Ask the Gang Guy: Q&A With Sudhir Venkatesh

Of all the stories we told in Freakonomics, the most popular was the section on the economics of crack cocaine. While it related a lot of particular facts about the crack trade, I believe that readers responded most vigorously to the daring and smarts of the researcher we wrote about, Sudhir Venkatesh, who went and hung out with the crack gang in Chicago for several years. He and the gang met cute, sort of: while administering a door-to-door survey, Venkatesh stumbled upon some junior members of the gang and was held hostage overnight.

Back then, Venkatesh was a grad student in sociology at the University of Chicago. Now he teaches at Columbia University; he is also writing his own book about his research, Gang Leader for a Day, which will go well beyond what we covered in Freakonomics; it is scheduled to be published in January.

Although he has since done a lot of research that has nothing to do with criminal gangs, Venkatesh still knows more about gangs than … well, just about anyone. So when I saw this A.P. article yesterday about urban gangs, I thought we should ask Venkatesh if he’d be the subject of one of our interactive Q&A’s where you, the readers, ask the questions.

Here is the article’s lead:

Anti-gang legislation and police crackdowns are failing so badly that they are strengthening the criminal organizations and making U.S. cities more dangerous, according to a report being released Wednesday.

It is worth reading the whole thing. But feel free to pose questions of any sort to Venkatesh, not just those relating to the article. For instance: does he still dress like a Deadhead?


My impression is that increasing police presence in a neighborhood where a gang is operating just moves the problem. I lived for four months in such a neighborhood in Portland OR and that seemed to be the case there.

The police in my community tell me that it only moves part of the problem.
Moving the problem is like taking care of a lawn you have to keep after it all the time or the weeds will take over.

What do you think?


Do you think the HBO series "The Wire" gives an accurate portral of gang life. It is clear from that show (if it is as real as it seems) that traditional policing strategies are very ineffective.

If you don't watch, then nevermind. However, it is the best show on television.


Durham, North Carolina, where I taught middle school for several years, has a pretty severe youth gang problem. Obviously, many of the youths are just trying the lifestyle and the swagger on for size as all young, impressionable children do while they're figuring out what to do.

The interesting thing is, Durham also has a lot of community-based programs for children and teenagers and it seems that that really doesn't address how to keep gangs and gang activity from overlapping with these activities and organizations. Have you observed this as well? Do you think that this is the kind of intervention that will actually fulfill the children's need to belong in replacement of joining a gang?


Speaking of crack cocaine... Everyone need to read the book "COOKED". It is about Jeff Henderson, who grew up in the L.A. area and came to selling drugs to get out of poverty. He getts busted and ends up in the kitched in the prison system. Now he is the head chef at the Cafe Beligao in Vegas. Great story!


what do you think would be the best way to combat drugs in america? granted, i find it hard to believe that drugs will ever be completely removed from american society, but what do you think would help curb the use of it?


"Off the Books" should be mandatory reading. Great work! It's clear the experience of these people is so vastly different from the rest of society that we have a comprehension gulf. Not a gap, but a gulf. I'm not going to ask you how we can bridge that because there is no grand, practical answer.

Instead, when you're in poor areas, what strikes you is not only the near total absence of capital but the relative absence of actual cash. State involvement puts in community centers and funds social agencies but that doesn't put money in motion on the streets. Without cash moving about, there is no prosperity and you get the barter economy you vividly describe- with its entwining of legal and illegal, sacred and profane. So my question is . . . do you have ideas about how to inject actual cash into these areas? And regarding capital, do you think that micro-loans make sense or will they reinforce the barter web?



Which cities really have a 'gang problem?' Every city (and even some rural areas), seem to lay claim to problems with gangs, but I wonder how much is just defining teen/young adult crime that involves two or more culprits.

Also, how has this definition changed over time? Is immigration a driver? I live in the DC area and often see headlines involving MS-13, but I wonder how different this is than the mafia (either Italian or Russian).


"what do you think would be the best way to combat drugs in america? granted, i find it hard to believe that drugs will ever be completely removed from american society, but what do you think would help curb the use of it?"

Start by working out why you want to curb the use of drugs. Decide if it's just children you want to protect from themselves, or adults as well. Decide if you think that you know better than the person taking the drug what is best for that person. (For some reason, we value physical health higher than mental health in this country when it comes to this issue.)

Next, define clearly what a drug is. Is asprin a drug? Pot? Meth? Seriously question your initial assumptions and state them clearly.

Realize that there is a fairly sharp distinction between drugs that form serious chemical addictions and those that do not.

After this point, look at why people use these substances. People typically use drugs because it makes them feel good. A good plan for reduction will acknowledge this. People generally don't think "I know! I'll get addicted today, just for the hell of it."



Most of the discussions around gangs seem to follow the same true and tried formula the "War on Drugs" uses. It appears we try to fix the people instead of the the problem.

I would be interested to know a few things:

1) What percentage of crime is consider gang related? (I am guessing this depends largely on the area and poorer areas have a larger percentage of crime committed by gangs)

2) Of the crime committed by gangs what percentage is committed outside of the gang area? (Is most of the gang crime gang on gang? Gang on their community? Gang on rival gangs community? Or Gang on neutral community?)

3) What is the economic impact of gangs on a community? How large does/can this impact become?

4) If gangs were eliminated or greatly reduced, what is the general economic impact? (There appears to be a large number of jobs associated with "dealing" with gangs and gang members from the police, prisons, attorneys, bail bondsmen, judges, outreach centers, community centers, social workers, etc.)

5) Would net unemployment be reduced with gang reduction/elimination or increased within the overall community?

6) I would also like to know what your thoughts are on whether society needs or are there any benefits to society from gangs?



Yakima, WA, a city near me, just passed a law that makes it illegal for anyone to have membership in a gang. The law carries a penalty of up to one year in prison for belonging to a gang. Also, fines can be imposed on parents for failing to prevent their kids from joining a gang. (Story is here)

Do you think laws like this help? Are they effective in any way, shape or form?


What is your take on gangs in small to medium sized cities? Syracuse, for example, is a small city that suffers from large areas of deep poverty and gang violence.

The city has fewer resources than Chicago or New York to provide social and economic alternatives to those growing up there. The result is an isolated "ghetto" in an isolated city.

Lisa McLeod

What role do women play in the gang? Are they just for sex, do they ever get to be in charge, are they low level peons, baby mammas, what?

Where are the young gang members moms when all this is hapening?

What do these gangs think about women, or do I even want to know?


Is there a correlation between illegal drug consumption and gangs- if so, are you for legalizing drugs?
are the gangs integrating with the prison system, and if so, how can the prison system be reformed to break these networks?


How do we define what a gang is? These are not organizations with a legal charter, after all.

To what degree do you think young people join gangs--or older people support gangs--in order to get protection, where the police have failed them?


If gang-bangers view prison as Criminal U, how can we change the prison experience to reduce the transmission of criminal practices?


How do we define what a gang is?

Excellent question. Can white people be in a gang? How about rich white people? Were Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling part of a gang? They tagged a lot of people and buildings and companies with their graffiti. They were organised. There were snitches. There were prisons.

And if not, why not?


A lot of rappers, particularly Jay-Z and 50 Cent, claim to have been successful crack dealers. Any thoughts on this? Were they probably just low-level dealers barely making a profit, or did they really have something to pay for their future studio time? Did any of the gang-members you knew claim to be on the dealer-to-rapper fast-track program?

Transplanted Lawyer

How do gang members see themselves as fitting in to society at large? I would expect that racial tensions are high, but that might not be the case and I'm sure Venkatesh would have a better-informed opinion. On a related note, do the gang members have a real comprehension that the things they do -- dealing drugs, engaging in violence, destroying property, scaring people -- are widely perceived as being not only legally but also morally wrong? Indeed, I would not be surprised to learn that they agree (on some level) that what they do is wrong, but do it anyway for lack of any more attractive alternative way to make it through the world.


Two Questions:

1) The article said that many youths come out of jail with stronger gang ties than when they went in. What if they put convicted people suspected of being gang members in prisons across the country far from their gang's base of operations?

2) There is some talk about making being a memeber of a gang illegal. How could this be proved in court?

Thanks, -Byron

Raymond Scott

Question 1. Why has gang culture not yet stepped into the political ring? (as the gangs of the early 1900's did in some cities).

Question 2. Is it not true that the five points of the Vice Lord stars represent "the true nature of man"? "For every man is seeking love, peace, freedom, justice and equality in his life". Sounds like a potential Green Party slogan to me.