Book review: Gang Leader for a day

Just finished reading Gang Leader for a day by Sudhir Venkatesh. I had first read about this book in Freakonomics where Levitt & Dubner talk about the economics of a drug gang and how a low level worker in a gang barely makes minimum wages. It had piqued my interest even at that time, so I picked it up next time I was heading for a long flight. Its the best sociology book I have read for a long time (maybe ever), that makes a group, a lifestyle come alive. Its not fiction, but its absorbing enough to rival great fiction.

It is written by a graduate student at University of Chicago, Sudhir Venkatesh. He is doing a survey on poverty in the projects (the infamous Robert Taylor Homes in South-side Chicago) in 1989. Some gang members from the Black Kings think he is from a rival gang and hold him overnight. He becomes friendly with the gang leader JT and spends the next six years hanging around with the gang, learning how they operate, how the economics work, what lives in the projects is life, how the gang thinks of itself not as a “gang” but a “community group”, how well-meaning governmental plans never end up helping the poorest, how the police is often working in hand with the gangs.

Venkatesh articulates some of my own dissatisfaction with academic life. When I was at Brown University and at UC Berkeleu, it felt too isolated, too ivory tower. When I discovered the web, and how you could build for it and constantly iterate, it seemed a far more exciting prospect than sitting in a lab doing made up experiments on people. He writes about this again and again, how to isolation of researcher from the very people they are studying bothers him.

Please add a comment if you have read this book. Would love to know what others thought.

7 thoughts on “Book review: Gang Leader for a day

  1. I am currently a high school teacher in the Englewood Community in Chicago IL. I had the pleasure to read your book and have been asked to give a book talk. While, I am very delighted you were able to get in-dept notes. I am concern with your word choice of “Nigger.”

    I am concerned because during the 1980s and 1990s African Americans that lived in the inner city did not refer to themselves as “nigger.”

    My question:

    In your book “Gang Leader For A Day” why did you chose to use the word “nigger” and not “nigga”?

    Nigga is a term used in African American Vernacular English that began as an eye dialect form of the word nigger (which is derived ultimately from the Latin word niger meaning the color black)

    In practice, its use and meaning are heavily dependent on context.[1] Presently, the word nigga is used more liberally among younger members[2] of all races and ethnicities in the United States, although its use by persons not of African descent is still widely viewed as unacceptable and hostile, even when used without intentional prejudice. In addition to African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Latin Americans and European Americans[3][4] have adopted the term as part of their vernacular.

    There is conflicting popular opinion on whether there is any meaningful difference between nigga and nigger as a spoken term.[5] Many people consider the terms to be equally pejorative, and the use of nigga both in and outside African American communities remains controversial.[6] H. Lewis Smith, author of Bury that Sucka: A Scandalous Affair with the N-word, believes that “replacing the ‘er’ with an ‘a’ changes nothing other than the pronunciation”[7] and the African American Registry notes, “Brother (Brotha) and Sister (Sistah or Sista) are terms of endearment. Nigger was and still is a word of disrespect.”[8] The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a civil rights group, condemns use of both nigga and nigger.[5]

    Some African-Americans express considerable offense when referred to as a nigga by Caucasian people, but not if they are called the same by other African-Americans, or by some other minority, as a term of endearment.[5] In this case, the term may be seen either as a symbol of brotherhood,[9] similar to the usage of the words dude and bro, and its use outside a defined social group an unwelcome cultural appropriation. Critics have derided this as a double standard.[3]

  2. I have read Sudhirs book. He is a fraud. I was born and raised inRobert Taylor Homes and was a communitycativist during the time he lied about being a gang leader and meeting a guy name J.T. I will finally expose him and the truth about Robert Taylor Homes in my new book just released by publishers graphics. Sudhir would have died the first day even trying to question one of the guys from the inside. some of those so call guys he lied and said he met are my cousins. They will not tell me their business nevertheless will they ever tell an outsider. Beauty Turner is deceased and gone to the grave but even she admitted that the worsest mistake she ever made towards the residents was allowing Sudhir to come and visit her sometimes in Robert Taylor Homes. People in Robert Taylor Homes never called each other Niggers he is a racist sciolist reaping the benefits of oppression against us as a people. I have a master degree from U.I.C. and lived through Robert Taylor while attending school. Read my book it will set the record straight from the inside not the oustide.

  3. I enjoyed this book because even though I felt the author may have embellished a bit, his interactions reminded of living in D.C. during the same time period, the late 80’s & early 90’s. I lived in SE & took an active interest in my neighbors, many of whom were involved in the drug trade in some way. I remember boys calling each other nigger but it may have been nigga. I just knew that as a white person, I should never ever use that word.

    What I would like to know is where is JT now? I mean in life not literally in Chicago. How is he doing? I kind of liked him.

  4. I really loved this book i had to read it for summer reading for high school and i loved it after i read the first page. it went into very good detail about how life was for them there. i live about 30min out of the city and there are a lot of guys at my school that think they are gang members. But after reading this book it makes the guys around where i live look like big babys.

    JT was one fave person in the book, what did he end up doing in life??

  5. I just finished reading Gang Leader for a Day yesterday. Sometimes I think he put a spin on some of the things he witnessed but I still found it fascinating. I’m not part of that culture or scene, but he brought the people’s plight forefront. Anybody, even an amateur sociologist knows that people who live in the projects are no different than those of us who grew up outside of it. The thing that makes us different are the opportunities that we have. It’s amazing how he was able to document their lives for so long, allowing the reader deep inside the “trenches.” It helped me better understand why some of us make it and others don’t. Despite being in a lose-lose situation, they made the most of it and learned to survive. It was almost like a third world country within a city and that is the saddest part. How many Einsteins, future Presidents, engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc. have died prematurely because of where they came from, never to reach their full potential? I highly recommend this book.

  6. Lee and Low Books is an independent children’s book publisher specializing in diversity. They take pride in nurturing many minority authors and illustrators who are new to the world of children’s book publishing.

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