In 1989 a 23-year-old sociology student from Chicago University posed a multiple-choice question to members of a drug-dealing gang called the Black Kings.
“How does it feel to be black and poor? Very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good?”
“F*** you!” replied one gangster. “You got to be f****** kidding me.”
This was the south side of Chicago on a housing “project” called the Robert Taylor Homes, more than 90 acres of terrifying bleakness interrupted by 28 high-rise blocks. It had been completed in 1962 in a burst of civic idealism. By 1989 it had been taken over by black gangsters who retailed the drugs provided wholesale by Mexican gangs from the outer suburbs.
With his clipboard, his ponytail, his questions and his Marxism, Sudhir Venkatesh, the student, had arrived in the middle of a war between the blacks and Mexicans about control of the retail trade. At first the Black Kings thought he was Mexican and contemptuously called him “Julio”. Having flashed a gun and a knife in his general direction, they held him for 17 hours on the stairwell of block 4040 as they checked out his credentials.
“Finally,” says Venkatesh, in the unthreatening luxury of his London publishers, “they told me to leave and they said they’d give me some advice: ‘Don’t ask these stupid questions. What you need to do is hang out with people.’ I brazenly took that as an invitation, went home, showered, bought some beer and went back.”
He had, as he puts it, “crossed the line”, stepped out of the classical sociologist’s posture of uninvolved observation into something much more dangerous – not just physically but also morally. Over the ensuing years, Venkatesh was to become, in effect, a member of the Black Kings, staying overnight with gangsters and their families. Indeed for 24 hours they made him their head – hence the title of his memoir of those times, Gang Leader for a Day (Allen Lane, £18.99) – though this was really only an amiable indulgence.
The book should send a chill through the minds of British politicians. We don’t have American history, and we have tended to congratulate ourselves on our ability to integrate. But Venkatesh warns that cracks are beginning to show with the increase of teenage killers and with the appearance of armed gangs in our inner cities. The same forces of globalisation and urban breakdown that formed the Black Kings are at work. This story could easily happen here.
It wasn’t until he’d been living with the Kings for three years that his teachers pointed out the full moral enormity of what he was doing.
“They said: ‘Okay, first you need to see a lawyer, and you’ve got to stop staying over at people’s homes. You go out in the morning and you come back at night.’ It was actually useful: it helped me construct a posture. I had to tell them I couldn’t listen to them planning any criminal activities – if you’re going to kill someone, don’t tell me.”
He needed a lawyer because the moment he heard the Kings planning a crime and failed to report it he became an accessory. And in fact over the years he did find himself deeply implicated in their brutality. He watched them beat up an old man and did not intervene. He also collected details of the income of people in the project, information the Kings used to intimidate and extort.
“I can look at it now and say it was an idiotic thing to do, though in the middle of it, it’s hard to navigate. I was young. I do things differently now.”
He had stepped a long way over the line in a manner that was to challenge, first, the entire discipline of sociology. But, he says, it was a necessary challenge.
“My profession is dying. We generally assess value by our lack of accessibility: we think the more people who know about what we do, the less serious we must be. We have completely separated ourselves from the roots of our discipline, which used to be a public discipline. Academics don’t appreciate the fact that we have tenure, a guaranteed income, based on participating in an institution that doesn’t pay taxes. We have a responsibility to engage the public. Without that, sociology will continue to fester.”
But what about the much bigger moral challenge he posed by becoming implicated in the life of the gang? He has been fiercely criticised for his behaviour, for in effect “going native” to the extent of turning a blind eye to brutality. Reviews of his memoir have suggested that it was more about self-glorification than sociology – “He couldn’t resist strutting his stuff,” wrote Alexander Cockburn in The Sunday Times last week.
Venkatesh has two big defences of his position. First, he was young. He was born in Madras and his family moved to California when he was five. His father was a university professor and they lived in middle-class comfort in a white suburb. “I had no interest in people who grew up in poverty or in African-American communities,” he says.
He suffered some petty racism. But, he says, Indians received mainly “positive feedback” because Indian immigration into the US was largely middle and upper class. Much later 9/11 was to change everything.
“A new category emerged called being ‘brown’, an undifferentiated identity when you’re all folks from east of the Levant . . . brown people started to feel threatened.”
He studied mathematics for his first degree and went to Chicago to become a sociologist, thinking it was a discipline that could be pursued through straight statistical methods. He was shocked by the divisions in the city – students were given maps showing all-black areas where they simply could not go. He broke the rules at once by talking to old black men in nearby parks, and then he went to building 4040 and discovered that his carefully constructed questionnaire and, indeed, his Marxism were useless. To understand black poverty he had to live it. But, young as he was, he had no idea of the implications of what he was doing. “I honestly thought this is what sociology graduates do.”
His second defence is that the true nature of black poor society was concealed by traditional methods. The poor were defined solely by what they didn’t have.
“People just said, they don’t have a job, they don’t have solid families. I wanted to see what exists. I felt it was a little strange to characterise a people by what is lacking. They form moral communities; they don’t just survive as if they’d been dropped in like the people in Lost. They try to live the good life, doing what they think is right. Just defining them by what they don’t have dehumanises them.”
Even his own potential complicity in the gang’s crimes needs to be seen in this context. Everybody in the project was implicated, he points out, including the authorities.
“The police said they weren’t there to prevent crime from occurring and they would tell the residents this. They said their job was to prevent crime getting out of control and that was all they could do; it was too dangerous to do anything else.”
Isolated from the normal rules, the people in the project were left to create their own rules, their own justice. To be there at all was to be implicated in this other world. But he had to be there to understand.
“In some sense you have to participate in this world. You don’t have to kill somebody to write a story about murder. But there’s grey areas. What’s the moral compass you should use? Once you make the decision to go in you’re subjecting yourself to those blurred lines.”
Venkatesh’s entry into this world was, quite by accident, superbly timed. The leader of the Kings, JT, was a smart, college-educated man of almost his own age. He wanted to talk. “Jung said the desire to reveal is greater than the desire to conceal – a lot of what happened was because I listened to people. JT wanted to tell the outside world his story.”
What he said destroyed any lingering Marxist belief that the poor could be relied upon to overthrow the system. The timing was crucial here. The civil rights movement of the Sixties had bifurcated – there were reformers such as Martin Luther King and revolutionaries such as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. By the Eighties, reform had worked inasmuch as it had created a successful black middle class, but it had failed in that a vast underclass had been left behind. This underclass, however, did not simply follow the revolutionary line. Instead it created a bizarre mirror image of the hyper-individualistic capitalism of the Reaganite mainstream.
“They were buying into the American dream. In that movie Wall Street there’s that character Gordon Gekko – greed is good. Well, there was Gekko in the ghetto. The underclass was embracing what was happening in the Eighties. These folks changed the entire street gang culture, moving away from the family model to a business model. This is what was so uncomfortable for Americans. It’s much easier for Americans to believe these people are outside the boundaries of civilisation.”
The gang members also didn’t fit the rap-star, bling-soaked image of popular culture. Venkatesh laughs at the idea that the gods of rap ever had much to do with ghettos and gangs. The Black Kings didn’t drape themselves in bling. For one thing, they didn’t have enough money – he found drug dealing was a surprisingly poorly paid profession. Few of them even took any hard drugs, restricting themselves to marijuana and alcohol.
But also, by the time they reached 25 they were tired – “25-year-olds looked like 40-year-olds”. They dreamt not of ruling the ghetto but of moving themselves and their families out to a comfortable suburb. They wanted to belong.
Venkatesh, now professor of sociology at Columbia University in New York, has continued his studies among the poor in America and beyond. He runs a blog on the New York Times site: tinyurl.com/3x4fw5.
When he asked the gang leaders what they thought of The Wire (a tough television cop show involving Baltimore gangs) they liked it but said they could see it was written by middle-class white people. Everything was flattened, they said; everything was made to seem like a game. In the real world there’s a hierarchy of winners and losers. The blacks are always the losers.
Why, I ask Venkatesh, is there so much current interest in gang culture? “The same reason we’re getting Barack Obama. It comes from the exhaustion of received political wisdom and social commentary. The world is changing and old categories don’t work. The nation state is an anachronism; we are global creatures.”
Obama, he says, represents at least the possibility that something different can be created as the global fractures the local. Gangs are symptoms both of the decay of the city and people’s urgent need to find a place in the world, and a direction in life – a need for, as Venkatesh puts it, recognition.
But Obama, he admits, has no solutions – “He’s not a dealmaker” – and Venkatesh is, on the whole, pessimistic about the prospects of curing America’s race neuroses.
“In America you can never underestimate race as a governing principle for creating division and framing how we make sense of the world. It’s in all social classes and all sectors. Obama is seen as running for president as a black man, not as a man. I’m not sure what the solution is: you can’t transform 400 years of colonial experience just by doing a lot of work in that Clintonesque way.
“I just read somewhere that the boards of the older Fortune 500 companies are more integrated than the ones that have arisen postdotcom, which doesn’t make sense. It’s not the young folks – it’s Xerox and IBM. I hardly think we’ve made any significant progress.”
Venkatesh has abandoned his old Marxism and finds little hope in the old liberal-conservative, left-right polarity of politics. “There are a lot of cries to be heard,” he says. They will not be answered by the old rhetoric. It’s happening here. People want to belong; they want recognition. And if they don’t get it – well, “F*** you! You got to be f****** kidding me.”
From the Sunday Times 17th Feb http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/u