The plots and characters of television programs such as The Sopranos and The Wire traffic in shades of moral gray, which is why the shows are both so compelling and distressing. It is much the same with Sudhir Venkatesh's Gang Leader for a Day.
Venkatesh arrives at the University of Chicago in 1989, a fresh young graduate student in sociology. He's fascinated by the palpitating Windy City neighborhoods, the patchwork of ethnic enclaves that make his new home so vibrant, but dismayed that most of his sociology work takes place inside the library, all textbooks and numbers and mathematical formulas.
So Venkatesh decides to pursue his own line of sociological investigation, which takes him to the low-income housing projects near campus.
His initial foray offers mixed returns. Armed with only his textbooks and a clipboard, he's captured in a project stairwell by gangsters who hold him hostage, accuse him of spying for a rival gang and contemplate the best way to kill him. Not an auspicious beginning.
But it is during Venkatesh's stairwell imprisonment that he first meets J.T., the gang leader who becomes the subject of his research and with whom he will spend a significant portion of the next decade.
J.T. is a study in contradictions. He's college educated, but he lives in the projects. He's young and ambitious and smart, but he lives in the projects. He's close to his family, he's well-known in the community, he sponsors charity basketball games and lends money to his neighbors and talks about the importance of education and schooling and hard work - but he's also the leader of a violent criminal enterprise that sells monumental amounts of crack cocaine.
Venkatesh notices the discord almost immediately. In the stairwell, J.T. asks him about his sociology classes and even peruses his clipboard survey (Question 1: "How does it feel to be black and poor?").
"You ain't going to learn s--- with this thing," J.T. tells Venkatesh dismissively. "With people like us, you should hang out, get to know what they do, how they do it."
A crack dealer offering advice on sociological field research is odd, but J.T. doesn't consider himself a lowlife criminal; he is, he likes to say, a business manager.
It is not an untrue description. J.T.'s crack distribution system in the notorious Robert Taylor Homes is structured much like any large company. Mid-level managers such as J.T. carry out the directives of a citywide gang "Board of Directors," while also overseeing hundreds of employees: foot soldiers, dealers and others. Venkatesh tags along and records the activities.
It is too easy, though, to allow J.T.'s intellectual capacity, his statements about improving the community and his business-minded ways to shroud his less appealing characteristics. But Venkatesh, an admittedly naive college kid at the time, allows this to happen.
J.T. brutally beats an elderly man who has the gall to challenge his authority; Venkatesh watches, and is disgusted by it. "I would see more beatings, perhaps even fatal incidents. I still felt exhilarated by my access to J.T.'s gang," he writes, "but I was also starting to feel shame."
Yet this shame never causes Venkatesh to seriously consider his complicity in morally bankrupt activities. He helps ambush a man in the project stairwell and kicks him in the stomach. After Venkatesh surveys project residents about their finances (J.T.'s suggestion), the gang leader uses the data to determine which residents are stealing money and which are not paying him their financial tributes. He then metes out violent justice to those who crossed him. And, as the title of the book makes clear, the graduate student actually runs the gang for a day.
Venkatesh's story illuminates. It is gripping. But it is at base simply a tale of manipulation. The graduate student furthers his academic studies by taking advantage of the gang leader's ego, and the gang leader garners information by capitalizing on the graduate student's gullibility.
In the end, Robert Taylor is shut down, J.T. loses his drug business, and Venkatesh is shoving off to teach at Columbia. As the two sip beers in the projects and say their goodbyes, one wonders what good, if any, has really been accomplished here.
Liam Julian is a St. Petersburg native and a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.
Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets
By Sudhir Venkatesh
Penguin Press, 320 pages,