My Roommate

By VIJAY PRASHAD Counterpunch 2/6/08

I first saw him at an event for new graduate students. The Indian-looking people in the room gravitated to each other. It turned out that three of us lived in the same building, across from the Midway, on the borderlands between the university (the most policed space I have ever lived in) and the ghetto. As you walked with your back to the line of gothic university buildings and headed to our apartment, you saw before you a landscape that resembled London after the blitz. Rizwan, from Britain, was an anthropologist, already conversant in Levi-Strauss and Marshall Sahlins, confident and ambitious. I had come to graduate school by accident, or by default. My partner applied and so I followed. Indian history was to be my beat, although I already sounded anachronistic, having been fed a steady diet of Marx and too little postmodernism (one of my advisors bristled with great discomfort when I used phrases like “concrete reality”; where I used the phrase in my dissertation he wrote in the margins, “cement”). Sudhir, our third, was the quiet one. Affable and smart, he came to Chicago from Southern California, where he had been a Deadhead in the last years of that band. He had come to study with William J. Wilson, who would soon become Bill Clinton’s advisor on race and poverty. I didn’t know who Wilson was. To be honest, I wasn’t sure who my own teachers were in the larger scheme of things.

Classes went by swiftly. The most disconcerting thing about graduate school was how students in the incoming batch were taught, quickly, to compete with each other. Sudhir, Riz and I would gather in their apartments on the upper floors of our building, trying to gauge our position in each of our departments, taking refuge from the enforced tension of the First Year. Slowly Sudhir found his groove. He began to work for Wilson, doing some survey research. He’d disappear, reappear, silently, only sometimes telling us what he was learning. Riz and I would be mesmerized by his audacity. One of Sudhir’s great advantages was that he could do three things simultaneously: attend classes and get schooled in his discipline; absorb the library and draw upon the wisdom congealed there; get out there into the “field” and develop his research agenda. Most of us could only get the first two parts of a graduate education, having to defer the third until later, reading and learning from books and our teachers with a silent sense of what we could contribute to the literature and arguments. Sudhir had the field at his doorstep. That made his learning richer (although this is not a prescription for graduate school, because all we’d study, then, is the environs of the universities). He had an edge over the other sociology students, and he knew it. But Sudhir was too Southern California deadhead to make that knowledge into an offensive gesture.

Few cities compare with Chicago, and yet there is something in Chicago that is common to most of our cities today in the United States. High rates of income inequality and the persistence of de facto racial segregation has created pockets of affluence (mostly in the suburbs, but also in closely policed sections of the city itself) and expanses of poverty. The slums of Chicago, whether in the Robert Taylor homes that Sudhir visited or the stretches of homes and abandoned lots south of the University of Chicago, housed people who tried to fashion lives out of circumstances of misery. Sudhir’s encounter with these people, largely African Americans, is the subject of his new book, Gang Leader for a Day (Penguin, 2008), although he has made the sociological interventions already in two other books (American Project, 2002; Off the Books, 2006, both from Harvard University Press) and one film (Dislocation, 2005). The new book goes over that terrain in a much more personal way, telling us as much about the lives of those he encounters as how fraught research can be when the student tries to cross the gulf of inequality and race. Those whom he accosts with the naïve questions of his field (“how does it feel to be black and poor?”) very quickly show him that they are far beyond this, and that they pose questions to our civilization that the profession is not willing to ask or answer (“what are we to do for our survival and joy when the weight of white supremacy disallows us to follow a morality that we might acknowledge but cannot possible honor?”).

Sudhir seems to be playing a game with us. He describes himself walking into the ‘hood for the first time in a tie-dye shirt, with a ponytail, with a clipboard and a set of dumb questions. He’s ambushed by the Black Kings, the local gang, who are convinced he is either with a rival (Mexican) gang or perhaps an informant. No one so hapless as a researcher would dare to walk in and begin to ask questions. But on the cover of the book we see someone else. A big boned, dark skinned man in a leather jacket, with a combination of sensitivity and anger writ large on his face. He’s not your average naïf, who by dint of his persistence becomes a gang leader for a day as part of his experiment. Race is all over this, as is class. The BK’s leader, JT, is a college graduate who sees in Sudhir his Virgil, his amanuensis. They bond over what they have in common, the culture of college. Neither white nor black, Sudhir is first mistaken as Mexican, and frequently denounced as an Arab (the small shopkeepers in the area are Palestinian), but not as Indian. There is no discussion of his own people, of his standing or even his stance. Sudhir asks the Taylorites questions, but they don’t grill him. This is a surprising silence, which makes the book less a memoir and more of a report from the field. We know him as Sudhir, as the individual protected by J. T., befriended by Mrs. Bailey and Autry, but not fixed as an Indian American, as Other. What they think of him is not part of the frame, although it is this that would give us a better sense of the interactions. In the suffocating Black-White calculus of Chicago, Sudhir is neither fish nor foul, an Other Brother from another planet. When I went into similar areas of Providence as a community organizer just a few years after Chicago, I remember being given access to people’s lives precisely because I was not white, nor black, nor Latino, but something exotic or at least unfamiliar. When I went into the homes of those whom we organized at Direct Action for Rights and Equality, they asked me as many if not more questions about myself and my people as I asked them about their lives. The welcome Sudhir gets might just as well be because he breaks the congealed racial binary.

Ensconced in the world of the Robert Taylor homes, Sudhir comes to see a major gap between the lived reality of the people and the scholarly-media images of them. Sociological categories such as anomie (even anarchy) and the culture of poverty do not capture the rule-based lives of these cast out Americans. Capital fled the ghetto industrial investment dried up with globalization (and the factories remain as abandoned mausoleums), and retail investment rushed to the suburbs leaving space for small family shops (bodegas) whose economic survival is premised upon the sale of liquor, the lottery and the prevention of petty theft. Humans abhor a social vacuum, and into this wasteland came not only the drug-profit fueled gangs but also “off the books” entrepreneurs and community leaders. They provided a measure of order: the policing is done by the gang soldiers and the women who emerge as building leaders. These gangs became the “de facto administration” of the buildings, and even as the leader “may have been a lawbreaker, he was very much a lawmaker as well.” Drug sales funnel jobs into the neighborhood, and to earn the trust of the residents, the drug kingpins become the main social welfare agency (they are assisted by women like Ms. Bailey who, in a patron-client way, distribute goods that they leverage out of local businesses). There are some startling revelations here, when Sudhir reports how families pool their resources to survive: if on one floor, an apartment has a fridge and another has a shower, if one has an air conditioner and another has a working toilet, the families simply use each others’ utilities and treat the floor like one big house, with their families as one large joint family. The elements of social solidarity are all over these spaces, and Sudhir is keen to show us this. The vision of social devastation has to be altered or else a sense of futility sets in when policy makers turn their eyes to the ghetto. Bill Cosby’s “dirty laundry” rant is just the kind of stance that Sudhir’s work challenges.

If you want to write from the standpoint of the ghetto, you have to engage empathetically with those who deal drugs, and whose drug business is premised on violence. The ghetto is not a place of peace and harmony, as Sudhir reveals from the very first. Nonetheless, it is not also a place of immorality and devastation. What Sudhir does not do in this book (because it would be out of genre) or even in his more scholarly account (Off the books) is to locate the collapse of the ghetto in the general abandonment of their social development by the US state. When jobs collapsed here, drugs entered. If we don’t get the narrative of how drugs entered, we do learn how the character of the neighborhood changed. The entry of drugs produced a shift in the generational and gender characteristics of power in the ‘hood. Older African Americans and African American women lost their social power to the younger men, whose access to guns and to money gave them disproportionate leverage over their environment. The young drug dealers and leaders openly hit older men who stand up to them. Cordella Levy, one of the older women in the building, tells Sudhir how it was women like her that used to control the nightlife in the area. She ran Cordella’s Place, where you could “come in for a drink, play some cards, make a friend, have a nice time.” In the early 1980s, as the drug economy rescued the area it destroyed such institutions. “The tribe of strong women,” as Sudhir puts it, once ran things and helped people. “It was a time for women,” says Ms. Levy, “a place for women. The men ruined everything.”

Ms. Levy tells Sudhir that in the old days fifty or so “power women with no shame” would engage with the city to make sure that resources they were entitled to would get to them. The old-time gangsters also look back nostalgically to the era of social protest combined with petty drug dealing. Lester Duster, a Black King member from the 1970s who now runs classes on voter registration for the gang, tells Sudhir about how the gang was once also a political force. Some old men who sit in the park tell him about how the Black Panthers, who always lived alongside the gangs, used to provide social services and political education, not just enforcement of norms that benefited them. The gangs lost this political edge and became “firms” just as the state also transformed its relationship with the ghetto. No longer an ambivalent force, the police, for instance, now operates in these neighborhoods as if they are open-air prisons. One sympathetic policeman, Officer Reggie, takes Sudhir to a meeting with a few cops at a bar, where one of them is openly hostile. Sudhir has seen him rob a gang member earlier (while pretending to do a bust of his apartment). That’s how the police operate, says the Boys and Girls Club head Autry Harrison, “the police are also a gang, but they really have the power. Never, never, never piss off the police.” When the gang holds a social event, policemen don black clothes and masks to raid the party, making off with jewelry and cash the gang treats this as a tax. Many of the cops are African American, but this seems to make little difference. As Albert Reiss wrote in 1968, “The use of force by police is more readily explained by police culture than it is by the policeman’s race.” Autry tells Sudhir not to write about the police, but he does.

When Sudhir tries to get into the buildings to do research, Ms. Bailey makes him run the gauntlet. Whenever he asks about people’s lives in the buildings, she stops him. “You want to understand how black folks live in the projects. Why we are poor. Why we have so much crime. Why we can’t feed our families. Why our kids can’t get work when they grow up. So will you be studying white people?” It takes Sudhir a few meetings to grasp the astuteness of her logic. If one treated the Taylor homes as a closed system, then the only answer to the social problems is that the people are not taking their own lives seriously (which is the Bill Cosby position, shared, it should be said, by American liberalism in general). But if the frame is enlarged to include what structures the ghetto then it would enable a richer picture of what determined people’s lives. One doesn’t have to go with Method Man, don’t blame me, blame society. That’s too abstract. But an analysis of the structures that constrain people’s lives and of the lives built within those structures is necessary. If people like Autry and Ms. Levy are to reclaim their lives then they have to struggle against the constraints and build a new social life, now liberated from those external determinations.

Ms. Bailey tells Sudhir that she looks forward to the day she is out of a job. When her people will be able to take care of themselves, then she’ll be freed from her position of patron. Sudhir is dyspeptic: she has probably been saying this for the past thirty years. The enormity of the bad odds for America’s off the books class weighs heavily not only in Sudhir’s work, but also on most of our shoulders. Liberalism puts its faith on the new post-race leaders, people like Newark’s Cory Booker or indeed America’s Barack Obama. Sudhir hopes that his work will have some impact on public policy. This is all from above. What might come from below? Could it be the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, led by people like Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Patricia Watkins, and Rami Nashashibi? Like Talib Kweli, “I stay readin’ the signs.”

Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at: