Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What I'm Reading Now-Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets

This is another overdue review that I am now up-to-date on thanks to all the Weekly Geeks who asked me questions about it. I'm glad they did too because a lot of the questions that people asked are probably not the questions I would have thought to address otherwise.

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets by Sudhir Venkatesh-I thought this book was fascinating. This was another airport find, and it was a good one. Many weekly geeks had similar questions. Eva from A Striped Armchair asked, "Was Gang Leader for a Day intellectual? Or did the author make lots of questionable assumptions/conclusions? (I wasn't a fan of Freakonomics, so if you've read that, do you think I'd enjoy this one?)" I didn't read Freakonomics, so I can't really compare the two, but I felt like the information that was being presented was pretty sound. Mostly it was the author's real-life experiences, but he also presented some background information about the area that he was researching to bring together a bigger picture of how a decision on the city level, to tear down a housing project for example, affected not only the residents of that community on an individual level but also the gang structure within that community and other neighboring communities as well.

Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness wanted to know if I thought "the author was able to keep his objectivity when writing about his experience? And how well did he balance storytelling with facts and figures to give some context about what his experience meant?" and Jennie at Biblio File wondered, "Is Gang Leader for a Day an overly academic book, or is it written for a more general audience?"

First of all, I don't think this is an overly academic book at all, and it is totally accessible to a general audience. If you're pushing this one aside because it sounds too much like school work, you're missing out. It's not all facts and figures and statistics at all, in fact, I think that was sort of the point of the book. He set out to find people to fill out surveys, to gather the data, to get the facts and figures; what he found out was that that information is useless if you don't understand why. Why are these people poor? Why don't they have jobs? Why don't they just move to a better neighborhood? Why do they put up with gang activity where they live? Why do women sell their bodies? Why don't they just apply for government aid?

...which brings me around to Kim's question. I don't know if the author was able to remain entirely objective; he did a good job of trying to stay neutral and objective, but he was writing largely about his experience hanging out IN A GANG. He was not a gang member; he was a nice boy from California who was in grad school, trying to gather some good information on poverty to impress his professors. Some subjectivity is going to creep in. He did try to assess things objectively, but in order to actually gain any valuable information, he had to get personally involved, not only with the gang leader, JT, but with the tenants of the building that JT's gang lived in, JT's family, the leader of the local Boys & Girls Club. As he found out, walking into the midst of a gang with a questionnaire full of questions like, How does it feel to be black and poor? wasn't really an effective way to gain useful information about people living in poverty. After the author spent an angsty night being held captive in a stairwell by the members of JT's gang, the Black Kings, JT's advice was:

"Go back to where you came from," he told me, "and be more careful when you walk around the city." Then, as I began gathering up my bag and clipboard, he talked to me about the proper way to study people. "You shouldn't go around asking them silly-ass questions," he said. "With people like us, you should hang out, get to know what they do, how they do it. No one is going to answer questions like that. You need to understand how young people live on the streets."

And that's what he did. For about 10 years, Sudhir hung out with JT, getting to know the members of the Black Kings, finding out why people would join a gang, put up with a gang selling drugs in their building, why police officers often showed up to mediate gang disputes rather than throwing as many gang members in jail as they could.

This isn't a book about how many youth are dropping out of high school and joining gangs each year and what percentage get arrested and how that percentage correlates to average yearly income, etc. If you've ever wondered why you can't just take a gang off the street and get them out of a neighborhood read this book. They are so insidiously woven into the neighborhoods that they are involved in, at least big organizations like the Black Kings were. The gangs sell drugs in the lobby of the apartment building, but in return they give money to the building president so that she can buy supplies for the children in the building. They cook crack in the vacant apartments, but they provide protection from abusive boyfriends to the women who live in the building. JT requires all of his gang members to receive a high school diploma or GED, and they are not allowed to use drugs. So, he keeps them in school and off drugs for the privilege of selling drugs, earning money, and rising up the ranks within the gang. Crime is kept to a minimum because if the cops come around, the drug business gets interrupted and people lose money, and people don't want to lose money...

which brings us around to what Trisha at Eclectic/Eccentric wanted to know, "...what did you think of Gang Leader for a Day? Was it an honest look at life in a gang or was it more of a kitchy book - was the author just interested in sensationalism?" I thought that this was a pretty honest look at things. It wasn't overdone with gang shootings and people shooting up on drugs or anything like that. Those elements were present, but they weren't as prominent as you might think, and they were presented as a realistic part of the everyday life, not just as the next sensational thing the author witnessed. The title comes from a day when the author is giving JT a hard time about his role as gang leader. He essentially says, "How hard can it be? You go around, you talk to people, you make arrangements for things; I could do that," and JT gives him the reigns to be in charge for a day, to handle all the things that he has to handle every day, and Sudhir realizes that there's more to being a gang leader than just being a thug. You can watch a clip of the author talking a little more about this here.

I don't want to say that this book glamorizes gang life, but it does present the human side of it, makes you see that just because someone is in a gang doesn't mean they are a bad person. It explores the reality of living in poverty, living in a gang, surrounded by a gang, protected by a gang, threatened by a gang. Also, if you're someone who can't stomach hearing (or reading) the N-word, this book is not for you. It is used with abandon because that's how it is used on the street. It's not pretty but neither is real life sometimes.

Thanks to everyone who asked me questions about this book. I hope I answered all of them. If not, feel free to ask me more. It's been a couple months now since I read it, so I didn't have a lot of quotes or examples top-of-mind, but my overall impression was that this is a book I would definitely recommend.

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Florinda said...

I'm glad you reviewed this. I'm reading excerpts from it via e-mail from this week, and it's fascinating. It makes me think a little of Random Family, which has a similar focus and which I thought was excellent. Getting your insights on the book will move it to the wishlist - thanks!

Dreamybee said...

I've heard about Random Family-I'll have to check that out. I hope you enjoy Gang Leader-glad I could help move it up the list!