I am reading Sudhir Venkatesh’s 2008 book, Gang Leader for a Day. Venkatesh spent ten years embedded with a gang leader in Chicago’s infamous Robert Taylor Homes, a group of high-rise buildings that became a self-encapsulated universe of urban black poor.
Venkatesh is a sociologist. He began his fieldwork in 1989 as a young sociologist studying at the University of Chicago. His work is giving me the clues I need to help me understand how the separation of black poor people from larger society gets perpetuated for decades upon decades, despite progress in societal laws that result in increased opportunities for everyone. Venkatesh shows how an area that was ostensibly built to provide temporary affordable housing for lower-income people became a means of keeping those people persistently separated from middle- to upper-income society. What Venkatesh reveals is the set of clues I have been looking for: the reasons that segments of people get diagnosed as groups to pity and to be frustrated with, rather than being viewed as individuals who are one with society but need a time-limited financial boost.
One aspect of the population in the Robert Taylor Homes that glares out at me is the inward psychological inability to change a bad situation. Venkatesh describes an ingrown societal system operating in the Robert Taylor Homes, within which people accept mistreatment from each other rather than leaving for a better existence. A man named C.T. is described as receiving a brutal beating from J.T., the gang leader who controls the self-enclosed economy of the Robert Taylor buildings. C.T. has skills as an auto mechanic. As an outsider looking in via Venkatesh’s description, I see a in C.T. man with personal capacities that could gain him a job and a better life outside the projects. However, albeit with umbrage, he accepts the beating and continues to live in the filthy tenement building, subjecting himself to the control of the Black Kings gang.
The Robert Taylor tenements were full of people who engaged in prostitution, drug selling, and stealing – dead-end pursuits – and yet these people seemed to believe two things: (1) they had no other choice, and (2) they could make such a way of life work. They beat each other up, they committed fruitless vengeance against each other, and they produced children together; the children were too often doomed to grow up exactly like their parents, as hopeless and as miserable. The gang leaders demanded that their teenaged recruits stay in high school and even get a college degree, not with a goal of getting them out of the gang, but to increase the gang’s strength as a business enterprise. These promising young people thereby entered into a way of life where they would have permission to do violence to others, and where they would accept violence from others. More than once, Venkatesh describes long-term tenement inhabitants mentioning the existence of middle-class people who grew up in the projects, left, and did not return. Significance: There is a way out. There was a way back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and there is a way now. People do not have to stay in the projects throughout their lives. Venkatesh observes very honestly that the desire for power and control motivated many of these long-term inhabitants to remain where they were, simultaneously doing good and doing harm, doing as much to snare other inhabitants within the tenements as to provide them food, clothing, and medical care. What do we have to give up when we decide to change? Identity, power, status – albeit status that depends on the approval of people whose approval is not worthwhile?
I look forward to reading more of Venkatesh’s work.