Gang Leader for a Day

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Themes and Colors
Hustling Theme Icon
Teaching and Learning Theme Icon
Objectivity and Empathy Theme Icon
Crime and the Police Theme Icon
Poverty Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Gang Leader for a Day, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Hustling Theme Icon

One of the central concerns of Gang Leader for a Day is “hustling.” The term itself has multiple meanings and contexts. Most simply, hustling means whatever one does to survive in the projects. This can involve overt criminal activity, like prostitution or theft; grayer-area criminal activity, like the reselling of goods of questionable origin; or non-criminal odd jobs, like the repair or cleaning of old cars or electronics. Sudhir’s idea of hustling changes throughout the book – and he becomes much more understanding of it as a phenomenon when he realizes that he, too, has a “hustle,” like many people in Robert Taylor.

Various characters tell Sudhir that they make their way through hustling: Ms. Bailey, C-Note, JT, and Clarisse, each with different degrees of official recognition and power. For example, Ms. Bailey has an “elected” position within the project and uses her leverage to enrich herself and help families not served by the police or the housing authority. JT runs the local chapter of the Black Kings, and his hustles include the selling of crack cocaine and various “protection” rackets, which also (he claims) “support the community” and enrich him.

Against this backdrop, however, many people in the projects remind Sudhir that he, too, has a hustle. This is one of Sudhir’s lessons learned by the end of his research stint. Sudhir wants to make his way as an academic sociologist studying the economy and life of the Chicago projects. To do this, he sometimes has to protect his own interests in the face of other, competing interests. For example, Sudhir shares off-the-books job information with Ms. Bailey and JT, only to realize that the two use this information to ask for more protection money from project residents. Thus, Sudhir’s hustle does not always align with the best interests of those in the community he studies. In some cases, Sudhir must choose whether to prioritize his own research and career, or the stability and wellbeing of those around him.

In this way, Sudhir’s hustles, along with those of JT and Ms. Bailey in particular, demonstrate that “self-interest” and self-enrichment often come with a cost. Sudhir genuinely wants to help families in Robert Taylor, but he also wants to make his dissertation better, and to further his academic career. Ms. Bailey and JT really do want to help the community – but they also enrich themselves in the process. When Sudhir sees the positive and negative effects of his own hustles, he is more inclined, by the end of the book, to understand JT and Ms. Bailey’s self-interested behavior in context – to observe the real social good of what they do, along with the morally questionable side.

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Hustling ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Hustling appears in each Chapter of Gang Leader for a Day. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Hustling Quotes in Gang Leader for a Day

Below you will find the important quotes in Gang Leader for a Day related to the theme of Hustling.
Preface Quotes

I hadn’t come for the crack; I was here on a different mission. I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and for my research I had taken to hanging out with the Black Kings, the local crack-selling gang.

Related Characters: Sudhir Venkatesh (speaker)
Page Number: xiv
Explanation and Analysis:

Sudhir here describes the basis for the book. As Stephen Dubner notes in his introduction to the volume, Sudhir is very good at going places others might not be willing to venture – he is okay with stretching far, far past his “comfort zone” in academia, and with exploring a community of which he has little prior knowledge. This quote sets the stage for much of the rest of the book, and also shows just how stark and difficult life in the projects can be. It illustrates the extent to which Sudhir becomes a “part” of the community he studies – or, at least, the extent to which he is willing to try to blend in with that community.

And the quote also points up the difficulties of Sudhir’s work. For, after all, he is not “there for the crack.” In fact, he is doing the exact opposite – he is attempting, with sobriety and precision, to depict drug use, drug dealing, prostitution, and other crimes and vices one might observe in places like the Robert Taylor Homes. The friction between academic research and the messiness of lived life will be a refrain throughout the text.

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Chapter 1 Quotes

You got blacks who are beating their heads trying to figure out a way to live where you live! Don’t ask me why. And then you got a whole lot of black folk who realize it ain’t no use. Like us. We just spend our time trying to get by, and we live around here, where it ain’t so pretty, but at least you won’t get your ass beat. At least not by the police.

Related Characters: Charlie and Old Time (speaker), Sudhir Venkatesh
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

Charlie, in this passage, identifies some of the difficulties inherent in “helping” African Americans either to leave or “improve” their communities. As Charlie notes, some people in his neighborhood simply want to leave – they don’t want to live in a place that’s less physically appealing than, say, Hyde Park, just a few blocks over. But Charlie also describes the trade-off of living in a largely African-American neighborhood: he doesn’t have to worry about police violence against citizens, because so many police refuse to do their jobs where Charlie and Old Time live.

Sudhir believes, through much of the book, that it’s crazy for people not to call the police when there’s trouble. Where Sudhir was raised, in relatively wealthy suburban Southern California, the police responded to citizens and helped them. But here, in African American neighborhoods of Chicago, the police are mostly feared and avoided – since when they do show up, they generally do more harm than good.

Beer? ... You said I should hang out with folks if I want to know what their life is like.

Related Characters: Sudhir Venkatesh (speaker), JT
Related Symbols: Beer
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

This is Sudhir’s response to JT and the rest of the BKs he met the night before. Most likely, JT expected that Sudhir would never return, that he would go back to the University of Chicago with a story or two, as he hints during their last conversation – and that would be that. But Sudhir, to his credit, allows not even another day to go by. And he notices right away that there is a form of “hanging out” currency among the gang members: beer.

Thus Sudhir offers to drink and chat with the gang members, and to begin to listen to them rather than to impose on them a set of guidelines the University has created for the “study” of urban populations. It perhaps also helps that many in the BKs are not able to identify the culture from which Sudhir comes – he is a second-generation Indian American from California, but he works and studies at a largely white institution. Thus, Sudhir frustrates some of the most obvious divisions between Hyde Park and the Robert Taylor Homes.

Chapter 2 Quotes

You always take the sure bet in this game. Nothing can be predicted—not supply, not anything. The [person] who tells you he’s going to have product a year from now is lying. He could be in jail or dead. So take your discount now.

Related Characters: JT (speaker), Sudhir Venkatesh
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

JT enjoys dispensing advice to Sudhir about the nature of his work and the craft he brings to it. In particular, JT seems not to be fazed by the fact that he sells drugs, particularly crack cocaine, a “cheap high” that cannot be said to do any good for anyone who purchases it. JT instead believes that selling drugs is, at least indirectly, a way to “give back” to the community in which he lives. He justifies this by saying that profits from the drug-selling trade can be plowed back into the Robert Taylor Homes, in the form of donations to after-school programs, or little bits of cash given out to families or people in need.

And JT isn’t wrong in this – the gang really does help the community in some ways, in a symbiosis Sudhir spends much of the book trying to understand. But JT also sells a product that kills the people who use it. And although JT expresses a good deal of introspection over the course of the narrative, he never really questions the sale of crack, believing instead that people who rely on the drug are “crackheads” who deserve whatever comes to them.

And we don’t just fight each other. We have basketball tournaments, softball tournaments, card games. Sometimes it’s just people in the organization who play, but sometimes we find the best people in the building ... so it’s a building thing.

Related Characters: JT (speaker), Sudhir Venkatesh
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

One thing Sudhir realizes is the interconnectedness of the BKs to the rest of the Robert Taylor Homes. Many people in the gang, and many people living in the building, second this view. The BKs take over much of what is left behind by a lack of housing authority support in the Homes and the near total lack of a police presence. The BKs really do support certain programs – especially for youth – and they try to arrange voter drives and encourage civic engagement.

But as Sudhir notes throughout the text, this is difficult to square with the reality that the BKs are a thoroughly “criminal enterprise.” Their profits derive largely, if not almost entirely, from the sale of crack cocaine in low-income neighborhoods. People who disagree with the gang are beaten, and, on very rare occasions, killed. And the gang pays off politicians and police officers in order to make sure its rule in the Robert Taylor Homes and in surrounding neighborhoods is secure.

Regulars like me, we hustle to make our money, but we only go with guys we know. We don’t do it full-time, but if we have to feed our kids, we may make a little money on the side.

Related Characters: Clarisse (speaker), Sudhir Venkatesh
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Clarisse here breaks down the different kinds of prostitution that exist in Robert Taylor. As she is quick to point out, she’s a “regular,” meaning that she receives a certain degree of acceptance, or at least a lack of active disapproval, from the BKs in the buildings where she works. Part of what Sudhir uncovers in examining different aspects of the gray-market economies of the Homes is a tendency for hierarchies, or ordered groups, to form.

Thus, Clarisse argues that she is a less criminal, more “official” prostitute than some women who only work in the Homes part-time. Similarly, prostitutes who are “protected” by pimps achieve greater social stability than those who work “alone,” without that protection. Sudhir realizes that, as in economies outside the Homes, a great deal of time and energy is spent differentiating between different parts of a single working population – of ordering the intricate world of the project’s economies.

Chapter 3 Quotes

He [JT] had no real sense of what I would actually be writing—because, in truth, I didn’t know myself. Nor did I know if he’d be upset with me for having seen him beat up C-Note, or if perhaps he’d try to censor me.

Related Characters: Sudhir Venkatesh (speaker), JT, C-Note
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote uncovers several important features of Sudhir’s work. First, he admits that his “learning” is largely unstructured – once he abandoned the questionnaire script given to him by people in his department, he was no longer operating according to the standardized principles of his discipline. Of course, Sudhir attempts to maintain objectivity and journalistic distance from the people whose lives he is exploring. But there is no stated “mission” or “goal” to his work for years on end.

It is only later, on encouragement from his advisers and after a few key breaks in his work, that Sudhir realizes he can track the flow of money in the underground economies of the Homes – especially once he has access to the ledgers T-Bone provides him. Only then does the research take a certain form. And it is the relative formlessness of Sudhir’s early investigations that provides both its freedom and, occasionally, its ethical ambiguity – as when, for example, he is not sure whether or not to intervene when JT and his lieutenants beat C-Note.

JT’s ambitions ran even higher. What he wanted, he told me, was to return the gang to its glory days of the 1960s, when South Side gangs worked together with residents to agitate for improvements in their neighborhoods.

Related Characters: Sudhir Venkatesh (speaker), JT
Page Number: 75-6
Explanation and Analysis:

As Sudhir notes, JT doesn’t really consider himself to be a leader of a gang. Instead, he believes that his position is one of community elder statesman. It is, for JT, a position that carries real responsibility, and he doesn’t take it lightly, although he does seem to enjoy the work that he does – and the perks the job affords (money, cars, alcohol).

What Sudhir here describes is a refrain throughout the book, and a great many characters speak it: that the gangs of the ‘60s and ‘70s had a real connection to the community in which they worked, and a degree of political influence that current gangs can only hope to achieve. But that is where JT comes in – he believes that there can be a fusion of the gang’s moneymaking and political-social missions, and he hopes to enact exactly this in the area around Robert Taylor.

Shorty-Lee was puzzled. He looked over to the three other BKs. They were toting spiral-bound notebooks in which they “signed up” potential votes. But it seemed that neither Lenny nor JT had told them there was an actual registration form and that registrars had to be licensed.

Related Characters: Sudhir Venkatesh (speaker), JT, Lenny Duster , Shorty-Lee
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

Sudhir rapidly realizes that most of the foot soldiers in the gang don’t really know what they’re “registering” people in the building for, and, as a consequence, what voter registration and voter choice entail. They know it is important for the BKs to be involved in the political process, and in some sense their work, as Sudhir notes, echoes the “Chicago machine” politics of the earlier part of the twentieth century.

Thus Shorty-Lee’s lesson in civic engagement, as delivered by this woman at her door, is both a meaningful moment in his (and in Sudhir’s) education, and a reminder of the disconnect between the “official” culture of the world outside Robert Taylor and the unofficial, or gray-market, culture that exists within these neighborhoods. Just as CHA employees and the Chicago PD have relatively circumscribed interactions with the residents of the Homes, so, too, does the political process have only a glancing impact on the lives of most people there – unless JT and others attempt to connect foot soldiers with official institutions of the state, like the voter registry board or the Democratic party.

... the man was sleeping with Coco, but he was giving her diapers and shit for Coco’s baby.

Related Characters: Price (speaker), Sudhir Venkatesh, Coco
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

The phenomenon Sudhir here describes is, as he goes on to note, a relatively common one. A great many women in the projects depend on outside sources of charity to support their families, because the raising of their children, combined with a lack of partner support and lack of available steady employment in the area, makes for constricted income streams. In short, women do what they must do to survive and to help their children.

Sudhir remains open-minded about this, and takes pains not to condemn the women he sees and interacts with for whatever they do to keep their families together. Not all characters behave in this way, however. Ms. Bailey, for her part, is often critical of some women in Robert Taylor, who, she says, will do whatever they can to “get” things from the men around them – including Sudhir. Ms. Bailey goes on later to warn Sudhir that his help given to women around him might encourage other women to take advantage of his time or, perhaps, of his money.

Chapter 4 Quotes

I was nervous, to be sure, but not because I was implicating myself in an illegal enterprise. In fact, I hadn’t even really thought about that angle. ... Only later, when I began sharing my experience with my advisers ... did I begin to understand—and adhere to—the reporting requirements for researchers who are privy to criminal conduct.

Related Characters: Sudhir Venkatesh (speaker)
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

In truth, Sudhir seems to have relatively little fear regarding the possible legal complexities of his work. He says himself that he relies mostly on his “instinct,” and that, for example, when he is leader of the gang, he will not participate directly in anything that could be construed in court as illegal. Sudhir holds to this principle throughout his time with the BKs.

But there are moments when Sudhir exhibits judgment that, though understandable, might not lie completely within the bounds of academic norms. When JT harms C-Note, Sudhir does not interfere, even though he watches C-Note suffer. And when tracking Bee-Bee through the building after he has beaten Taneesha, Sudhir “kicks him in the stomach,” subduing him as Bee-Bee was lashing out at a fellow BK. In that latter instance, the action could plausibly be understood as self-defense. But both these incidents underscore just how difficult it is to be “scientific” in one’s research of the Robert Taylor Homes.

The next day I would wake up free of the hundreds of obligations and judgments I’d been witness to. But JT wouldn’t. He’d still bear all the burdens of running a successful underground economy...

Related Characters: Sudhir Venkatesh (speaker)
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

Sudhir understands that, in serving as gang leader for only one day, he might be able to engage more fully in the gang’s activity, knowing that the job itself will disappear as soon as he wakes up again. In this section, then, Sudhir reflects on what is a more substantial understanding of just how difficult it must be to run the BKs, to worry not just about maintaining one’s livelihood, but also about the criminal dangers and possible violence that are a part of that position.

In the latter half of the book, Sudhir takes pains to represent just how hard JT works, and how difficult it is to “rise through the ranks” of the BKs in the way that JT has. This doesn’t mean that JT always acts ethically, or in the manner that Sudhir himself would. But it does mean that Sudhir has a deeper appreciation for what goes in to managing the many overlapping responsibilities and gray-market economies in Robert Taylor.

Chapter 5 Quotes

For now, be careful when you help the women. They’ll take advantage of you, and you won’t know what hit you. And I can’t be there to protect you.

Related Characters: Ms. Bailey (speaker), Sudhir Venkatesh
Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Ms. Bailey makes plain that she does not believe the intentions of all the women, or even most of the women, petitioning Sudhir are good. Sudhir, for his part, wants to help the community as best he can, and as he notes elsewhere, the majority of families living in Robert Taylor exist as female-led households. Thus, in a sense, if Sudhir wants to help at all, he will wind up helping a good number of women, or family units led by women.

However, Ms. Bailey has also seen through her work in the Homes just how desperate some people can become, and how willing they are to do whatever it takes to support their families. Ms. Bailey does not seem to fear so much that Sudhir will become physically hurt, or otherwise ethically entangled with families – more that his resources will be strained when he sees the extent of the need surrounding him throughout Robert Taylor.

Chapter 6 Quotes

I spent the next few weeks turning the information in my notebooks into statistical tables and graphs that showed how much different hustlers made. I figured that JT would appreciate this data at least as much as my professors would...

Related Characters: Sudhir Venkatesh (speaker), JT
Page Number: 201
Explanation and Analysis:

This is perhaps Sudhir’s most naïve or disconnected moment in the text. He does not seem to think that his work here, and the information he collects, will be used by JT and Ms. Bailey to extract anything from the other tenants. As C-Note points out later on, however, Sudhir would have recognized this if he had thought more about the other people his work impacts. But, instead, Sudhir seemed only to delight in the amount of information he was receiving, without giving too much regard to the consequences of sharing that information.

This section also demonstrates Sudhir’s continued reliance on mathematical data, even as he has collected an enormous number of narrative accounts of life in the community he’s studying. The mixture of first-person and quantitative analysis will go on to form the basis of his independent work, a dissertation (and then book) on the gray-market and understudied economies of Chicago housing projects.

Chapter 7 Quotes

You didn’t have to get mixed up in this shit.
He must have heard that I’d helped drag Price into the lobby. I didn’t say anything. JT slapped my leg, asked if I wanted a Coke, and walked off to the fridge.

Related Characters: JT (speaker), Sudhir Venkatesh
Page Number: 225
Explanation and Analysis:

Perhaps as a counterpoint to Sudhir’s lack of involvement when C-Note was beaten, and to his participation, however small, in the beating of Bee-Bee, here Sudhir helps Price when he is in need, doing something substantial to save his life. As Sudhir notes, JT does not forget this, nor does he take it lightly. Instead, JT sees it as a sign of loyalty on Sudhir’s part – that Sudhir is willing to do what it takes to pitch in around the Homes, even when things become dangerous and violent.

This is another window into the bond that Sudhir and JT share. Although they do not always agree, they possess a kind of symbiotic relationship that, as Sudhir characterizes it, remains over the years, even as Sudhir rockets forward in his academic life and JT finds himself back in Chicago, with diminished gang prospects and his leadership position in the BKs no longer available.

You think I don’t know who you [expletive] are? You think we all don’t know what you’re doing? If you want to play with us, you better be real careful. If you like watching, you may get caught.

Related Characters: Officer Jerry (speaker), Sudhir Venkatesh
Page Number: 235
Explanation and Analysis:

Officer Jerry, from this quote alone, evidently does not like Sudhir, and perhaps would not like anyone who happened to be looking into his business. This makes sense from what Sudhir writes otherwise about Jerry – that he frequently intimidates families in Robert Taylor, forcing them to pay him so he will no longer bother them. Or that he takes a special relish out of pestering and sometimes hurting leaders of the gang, but does not charge them with crimes – only extorts money from them when he feels like it.

The side of policing that Sudhir thus demonstrates is unsavory, and Sudhir himself writes that he is not used to this kind of behavior from police – or, more adequately, he is not accustomed to seeing the police do this, because in his old suburban neighborhood in San Diego, the police were mostly there to support a (mostly white) community. But on the South Side of Chicago, the police are antagonists to a great many of the people living in Robert Taylor, even to those citizens who do not participate in gang activity and want to lead quiet, unobtrusive lives.

Chapter 8 Quotes

You need to understand that the Black Kings are not a gang; we are a community organization, responding to people’s needs.

Related Characters: Sudhir Venkatesh
Page Number: 249
Explanation and Analysis:

The unnamed gang member in this section says what many people, including JT, have repeated from the beginning. Perhaps what most surprises Sudhir in this case is the fact that a “higher-up” in the BK organization says this, apparently without thinking it to be a strange thing to say (Sudhir has also noted previously that JT says similar things with a straight face, indeed not understanding how they might be perceived as funny by those who see only the criminal side of gang behavior).

In truth, Sudhir finds a great deal that is sympathetic about the BKs. The loyalty among gang members is a genuine bond, and it often extends beyond the simple selling of drugs, or the other extortion schemes the gang uses to make money from tenants in Robert Taylor. But Sudhir has a hard time feeling that there is no difference at all between the BKs and a real charitable organization. Instead, Sudhir, like many living in Robert Taylor, see the BKs as the best, if not an ideal, solution to the problem of inadequate institutional and governmental support throughout the projects.

The pages of the ledgers were frayed, and some of the handwriting was hard to decipher, but the raw information was fascinating. For the past four years, T-Bone had been dutifully recording the gang’s revenues ... and expenses.

Related Characters: Sudhir Venkatesh (speaker), T-Bone
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:

Sudhir seems to recognize immediately just how important this document (the ledger of the BKs’ dealings) will be for his career. He says that T-Bone gives it to him for unclear reasons, perhaps, as Sudhir notes later, in part to make plain that the gang itself had an organizational structure – that its finances were not so far removed from the finances of a “legitimate” business.

What is perhaps most shocking to Sudhir in this case is the fact that extreme income inequality is a part of the gang structure. Namely, as he goes on to explain, the gang leaders make almost all the money, and gang “foot soldiers” make vanishingly small amounts. What Sudhir implies in this is relatively straightforward, and itself surprising – that the kind of no-holds-barred capitalist logic that has, in part, caused severe divides between the “haves” and the “have-nots” within Chicago is replicated in the structure of the gang itself. In other words, the gang does not have a “social safety net” for its members, and it is not socialist by design – instead, the gang privileges an “upper class” of leaders who, admittedly, have serious responsibilities, but who make much more money than those who (in Sudhir’s words in this section) risk their lives to sell crack on the corner.

...perhaps the most unconventional thing I ever did was embrace the idea that I could learn so much, absorb so many lessons, and gain so many experiences at the side of a man who was so far removed from my academic world.

Related Characters: Sudhir Venkatesh (speaker), JT
Page Number: 283
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Sudhir more or less summarizes just what is so striking about his relationship with JT. On the one hand, nothing could have been less predictable or stranger than the idea that JT and Sudhir would strike up the “bond” that Sudhir here describes. This relationship is a testament not only to Sudhir’s curiosity, but to JT’s willingness to share parts of himself with an “outsider” to the projects, one whom he gradually gets to know.

Sudhir knows that he and JT will not be close forever, and that, as he has said sadly, their relationship itself becomes more and more distant as Sudhir progresses along his academic track. But JT, in a sense, “believed” in Sudhir from the start, and encouraged him to research by putting his heart and body on the line – by daring to think of himself as more than a mere academic “reporter” of life in the projects. And Sudhir here expresses genuine gratitude for what was, from JT, a leap of faith and an “unconventional thing” in its own right.