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March 11, 2008

Ambiguities all around Gangland: Gang Leader For a Day: A rogue sociologist crosses the line - Sudhir Venkatesh

Posted by Richard D. North

Gang Leader For a Day: A rogue sociologist crosses the line
by Sudhir Venkatesh
London: Allen Lane, 2008
Hardback, £18.99

This book - a wonderful if ambiguous read - is American Gangster meets The Wire. Like American Gangster [reviewed here], it concentrates on one dubious central figure who's a drugs dealer. Like HBO's The Wire, it is an account of the gang culture of America's notorious "projects", the huge housing estates which took the Le Corbusier high rise ideal to new depths. There's quite a strong cross-over between The Wire and Gang Leader: our author rounds up thugs to comment on the show.

There are also reminders of the work of Gillian Evans, a sociologist who, quite like Mr Venkatesh, went to live amongst the urban poor, in her case in south London. At the time, I said that the Evans work seemed to be poor sociology and that it failed to play to its real narrative and personal strengths. One merit of the Venkatesh book is that it makes very few claims to be sociology (the author has done plenty of that elsewhere, it seems). This work is very personal. It is about the ten year clash of two giant egos: the author's and the junior drug baron's.

Gangsters, matriarchs and hustlers
In the 1990s "JT" was a rising star in the Black Kings, and as such was the master of at least a few of the Robert Taylor Homes,

… twenty-eight drab high-rise buildings stretched along a two-mile corridor.
Amongst many surprises, we discover that he was probably less powerful than the most powerful matriarch of the scene: the "community leader", Ms Bailey.

Mr Venkatesh knows that he is in peculiar and morally ambiguous territory, and the bit which really interests him is the degree to which he ought to be so familiar with these people. His involvement is indeed the most absorbing part of the story. At the beginning of the book, the young sociologist graduate student, a suburban hyphenated Asian, merely knows that he has wandered into the opportunity of a lifetime. He is too excited and inexperienced to much question what he's about.

By the middle of the piece, he's aware that the characters around him are wickedly violent and exploitative and that his being a researcher is not a perfect moral membrane between him and them. After all, he is increasingly privy to their secrets and therefore complicit in them. In something of a stretch, he is allowed to run the gang's show for a day, though he doesn't get involved in anything too dreadful. He witnesses a few beatings, but rectifies things by also helping some victims of violence. He has the strength of mind not overly to comfort himself with the argument that his work is doing good. He is aware that he is a hustler, just like almost everyone he meets on the projects. Indeed, it is Ms Bailey who first nails the proposition.

And then, in the third part, the book matures further. By the end, he seems to realise that the characters he's dealing with are beginning to bore him. They are inherently not all that interesting, though their dilemmas and situations are. He seems to persevere because his insider knowledge is his sole academic USP.

Thus we have a reflection on the condition of observership and it may because I have done my fair share of schmoozing as a journalist, and then - often just as I have earned real trust and even affection - I have grown bored with my prey and known that it was time to move on. Not all my exits have been elegant. In Mr Venkatesh's case, the authorities decided to knock Robert Taylor down, which offers him the perfect out.

Criminal orderliness
There is a further dimension of hustlerdom which matters here, and Mr Venkatesh deals with it quite well. In the Robert Taylor buildings, there is a world which is so dysfunctional and an order which is so fragile and so criminal that one seriously wonders if anyone really had a serious chance of going straight. We will readily accept as modern cliché that the ruling gang had immense power, and offered an obvious opportunity for survival and even success.

But we learn that "community leaders" constituted another power base which was almost as corrupt and was in any case in league with the gang. And then we learn that the wider world of police and housing authority, and some of the local churches, was equally enmeshed in the criminal power system. That's to say, there wasn't any sign of a world within reach beyond the tower blocks where decency prevailed.

Thus, Mr Vekatesh seems to present a world in which JT and Mrs Bailey were amongst the brightest and even the best of the people around. They were certainly feathering their own nests as best they could, and were brutal and capricious as they did so. But they were at least capable of asserting something like authority, and no-one else was.

So we are presented with a world which was hermetically sealed against the ordinary forces of conventional virtue.

Respectability and corruption
I think it is fair to wonder if this is quite accurate. I don't know how many people managed to live humdrum, respectable lives within the Robert Taylor towers. If they were there, Mr Venkatesh doesn't tell us much about them, and one wonders if that's because his limited sympathy for the corrupt world he befriended would have had even less justification if some others managed to avoid it. It is pretty clear that with a bit of dedication, plenty of the young blacks in the gangs around the projects could have got out. But it is probably also fair to say that plenty of others didn't get close to having the smarts required.

Mr Venkatesh sees a certain amount of grace in the projects. He writes,

… more than 90 percent of the 4,000 households in Robert Taylor were headed by a female.
Alongside the drugs dealing and taking, the prostitution, the baby daddy abandonment, there was a good deal of mostly matriarchal warmth and strength. JT's own mother seems an affectionate good egg, and certainly looks after the young sociologist as one of her own. The visitor seems to warm to the sense of community, but he doesn't over do it. He seems to accept that there is just too much misery, surely some of it self-inflicted, for that.

A greater difficulty arises from the modern horror of saying anything racist. It seems naïve or silly not to wonder why the "gangsta" thing is special to a very small section of society. There are lots of poor people in the world and many of them live in corrupt societies. Only a few of them beget gangs. Some do though.

I'm thinking of the favelas of Sao Paulo (as we saw in the movie City of Men, 2007), and I suppose of the Gangs of New York (2002) of Scorsese and of the musical, West Side Story of Bernstein. Maybe the Mafia is a case in point. And there are white gangs in the UK, though not on anything like the scale of the Black Kings. Still, it is tempting to argue that the hyphenated African diaspora is particularly prone to problems.

One reflects that the utterly awful slums of Nairobi are not (so far as I know) gang-run. But there as in the diaspora, the unique black African problem seems to be the absent father. Adding the drugs trade makes things worse.
And then there is the more or less well-intentioned ghetto. It is a curiosity that, so far as I understand it, the demolition of the projects seems to have diminished the gang problem. This is one of many examples of why one kind of right-winger (mine) is so deeply sceptical of "community".

Sociologist or biographer
Such thoughts lead one to one of the greatest oddities of the book. Mr Venkatesh mentions that JT was quite an educated man and for a while escaped the projects to pursue life in the real world. It didn't take much for him to give up the difficulties of making his conventional way in life and to revert to his mother's milieu in the tower blocks.

JT insists that his gang members get something like an education, and that's a surprise. Less amazing - though it seems to slightly perplex Mr Venkatesh - is that JT wants the sociologist to be his biographer but also his apologist. So here's another ambiguity: our author has to spin his subject along or spin him. We can't be sure, but it looks like JT would be within his rights to feel cheated by the author and I suspect the author knows it. Another stretch: JT seems to have been helping the author as much as he did as a sort of cry for help.

JT seems to hope that the visiting sociologist will endorse his half-fantasy that he returned to the tower block to lead his people out of darkness. It is to Mr Venkatesh's credit that he doesn't buy that mythologizing. It is less to his credit that he doesn't appear to have told JT so.

Anyway, there's a great narrative arc to this book. The gangster finds he is past his sell-by date. Throughout, he faces threats from gangsters senior and junior to him. The sociologist parlays his work into national fame. Throughout, he owes his security to JT - a fact which both men feel.

There is, by the way, an explanation for why tower blocks small of piss - at least sometimes. It seems that children were encouraged to use the hallways as urinals, the better to deter prostitutes hanging out there.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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