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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Some Folks Like Their Pathology Straight With No Chaser-A Sociologist's Introduction to the Projects

"I'm not black. I'm not African American either. I'm a nigger. Niggers are the ones who live in this building. African Americans are the ones who live in the suburbs. African Americans wear ties to work. Niggers can't find no work."

It's statements like the one above that caused me to rethink my political and social positioning as it relates to the plight of some in the African-American community. Further, quotes like this also served as a catalyst for our (Mr. Starks and I, specifically) development of the term lower tier, which describes those that espouse ghetto-centric ideals and precepts. Mind you, not everyone that is from the ghetto is about the ghetto-studies are very rarely done on those that overcome the inner city hurdles. Just as the majority culture (aka mainstream Whites) seemingly have been able to compartmentalize their Appalachian cousins, conversely African-Americans should consider a similar stratagem in disavowing dysfunctionalism and self-defeatism for the sake of tribalism.

Suffice it say, young master Sudhir Venkatesh not only chose to ignore the aforementioned advice but decided to bask in an experiment of pathology for the cause of academia (and a funky book deal doesn't hurt either). Venkatesh, a sociologist currently teaching African American Studies at Columbia University garnered national recognition by being referenced in the New York Times bestseller, Freakonomics. I do not want our radio listeners and blog readers to misinterpret my musings as being heartless-those that want to progress and desire help should not be shunned. But the "brothers" that are soley interested in ruining the lives of their fellow brethren and are essentially beyond reasoning must not be entertained-which was the case with Mr. Venkatesh's test subjects. Here's more info, courtesy of excerpt from Swans.com:

Ironically, conditions worsened with the civil rights movement. Stable, working families moved out into areas where they could no longer be excluded. From the 1970s onward 90% of the inhabitants lived exclusively on welfare. More than 90% of households were headed by a female. Dilapidation continued and the Taylor Homes became the epicenter of the city's gang and drug problem. The powers-that-be replied in a Chicago voice: Let the niggers stew in their own juice.

The black gangs filled the vacuum. These were not the organizations of the 1960s that on occasion could contribute to solidarity in the community and if needs be defend it physically. In the 1980s with the arrival of crack cocaine the gangs had become thoroughgoing exploiters of their own people. If they kept order, it was so as not to disturb their drug sales. Their customers were not only local; some were whites from the ethnic neighborhoods. In the Mafia tradition, largesse was only distributed to confirm the gang's total control. In 1986 when Venkatesh got interested in black gangs, they were the only real authority in the Taylor Homes. He soon found that any community sentiment that remained was like that between jailers and prisoners.

Not that these conditions bothered Venkatesh. They seem rather to have thrilled him. But on the surface he worked in the academic tradition of cool, value-free observation. The roguery he refers to only concerns the emphasis in his work. He would base it more on personal contact with the people he studied than on analyzing great quantities of data about them on his computer. In this he ran the risk the theorists of sociology have always warned against: getting too personally involved with the people he was investigating. In Gang Leader For A Day, Venkatesh dodged that pitfall for a while, but then gave up and jumped in empathizing with his contacts as if they were minor characters in a novel. His book is in fact creative nonfiction, a timid adventure story that explores a fascinating milieu.

It all began when he met J.T., the Black Kings' gang leader. Venkatesh wandered into the Lake Park project to ask his survey question: "How does it feel to be black and poor?" The "shorties" or foot soldiers of the gang greeted him with incredulity, laughter, and threats.

But J.T., intelligent and thirtyish, was interested. He told the budding sociologist not to ask stupid questions if he wanted to learn anything. Hanging out with the people you wish to understand was the only way.

The researcher suddenly had it made. J.T's protection and friendship would allow him access to the Taylor Homes and provide him with an articulate gang leader as informant. Why was the drug-dealing thug so welcoming? Vanity in large part: "He was desperate to be recognized as something other than just a criminal." (Page 83) The yearning for mainstream prominence and TV exposure isn't limited to academics. In addition J.T. had been undermined as a perfect career criminal by a college degree. He learned hypocrisy and wanted to give the impression that the gangs were actually rendering service to the people of the projects. Venkatesh, the discreet observer, doesn't seem to have contested this pipe-dream head on.

Soon J.T. came to think that his friend's university dissertation would be about him, a Life and Times of J.T. Shrewdly, Venkatesh never scotched the illusion, letting it ride as a kind of joke between the two men while he filled his notebooks. This intentional misunderstanding is emblematic of Venkatesh's ambiguous presence in the Taylor Homes. He's a fly on the wall playing at being a buddy. At one point he gives information from his informants to the gang, which uses it against them. No wonder he goes out of his way to note the least sign of decency in the people of the projects. He's full of guilt and knows very well that one day he will wing off to a good teaching job.

For more on the adventures of JT, Venkatesh and the Black Kings, click on the link below:

PR Man For The Black Kings

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