Let’s go see the black people” sort of thing . . . but it definitely deserves to be read.

  2. Looks very interesting–I’ll have to read it. I like Tyler Cowen/Marginal Revolution but I think his criticism here is misplaced–nothing “evil” about observing/documenting the world.

  3. book might be worth a read as far as the appropriate video for this – dude just “studied” a few gangstas so…..wanksta

  4. oh, he hung with real gangstas, not desi gangstas: a bunch of skinny-ass engineers, calling each other n—-r while living with their parents.

  5. 5 · Manju said

    oh, he hung with real gangstas, not desi gangstas: a bunch of skinny-ass engineers, calling each other n—-r while living with their parents.

    I’ve run across ABD ganstas. Lots of these people aren’t wannabes and poseurs. They really they’re gangstas and speak like that because thats how everyone in their neighborhood speaks.

    Over seven years of study, he hangs out with gangsters, witnesses drive-bys and – remarkably – even participates in the beating of a man accused of abusing his girlfriend.

    Uhh…accessory to several crimes?

    You can listen to Venkatesh read an excerpt from his book on NPR - its pretty good.

  6. “They really they’re gangstas and speak like that because thats how everyone in their neighborhood speaks.”

    That should be read:

    “They really think they’re gangstas and they speak like that because thats how everyone in their neighborhood speaks.”

  7. On my now-defunct personal blog I used to give some of my blog entries their own soundtrack. You know, music one should play in the background to make reading the post more enjoyable.

    Ha! I didn’t know you did this. I used to also, but then I got lazy.

  8. The bro has gone all Col. Kurtz. I wonder if he threw a copy of the “Golden Bough” at his thesis advisor

  9. We all read Freakonomics I’m sure and I was wanting to read what I suspect is his more scholarly offering “Off the Books”. Until now that is. My guess is that he saw the success of “The Wire” and is looking to develop a show or a movie. Dealing a beating, even if it was to the most worthy of recipients, is wrong on every level.

  10. I read alot of summaries about this book.

    He basically goes into the ghetto and on his 1st day gets held hostage because the gang thinks he is from a rival mexican gang, but the leader listens to him and the black gang accepts him because he is not black, white or mexican so there is no reason to fear him. From there he observes all the different niches that people are put into to.

    On a side note, someone from India keeps calling me on my cell phone even though I know zero people from there and it is freaking me out. Is my identity about to be stolen? The voice message I got was like something from a Indian movie.

  11. I enjoyed Freakonomics and was particularly excited about what SV did in Chicago. I thought he nailed some of the mis-perceptions about street life (e.g. street dealers make a lot of money). I also thought he had some serious cojones; walking into the projects.

    I read the chapter Abhi linked on WSJ and I plan on reading the rest of the book. I will withhold judgment till I read through all of it. What bothered me immediately is that SV seems to have really enjoyed the allure of the thug life. He was, after all, protected by the gang leader. He therefore avoided the indignities and deprivations that many in JT’s community had to suffer. If he had to taste the gang leader’s own wrath would he be as magnanimous of the image that he creates of his central character?

    When I first came to this country, I lived in a not so great neighborhood. Eventually, my family moved on to a better situation, desi people that they are. My time in that neighborhood left an impression if not a few marks and scars. I saw more than a few people get caught up trying to be “wanna be” gangsters only to find it was a much harder and more dangerous life than Hollywood glamorizes. I hope SV doesn’t dumb down that gritty, dirty part of it. And I hope he deals honestly with the fact, that the gangster/drug dealer is essentially a predator, another parasite on his own community. I understand the drug dealer is just trying to make a buck because there’s not a lot of opportunities but that still doesn’t make it right, especially, when that activity only perpetuates the gangster life in further generations living in that neighborhood. William Julius Wilson, SV’s mentor, makes the point that the drug dealer/pimp is part of a culture of the underclass, a culture which creates a vicious destructive cycle destroying communities. Before reading SV’s work or reading alongside it, I would recommend Wilson’s seminal work, The Truly Disadvantaged. A good review of it is linked. BTW, SV seems to follow in Wilson’s footsteps as Wilson similarly interviewed and “hung out” with his subjects.

    Hopefully, after reading the book, I find that SV overcomes his thrall with the central gangster character and illustrates the pernicious effects of the gang culture.

    For a “gangsta” video, try gangstarr’s Just to get a Rep. Credit to Harbeer for reminding me of it on V are all Rockstars.

  12. Dealing a beating, even if it was to the most worthy of recipients, is wrong on every level.

    Really? Have you ever dealt a beating? If you ran with me and my gang (of skinny engineers) I think you’d change your tune. Beatings are often necessary. Even Arjun was advised of this on the battle field.

  13. What bothered me immediately is that SV seems to have really enjoyed the allure of the thug life.

    But men (and women) are basically animals still. “Thug life” or the way of the alpha dog has its appeal. Stripped of societal rules we go back to instinct. Thus, the “allure.” Even the dog in Call of the Wild (“Buck” was it) felt it.

  14. The bro has gone all Col. Kurtz.

    “The horror… the horror”. He’d better pray Capt. Willard isn’t sent after him.

  15. 16 · Evil Abhi said

    But men (and women) are basically animals still. “Thug life” or the way of the alpha dog has its appeal. Stripped of societal rules we go back to instinct. Thus, the “allure.” Even the dog in Call of the Wild (“Buck” was it) felt it.

    We’re not in a Mad Max beyond Thunderdome world yet, are we now? Further, SV wasn’t the alpha male. He was riding the coattails of the alpha, just another follower in the pack, much like the little fish that hangs off of the side of a shark. Additionally, there is a hierarchy that even SV and his main character seem to follow, another set of societal rules. Yeah, one can feel the rush of being a little primitive and being the alpha in the crowd, but, if he’s just a poser who plays at being tough isn’t he just being seduced by something he could never be and secretly wishes he was. The alpha would seem to be able to chart his own course and bend the world to his will, no? But hey, the people not involved in the drug trade in the inner city, the jungle, would agree that most of them are little more than animals trying to carve out a small piece for themselves.

    BTW, Jack London in White Fang sure made it seem like the wild animal enjoyed his human owner’s companionship more than killing other dogs in a ring. The primitive animal didn’t seem to enjoy acting out its baser instincts.

    Not even sure “Evil Abhi” wanted a response. What the heck, Abhi’s the alleged alpha, ;) , might as well nip back.

    Just don’t send out your skinny ass engineers acting out their Thug Life fantasies in a pique of revenge, they might talk me to death.

  16. Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt wrote Freakonomics not this dude.

    Umm, I know. I was referring to the fact that SV and his research was introduced to most of us in Freakonomics

  17. oh, he hung with real gangstas, not desi gangstas: a bunch of skinny-ass engineers, calling each other n—-r while living with their parents.

    Manju that was not a nice think to say about the young punjabi males in the west. I don’t think many of them are engineers.

  18. 12 · ShallowThinker said

    I read alot of summaries about this book. He basically goes into the ghetto and on his 1st day gets held hostage because the gang thinks he is from a rival mexican gang, but the leader listens to him and the black gang accepts him because he is not black, white or mexican so there is no reason to fear him. From there he observes all the different niches that people are put into to. On a side note, someone from India keeps calling me on my cell phone even though I know zero people from there and it is freaking me out. Is my identity about to be stolen? The voice message I got was like something from a Indian movie.

    I find this really interesting. It definitely goes against some other theories. I remember reading something about how he feels that he was able to conduct his research for his earlier book more easily because he was an outsider but he wasn’t white either. I can actually relate to the feeling, if not to his research.

  19. On a side note, someone from India keeps calling me on my cell phone even though I know zero people from there and it is freaking me out. Is my identity about to be stolen? The voice message I got was like something from a Indian movie.

    Can you upload the voice-mail? Maybe someone can translate it for us. (Like Sudhir, I too have a hidden agenda, and that is to sample the message and put it in a beat.)

  20. Manju

    oh, he hung with real gangstas, not desi gangstas: a bunch of skinny-ass engineers, calling each other n—-r while living with their parents.

    The leader Sudhir profiled also lived with his parents, called others nig*er. And he had a college degree to boot. So I guess once desi’s have a little more KFC and start moving to Sales — watch out for the bullets!

  21. I find this really interesting. It definitely goes against some other theories.

    I think (?) SV’s undercover work predates the black vs. latino(brown)nationwide beef

    the people not involved in the drug trade in the inner city, the jungle, would agree that most of them are little more than animals

    Definitely. I did some volunteer work, as an after school tutor/mentor in the Cabrini Greens housing Project in the early 2000′s. The ghetto fabulous trend was wearing thin even then. Very young kids(boys mainly, but some girls) rarely expressed financial gain as a motive for getting involved,it was “safety first” e.g to avoid beat downs, though older boys did consider that path as a career Op.

    oh, he hung with real gangstas, not desi gangstas

    Some of the saddest “posers” were the relatively older women who would ‘invest’ in young men eg give them seed money (their check) to flip in the drugs trade I could almost get behind a libertarian view of legalizing it [drugs] on the back of this. Anecdotely the project I was working with has seen great progress and has expanded to the wild 100′s; Altgeld Gardens, and Austin neighborhoods, I think the tide has turned. vis a vis the appeal.

    ..makes the point that the drug dealer/pimp is part of a culture of the underclass, a culture which creates a vicious destructive cycle destroying communities

    I’m grateful for the chance I had to postively intervene in some young lives, & the ,things I learned- its not as if I grew up extremely wealthy, but I didn’t have the stereotypical AA environment/back ground either. That was sheer luck on my part-I choose the right grand/parents ;-) . I think a lot of people who do policy work would benefit from actually spending time in problem areas. However its clear to me that some people literally do not “know” any better when it comes to parenting choices etc. I understand govt isn’t the answer. The program I was with was part of a faith based initiative, but where does that leave non profits or other NGO’s who could /would step in ?

  22. Over seven years of study, he hangs out with gangsters, witnesses drive-bys and – remarkably – even participates in the beating of a man accused of abusing his girlfriend.

    I cant believe he did that. Maybe he is embellishing to sell his book.

  23. The beating he participated in from what I remember reading about, is when a guy raped some woman and alot of people in the project found this guy and beat him. This Indian guy just stood there and watched and by not doing anything about it he felt like he participated. I dont think he did any of the kicking and punching, but I maybe wrong.

    DJ Drrrty Poonjabi:

    Can you upload the voice-mail? Maybe someone can translate it for us. (Like Sudhir, I too have a hidden agenda, and that is to sample the message and put it in a beat.)

    I wish I still had it because it would have gone perfectly to a beat.

  24. Why can’t the police/FBI demand some inside information so as to arrest the thugs/criminals that he encountered through his research/book ?

  25. Seems like an interesting read. Though if it is true that he partook in physical attacks, the past reviewer is right – it is evil. He not only documented the gang world but also may have been involved with its activities, which breaks the boundaries of the observe role traditionally in sociology.

  26. 11 · louiecypher said

    Dealing a beating, even if it was to the most worthy of recipients, is wrong on every level.

    Try telling that to the SM dungeon regulars :)

  27. I haven’t read this. But, from what I’m hearing about it, I worry that the actions he talks about in the book might reduce the impact of his other work. As a civil rights advocate in the Chicago region, I’ve seen Venkatesh give presentations in many places. He spoke powerfully about his ability to broker deals in a more egalitarian fashion than local established power brokers. And, he spoke powerfully about how his race being not balck or white was why he could gain trust in the community and thus get better research done. I’m concerned now that maybe he wasn’t trusted so much as feared because he created this persona for himself. That would seriously hurt his credibility in an academic and advocacy environment. It sucks, because I think the stories he told were very important.

  28. I’ve got the book and have read big sections of it. It’s a good book. It’s attracted some sneering reviews (this one by William Grimes in the New York Times was classic) but the fact is that Venkatesh has an important story to tell and does a good job telling it. The methodology and ethics questions are worth discussing, but he is up front with them in the book — in fact, his straying away from standard academic methods and entering a gray area is a major, explicitly developed narrative that weaves throughout the whole book. It’s actually part of what makes the book so interesting.

    Like any other academic research or journalism, Venkatesh’s work surely merits methodological scrutiny. That’s fine, but callow armchair moralizing (again, see the Grimes review) is not helpful. It only serves to keep the under-reported stories under-reported, and the issues they raise unaddressed.

    Venkatesh is clearly an accomplished hustler, though. Managing to produce not one, not two, but THREE major books from your dissertation research is a hustle of the highest order. Respect!

  29. Venkatesh is clearly an accomplished hustler, though. Managing to produce not one, not two, but THREE major books from your dissertation research is a hustle of the highest order. Respect!

    Word! Although he is simultaneously disproving his hypothesis that both the top dog, Levitt, and the foot soldiers like him can’t make good :)

  30. I’m concerned about Venkatesh’s research…does it influence public policy makers or help the community he has researched? Probably not. The NYT review stated that he did not include the feelings of project residents about the Black Kings. I’d assume they have a pretty low opinion of the gang and possibly Venkatesh as well. Actually, I’d rather hear about the struggles of those within housing projects who are a segment of the working class poor; how do they deal with crime and extortion, dire conditions and living on meager earnings? And those who are not members of a gang…how do they survive? How do you raise a child to respect education and its merits in such an environment? There are many questions to be pondered, and they should not be as patronizing as “How does it feel to be Black and poor?” Classic.

  31. I’m concerned about Venkatesh’s research…does it influence public policy makers or help the community he has researched? Probably not. The NYT review stated that he did not include the feelings of project residents about the Black Kings. I’d assume they have a pretty low opinion of the gang and possibly Venkatesh as well. Actually, I’d rather hear about the struggles of those within housing projects who are a segment of the working class poor; how do they deal with crime and extortion, dire conditions and living on meager earnings? And those who are not members of a gang…how do they survive? How do you raise a child to respect education and its merits in such an environment? There are many questions to be pondered, and they should not be as patronizing as “How does it feel to be Black and poor?” Classic.

    denise, i think you (and others) have raised fair questions about this book; at the same time though you all should also read his other two works (both of which deal with the residents, and not gang members). you should also do some background research on his scholarship (i.e. read some of his papers) before passing hasty judgments on him based on this one book. in fact i guarantee that you will get answers to most of your questions.

  32. To anyone curious, the film rights for the book were sold before the book hit store shelves.

    It’s set up at Paramount with director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan) in talks to direct.

  33. I wish I still had it because it would have gone perfectly to a beat.

    Fiddlesticks. Maybe you can call them back?

    To anyone curious, the film rights for the book were sold before the book hit store shelves.

    100 rupees that Dr. Venkatesh’s role is played by Kal Penn.

  34. There are many questions to be pondered, and they should not be as patronizing as “How does it feel to be Black and poor?” Classic.

    Denise, I think your critiques are on-point, but Venkatesh addresses many of your questions throughout his work (including underscoring how patronizing and stupid his original survey was — he often highlights the disconnect between “ivory tower survey methodology” and the its disconnect from the lives of real people on the ground). The NYT review is fairly cursory and doesn’t really examine this book in the context of his other work; instead it relishes its disdain for the “glorification of the gangster lifestyle.” I don’t know that that’s a fair assessment of the sum of his work.

  35. Interesting post. I have been wondering about this issue,so thanks for posting. I’ll likely be coming back to your blog. Keep up great writing.