Q&A: Sudhir Venkatesh

Dispelling the myths about gangs.

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Author Sudhir Venkatesh
"Ninety-five percent of the dealers are working for less than minimum wage."

If drug dealers make so much money, how come they still live with their moms? Sudhir Venkatesh is a Columbia University sociologist who spent years in the housing projects of Chicago documenting criminal gangs and the drug trade. He addresses that question and others in his new book Gang Leader for a Day and in an interview with U.S. News. Excerpts:

Isn't dealing good money?

Ninety-five percent of the dealers are working for less than minimum wage. The money they are holding belongs to their leaders—the 5 percent who might be pulling in more than $100,000 per year. So, most of the members have little choice but to live at home with their families or with their relatives. Why does Mom let them live at home?

Dealers are contributing to the household and giving money to parents who can't get their own money. It's not just the kids who can't find a well-paying job. We tend to think that there are two types of people in the inner city—those that do follow the law and those that don't. But gang members are also sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews. Do gangs have institutional memories?

Many street gangs publish their own literature—an actual handbook—and share myths through stories. The gang members that I was dealing with were hearing stories from the 1960s, when gangs fought for more city services for their neighborhoods; they documented police abuse and were more politically active. They didn't deal drugs. How old are gang members?

There are two groups. The younger members are quick to use violence and are more interested in status and prestige. The older members are the men who are just trying to find ways to make money. They just want to put food on their tables and stop the younger ones from disturbing the economics of the gang and ruining the drug business. Most gangs have a rule which requires that all the young members stay in school. Does that work?

There was a school strike in Chicago, and the older members were worried that the younger members would start shooting and disrupt the drug trade. So, I taught an impromptu class for several of the gang members. But since I had no real authority, the class turned into a little red-light district—they were selling drugs, trafficking prostitutes, and drinking beer in my classroom at 10 o'clock in the morning. Many of the gang members seem to have serious chips on their shoulders.

A sociologist would say it's natural for young men to have a persecution complex. What is unusual in the inner city is that there are not folks who are maturing out of that psychological dilemma. There's an idea that there are forces out there that are preventing them from succeeding, something that is reinforced when they look around and see only examples of people failing to make it. Are gang members healthy, physically?

There is significant exposure to lead and asbestos and extremely poor nutrition. One of the most jaw-dropping experiences I continue to have is to walk into a grocery store in the inner city. There's a lack of fresh food, decent food. How many drug dealers use drugs?

Most of the hard-core drug users are older. The gang succeeds in keeping its own members off drugs. All drugs?

There's lots of alcoholism and marijuana use but not the hard narcotics—heroin, cocaine. People who are high can't operate the drug economy, but it's also a status issue. The gang doesn't want to be seen as the lowest members of the society, which are the chronically addicted—prostitutes, crackheads. But aren't they preying on the lower rungs?

There's a perverted Robin Hood myth at play. According to the theory, the gang returns the money to the community in the form of philanthropy. They'll send money to the local YMCA to help buy equipment, clean up a park, escort older members of the community to buy groceries or run errands. But one has to question if that's a justification for the violence and other problems they bring to their neighbors. Do you find it depressing to go back to the projects?

It's depressing to see the cycle of failure and the reproduction of poverty. The typical story goes like this: Job is going well, then their kid gets sick. They start missing work, then they get fired. It just makes you want to scream. We're talking about the folks who are trying to help themselves, and they can't do it. That's another kind of sadness.