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.
Poverty Theme Icon

Underlying all the above themes are the material conditions of those living in the projects. Put simply, essentially everyone in the Robert Taylor Homes is poor—that is, lacking in some of the basic needs of human life, and having difficulty securing those needs regularly. Some need food and clean water, others need clothing, others need medicine, shelter, heat, or electricity. When Sudhir encounters the depth of the need in the community, he wonders there is anything he or anyone can do to help, and much of his research focuses on how the money that does circulate in the projects collects—where it goes, and who supplies it; how smaller economies form as residents need certain goods or services.

Sudhir pushes back against one of the theories prominent among some social scientists, that there is such a thing as a “culture of poverty” that can keep certain populations trapped in bleak conditions. For Sudhir, this “culture of poverty” appears too much like an active choice on the part of these imagined community-members. Instead, what he sees is a series of situation-specific responses to problems as they arise. Because poor black communities are underserved by the police, by hospital staff, and indeed by most mechanisms that white and/or wealthier parts of society take for granted, the Robert Taylor Homes are often forced to “make do” with whatever they have. This could seem, from the outside, as a “choice” to remain impoverished, or to live lives of crime or off-the-books work.

But Sudhir’s study is a long description leading to a different explanation: that poverty is no more a choice than blackness, but is itself a social construct, a set of things imposed and reflected by members of society at all levels. This means that a “solution” to poverty could not be exclusively, or even primarily, a cultural one, although increased awareness and education do play a role in helping people out of dire conditions. Instead, Sudhir seems to believe that a “solution” to poverty would address people in the projects as enlightened, rational agents, as people who respond to the world as they see it, and who try to do as best for themselves and for others that their circumstances allow.

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Poverty ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Poverty 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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Poverty 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 Poverty.
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.

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.

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

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 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

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 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.