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January 13, 2008 - New York Post (NY)

Crackonomics 101: The Sociology Of Drug Dealing

By James Hart

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

During the height of the crack epidemic, sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh went into one of the nation's most notorious housing projects, Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes, and learned how the drug economy worked by hanging out with a crack gang for a few years. "Gang Leader for a Day" tells how Venkatesh, then a graduate student at the University of Chicago, won the trust of a gang leader named J.T., who became his guide to the projects.

Many readers may remember that Venkatesh's research helped form the basis for the chapter of "Freakonomics" dealing with why some drug dealers live with their mothers. "Gang Leader," too, gets into the day-to-day business realities of selling crack.

J.T. -- who went to college and worked a legit sale job before moving back to Robert Taylor -- had to motivate and manage dozens of "sales teams," prevent ambitious junior associates from taking his spot and increase revenue, all the time wondering if he'd end up dead or in prison. "Sometimes he spoke of his job with dispassion, as if he were the CEO of some widget manufacturer -- an attitude that I found not only jarring but, given the violence and destruction his enterprise caused, irresponsible," Venkatesh writes.

Not that drugs are the only way that J.T. and his gang, the Black Kings, made money. The gang took a cut from prostitutes, squatters and other hustlers who did business in the housing project. If somebody acted up, gang members delivered warnings and, if necessary, beatings to make things run smoothly.

Venkatesh uncovers that other tenants in the project -- those who weren't dealing -- often went to J.T. and his men for help before they tried contacting police, social workers or any other authority outside the project. Need money so the building's kids can have a party? Is your daughter's boyfriend smacking her around?

The Kings got results, so they became a de facto government, providing everything from building security to weekend cookouts. "J.T. may have been a lawbreaker, but he was very much a lawmaker as well," Venkatesh says. "He acted as if his organization truly did rule the neighborhood, and sometimes the takeover was complete. The Black Kings policed the buildings more aggressively than the Chicago police did."

Even Ms. Bailey, the building president and one of the book's central characters, was more than willing to call J.T. and his men if there was trouble. As she explained to Venkatesh, "In the projects it's more important that you take care of the problem first. Then you worry about how you took care of the problem. If no one dies, then all the complaining don't mean nothing, because I'm doing my job."

There are no innocents in "Gang Leader," but there aren't many out and out villains, either. Venkatesh is careful to portray his subject as rounded, morally complex people. They love their families, they take bribes, they watch out for their neighbors, they cut ethical corners. (At one point, a reverend and a Boys & Girls Club leader help broker a gang truce by telling one side they can sell drugs in a certain park for a week.)

"Gang Leader" is also about the author as much as it is J.T. and the other project residents. Venkatesh was a young researcher, who earned access to a culture where people don't like outsiders who ask questions. As he learns just how hopeless and corrupt life in Robert Taylor is, Venkatesh has to ask himself what he, as a researcher, owes the people he's been interviewing over the years. They have to stay, but eventually, he graduates.

And he acknowledges to himself that he, too, is hustling people -- for their stories, their insights -- so he can write his dissertation. "You need to think about why you're doing your work," one resident tells him. "You always tell me you want to help us. Well, we ain't never asked for your help, and we sure don't need it now."

He wrestles with the fact that a lot of his subjects are criminals. He squirms as J.T., his "protector," delivers harsh beatings to older men and younger dealers for petty offenses. Witnessing one of J.T.'s attacks is eye-opening for the author. "I felt like his scribe, tailing a powerful leader who liked to joke with the tenants and, when he needed to be assertive, did so quietly. I was naive, I suppose, but I had somehow persuaded myself that just because I hadn't seen any violence, it didn't exist. Now I had seen a different side of his power, a far less polished performance."

This book is worth all of the effort that Venkatesh invested, though. "Gang Leader For A Day" provides an in-depth look at an economy, a culture, a community that most of America doesn't see -- and thus can't understand -- because it takes time, years in this case, to win the kind of access necessary to tell the full story.

There are no answers here, no solutions for how to help people mired in urban poverty. But understanding the problem -- and the people who struggle with it, who survive despite it -- is an important first step.

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, by Sudhir Venkatesh (Penguin Press)

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