Gang Leader for a Day

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Objectivity and Empathy Theme Icon

Throughout his research, Sudhir wonders how he can balance an “objective,” or scientific, account of life in the projects with an empathic, or emotionally-infused, view of that world. An apprentice sociologist, Sudhir identifies a divide within his own academic discipline. On the one hand, he perceives that his field is a “science” that hopes to “know” about the world of people and societies, without projecting the biases of those doing the research into the studied communities. But on the other hand, Sudhir recognizes that people are people—that he is, in part, cataloguing the whims, irrationalities, and passions of human beings, and that he too has these passions. Indeed, his intense curiosity and resilience—as many remark in the book, they are surprised to see him back at the Homes again and again—drive the research onward.

In a sense, Sudhir negotiates this divide by writing Gang Leader for a Day, a narrative and memoiristic account of his life studying the projects, and by writing his dissertation, a more sober, data-rich, and “analytic” view of the same community. But Sudhir negotiates this divide in other ways—or sometimes fails to negotiate it. He wonders, for example, whether or not he can participate in certain non-legal or paralegal gang activities, and what his obligations are as a researcher when serious criminal activity occurs. Sudhir wonders, too, whether he can help those in the projects who are in need—women who have overdosed, men who are jobless, children who are hungry. Does this intervene in, and change, his research?

The consequence of all this is a pragmatic conclusion on Sudhir’s part. He has no “theory” of the projects per se, but rather a set of overlapping, and not always coherent, hunches about what to do in the projects when—how to observe, how to research, how to show care to others. In this, Sudhir says that he trusts his “moral compass,” and that phrase might be understood as a stand-in for the kind of running compromise he makes, as a scientist studying the messy lives of people.

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Objectivity and Empathy ThemeTracker

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Objectivity and Empathy 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 Objectivity and Empathy.
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

How do an individual’s preferences develop? Can we predict human behavior? ... The standard mode of answering these questions was to conduct widespread surveys and then use complex mathematical methods to analyze the survey data. ... It was thought that the key to formulating good policy was to first formulate a good scientific study.

Related Characters: Sudhir Venkatesh (speaker)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of the book, Sudhir believes that academic questions like these have academic answers – that they can be solved using patient, methodical collection of statistics. And, throughout the text, he narrates the collection of his data in an admirably dispassionate way, even when the events around him are disturbing, violent, or dangerous. But Sudhir also recognizes, after a few days observing JT and other BKs, that one would have to do much more, in the Robert Taylor Homes or in other projects of Chicago, than simply sit back and mark numbers on a form, or ask questions with multiple-choice answers.

Thus, Sudhir doesn’t want to abandon the rigor that got him into the University of Chicago in the first place. But he does want to attack the subtler, perhaps less mathematically-driven questions of how and why people behave as they do under certain circumstances. Thus his study will mix quantitative and descriptive features, as a means of showing what life is really like in Chicago’s housing projects.

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.

Go back to where you came from ... and be more careful when you walk around the city. ... You shouldn’t go around asking them silly-ass questions. ... With people like us, you should hang out, get to know what they do, how they do it. No one is going to answer questions like that. You need to understand how young people live on the streets.

Related Characters: JT (speaker), Sudhir Venkatesh
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

It’s easy to see this conversation between JT and Sudhir as the foundation of Sudhir’s research. And, in a sense, it is. JT encourages Sudhir to do exactly the opposite of Bill Wilson’s survey – to go out and see what people do, how they live, and how they talk to one another, rather than to impose upon them a set of impressions, questions, and descriptions found on a questionnaire. Because JT has studied some sociology and has a college degree, he’s more familiar than many in the neighborhood with the nature of academic research. JT therefore knows that, despite their best efforts, sociologists sometimes find themselves quite removed from the people they study.

Sudhir, for his part, is very much willing to volunteer to observe the gang and its activities. As Dubner notes in his introduction, and as is apparent throughout the book to perhaps most readers, Sudhir’s work is difficult. It requires him to consistently make decisions about what is ethical, about how much to participate and when – and when to document an event without interfering. The years that Sudhir put into studying Robert Taylor are very little when compared with a life lived in that community – but it is a great deal more than nearly all researchers were willing to spend there until that time.

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

We stepped inside an apartment furnished with couches and a few reclining chairs that faced a big TV. There was a Christian show playing. ... The domestic scene surprised me a bit, for I had read so much about the poverty and danger in Robert Taylor, how children ran around without parents and how drugs had overtaken the community.

Related Characters: Sudhir Venkatesh (speaker), Ms. Mae
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

Sudhir realizes one of his significant stereotypical preconceptions in this section. He thought that, perhaps, because Robert Taylor is so bleak on the outside, dominated by slabs of brick and concrete, that the interior of the apartments could have no “homelike” character, could not look as though anyone lived there. But people do live in these apartments, including Ms. Mae, JT’s mother – as she has done for a great many years.

Sudhir will come to rely on Ms. Mae as a surrogate mother and caretaker in the building. He talks to her about her life, and Ms. Mae provides Sudhir with a place to eat and sleep and draft up his notes, which will go on to form the core of the narrative the reader is reading, as well as of Sudhir’s dissertation. Indeed, Ms. Mae will become one of several matriarchs with whom Sudhir interacts, the most prominent of which being Ms. Bailey, who runs the local governing council in Building A of the Homes.

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.

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.

Do you want to write me another essay? Do you want to write about what just happened?

Related Characters: Sudhir Venkatesh (speaker), Catrina
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Sudhir develops another method of outreach to the community around him. As he notes in the book at another point, Sudhir wants to give something that only he can give – that is, something that derives from his experience as a teacher, and does not necessarily involve money or other material support.

Reading Catrina’s writing, and later running the essay group for young women allows Sudhir to help people in Robert Taylor with their academic skills. And, perhaps more importantly, this work provides an emotional outlet for people who perhaps do not have many, or have not been encouraged to share their thoughts and feelings with others. And, as Sudhir learns, many have dealt with great difficulties at very young ages, including physical violence, drug abuse, and the raising of families in substantial poverty.

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.

The women wrote and spoke openly about their struggles. Each of them had at least a couple of children, which generally meant at least one “baby daddy” who wasn’t in the picture. Each of them had a man in her life who’d been either jailed or killed...

Related Characters: Sudhir Venkatesh (speaker)
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

The stories the young women tell are, unfortunately, not out of step with the other pieces of data Sudhir has collected about Robert Taylor. In a great many of the households, husbands are either absent or incarcerated. Sudhir spends a great deal of time showing that male incarceration rates in the projects are a result not just of criminal activity, but of a severely selective policing policy in Chicago that targets African-American communities. This, coupled with low employment rates for the area, result in diminished economic opportunities for families, putting enormous strain on the meager government subsidies available to them.

In the writing group, the women speak honestly to one another, and seem to feel comfortable speaking honestly to Sudhir, too. They trust that he has their best interests at heart – although, as it’s revealed, there are others in the community who believe Sudhir is having sexual relationships with the women in the group, instead of helping them with their writing (or, as Ms. Bailey terms it, their “homework.”)

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.