Gang Leader for a Day

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(322)

Sudhir Venkatesh, Allen Lane, £18.99

Not many professors or PhD scholars enter a poor black crime ridden neighbourhood for seven years to ask the question, "How does it feel to be poor and black?" (the reply, by the way, was "Fuck you"). Most studies are carried out in the safe, sanitised ivory towers from which academics moralise about the root causes of criminality. This book is different. Its narrative portrays the impact of neoliberal capitalism on the lives of black working class people living in the housing projects.

The author entered the Chicago gang world at the height of a crack epidemic and has produced a fascinating piece of research into the lives of struggling working class families living in a violent society. Politicians who wonder where gun and knife crime is manufactured ought to read this book.

Venkatesh is best known for his contribution to the best selling book Freakonomics, which exposed the underground economy of the urban poor. He provides compelling evidence that drug gangs are a product of US capitalism.

Gang Leader for a Day is rooted in the relationship between the author and a young middle manager of the gang, JT. The gang leader is a complex character - an ultra-violent college educated gang member who left work because racism meant that he was never going to be promoted beyond store boy.

JT is the sociologist's passport into a world that very few see or want to see in the US. No one really gets rich selling drugs. Most of foot soldiers barely make the minimum wage and live with their mothers. But the street is the only place where they can get consistent work. This book is riveting because it is written like fiction, full of comedy and tragedy in equal measure. The only horror is that it's a true story.

The housing authority built the projects in the heady days of the 1960s. They were the size of a small city and the architects had utopian aspirations. By the end of the 1970s and 1980s as many as 90 percent of the adults there were living on welfare or food stamps and the police refused to patrol the area.

Venkatesh shows that the most recent solution to poverty in public housing was the wholesale destruction of the entire housing project and the forced removal of the poor from their homes. It was called euphemistically "the transformation plan" and involved replacing the projects with "mixed income" developments. In practice this made people from those areas refugees in their own city. It is a barely disguised land grab by property developers.

This is not a book based on Marxist rigour but it's a story that is often untold. Few people have written as eloquently and moving about the way capitalism wrecks people's lives.