Innovate Your Life In the book, Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociology student from the University of Chicago starts out simply trying to understand “how it feels to be poor and black,” and ends up spending years and years figuring out the ins and outs of a gang society (Venkatesh 14). Sudhir receives the chance of a sociologist’s lifetime to see first-hand what life is like in the projects. He follows gang leader, J. T. around and studies his life at the Robert Taylor homes for years. Throughout Venkatesh’s experience he witnesses many things some people go a lifetime without seeing.
For example, he was no stranger to seeing people use drugs or get beat up by gang members. One interesting aspect of Venkatesh’s experiment is the community aspect of the gang life. Although it was hard for Venkatesh to understand during his adventure, even the gang had a sense of what it was like to help out their community and how important it was. There were a lot of aspects of the book that showed the sociological perspective of the Robert Taylor community. The book Gang Leader for a Day shows the sociological perspective by bringing Robert Merton’s structural strain theory to life.
Robert Merton created the structural strain theory in 1938. This theory states that deviance occurs when a society does not give all of its member’s equal ability to achieve socially acceptable goals (Conley 192). The goals Merton is referring to is the ‘American dream’; everyone wants to have a good job, a nice home, and a nice family. In the strain theory Merton talks about 5 different types of people that make up society. There are conformists, innovators, ritualists, retreatists, and rebels. Conformists are the people who accept the goals of society and the means of achieving those goals.
Innovators accept the goals of society but find new means of achieving these goals. That’s where J. T. falls. Ritualists don’t really accept the goals of society but they accept the means of achieving those goals, they often do the bare minimum to get by. Retreatists don’t accept the goals or the means of society and lastly, rebels are the people who don’t accept the goals of society or the means of achieving those goals but they create their own goals while using new means to get there. J. T. is the leader of a gang called the Black Kings.
This gang lives in the Robert Taylor homes in Chicago and runs their “businesses” there. Venkatesh finds out that this group sells drugs for money but the more he learns about this group he finds more and more interesting ways they earn their money. When Sudhir first met J. T. he admitted that “the last word I expected to exit this man’s mouth was ‘college’” (Venkatesh 19). J. T. surprised him when he told him that he had “gone to college on and athletic scholarship and found that he loved reading about history and politics” (Venkatesh 27). Venkatesh came to find out that J. T. ad a corporate job after college and within two years he quit that job and returned to the gang life due to feeling that his “chances of success were limited because he was black” (Venkatesh 27). It is always said (especially now a days) how important it is for people to attend college now. You always hear left and right that you’ll need a degree to be successful and people often look down on you if you decide to take another route instead of college. People accept college as one of the means to reach the American dream. That’s what makes J. T. the perfect example of an innovator.
Although he belongs to a gang which is often frowned upon in society, he accepted the means of achieving the American dream by attending college and getting a degree. Another aspect of the American dream that people accept is having a successful job. Most people would say that an acceptable successful job would mean a 9 to 5, Monday through Friday, job. But that depends on how you measure your success. J. T. may not be considered successful in the eyes of the business world but he considers himself more successful in the gang world than he was in the business world.
J. T. has more money than he knows what to do with. He makes his money in various ways. Besides selling drugs through his gang, he also runs three buildings. He would allow people who were known as squatters to stay in the building when it was cold out. They were allowed to hang out in the stairwells and the gang provided them protection for a little bit of money. The gang was always finding ways like this to collect money. They would allow prostitutes to come and live there and some of them would do business there but they also had a fee to pay. Anyone who J.
T. allowed to stay in his buildings without a lease would get taxed on their earnings for whatever type of business they were doing. But in return the Black Kings would provide them with protection. Venkatesh learned a lot about the gang’s hierarchy and J. T. ’s “business plans. ” Early in their relationship, J. T. explained the structure to making money in the drug game to Sudhir while he planned his move to running the Robert Taylor homes. He calls the Robert Taylor homes “easy money” because of how convenient the location was for white people to drive over.
He also says he would go from making thirty thousand dollars a year to seventy-five thousand dollars or maybe even a hundred thousand a year (towards the end of the book J. T. is making somewhere around two hundred thousand dollars a year). This is where J. T. begins to explain the ladder of moving up in the gang and how he wants to move up. Throughout the book Venkatesh watches J. T. move up this ladder after his transition into more buildings becomes successful. J. T. finds himself going to meetings with the big wigs of the Black Kings and gaining more and more respect from them.
Gang Leader for a day shows a fascinating connection of the gang world and what people would consider ‘normal society’. J. T. ’s a successful gang leader which besides all the drugs and illegal doings of that gang, he seems more like a successful CEO of a business. He moves up a ladder of the drug business just like a regular business man has the opportunity to do. He makes most of his money through sales just like a regular company would. He provides protection to the tenants of his building as a service which for the most part they pay him for, much like how regular services are ran.
So maybe J. T. doesn’t have the regular 9 to 5 job or the nice comfortable home but in his business world he is considered successful. That sounds like an innovator to me. When Venkatesh begins his study on the Chicago projects, he plans to use surveys. He starts off going into the poor community and tries to ask people questions. As Sudhir finds out later on, the people of these communities weren’t so welcoming to new faces. On his first attempt to ask his survey questions, he was stopped and questioned by people in the building.
These people did not want to allow him in and assumed he was from a rival gang. His first shot at actually asking the question “how does it feel to be young and black? ” he gets laughed at. Then he asks J. T. the questions and J. T. tells him that he won’t learn anything about the life there with questionnaires and says “with people like us, you should hang out, get to know what they do, and how they do it. No one is going to answer questions like that. You need to understand how young people live on the streets” (Venkatesh 21). With that, Venkatesh changed his study technique from surveys to a field study.
I believe that without a first-hand account of what living in the projects was like he couldn’t fully understand what it was like to be black and poor. I think that there are so many hardships of living the type of life that people lived in the Robert Taylor homes. People could go without eating, or couldn’t walk outside of their homes because they were afraid of getting shot. But oddly enough, I don’t think it was all bad. Throughout the book there is a strong theme of helping the community. For example, when the Pride group comes in and tries to register everyone to vote.
Even though the Black Kings tried to dictate who people would vote for in order to help themselves continue to grow, they were educating people on their rights. There were people like Ms. Bailey who wouldn’t let anyone go without eating and found places to donate warm winter jackets for the people in the community. Without witnessing these acts of kindness in the community I don’t think Venkatesh’s results would have been as accurate. Most books you read or movies you watch about gangs portray them so negatively and make it seem like everything they do is horrible for the community around them.
Needless to say selling drugs openly on the streets is no way to live a life, but Venkatesh’s field study brought to light all the good things that go on in communities like these that a survey couldn’t have. I’m sure the people living in the Robert Taylor homes would ask for a nicer place to live or more food to eat and they more than likely didn’t enjoy being poor but Venkatesh proved through his study that just because someone is poor and lives in gang territory doesn’t mean that they can’t be as nice or as crazy as someone who lived in the suburbs.
I strongly believe that if he had used the survey method he would not have found these types of things out about this community. Through his field study, the question arises, was this study ethical? There are definitely some gray lines in answering this question. Sociologists are supposed to make sure their participants are aware of what the study consists of. Throughout the book Venkatesh constantly asks himself what his intentions were of his study. If the researcher barely knows what his intentions are how are the participants supposed to understand?
They are also supposed to make sure none of the participants can be harmed in their study. He also questions the ethics of his study when he watches J. T. beat up C-note for working on cars where he wanted to play basketball. He asks himself how he is supposed to stand by and watch violent acts like these take place without putting his morals at stake. I absolutely believe that in a field study like this Venkatesh’s ethics were on the line, but I don’t believe he would have gotten the same results if he didn’t cross that line.
In Gang Leader for a Day I think that Venkatesh proved that poor people aren’t completely poor. They may not have money and might not always be able to afford food but I believe that he proved they still enjoy their lives to the most they can. I also think that it’s an assumption that someone can’t be successful if they’re from the projects because your poor and don’t always have the means to get there. Venkatesh’s study showed through J. T. that’s not true. Even though J. T. isn’t successful in society’s eyes he is in his mind because he has the money, the cars, and the clothes.
He doesn’t view himself as a criminal he believes that since he’s doing good things for his community he isn’t a criminal. He just has a different way of doing things. People look up to J. T. in the Robert Taylor homes and support him. For example, during Ms. Bailey’s monthly meeting with her tenants, people question how she can support J. T. knowing all the illegal activities he conducts. She points out to these people that the community has become much safer and that there had been less shootings in their area due to the help from J. T. and his gang. J. T. eld so much power in the community and he tried to use that power to make positive changes. He had his younger officers clean up after community parties and did other community service like projects to prove to others that they weren’t always bad people. All in all, Gang Leader for a Day taught me that people in the projects aren’t all miserable, bad people. Sure, they lead a hard life but there are people there that have their hearts in the right place and do what they can to help even if they engage in activities that might be frowned upon like dealing drugs.
You see all different types of people in these types of communities. That’s why this book was such a good example of the structural strain theory. There are people like J. T. that use new ways of finding their own success and there’s people like Sudhir who follow the means to achieve the goals of society by going to school and getting a job. I genuinely enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it for someone who is interested in getting a wider perspective on what the project life is like. Read and Reviewed by Logan Beck I used academic integrity in completing this assignment.
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